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The Art of War | Summary



Biography of Sun Tzu

The biography of Sun Tzu as translated by Griffith was not originally part of The Thirteen Chapters, but added later by the Chinese historian Sima Qian . The first part details how Sun Tzu demonstrated the effectiveness of his military strategy to Ho Lu, king of Wu. He did this by training over a hundred court women in basic military drills. The second part of this biography describes how a descendant of Sun Tzu overcame formidable odds to bring his patron's troops to victory and avenge himself against his own personal enemy through the application of his ancestor's tactics.

Chapter 1: Estimates

This chapter sets the tone of the work by first presenting the words of Sun Tzu, followed by brief explanations and examples offered by several commentators. Beginning with the concept "war is a matter of vital importance to the State," Sun Tzu describes appropriate methods to consistently nurture soldiers' confidence in their commanders. At the same time, inconsistency is a tactic used to undermine the confidence of an opposing general by unpredictably changing tactics and providing misleading information. The example is given that while horses and women are expendable to deceive an adversary, land is not.

Chapter 2: Waging War

A methodical and systematic accounting of the resources required to launch a campaign is discussed in this chapter. Sun Tzu claims war is an activity best conducted when the army is not subjected to lengthy campaigns at distances that "require a second levy of conscripts nor more than one provisioning." With this in mind, Sun Tzu asserts that victory is most assured when a battle is both brief and decisive: "For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited."

Chapter 3: Offensive Strategy

In this chapter, Sun Tzu and his commentators explore the dynamics of offensive strategy. This approach entails doing the least amount of damage possible. If, as a last resort, siege is laid against a fortified city, the goal is to take it while inflicting a minimum of damage. Sun Tzu outlines five conditions in which victory is most likely to be the result.

Chapter 4: Dispositions

This brief chapter discusses different dispositions—or "shapes"—of opposing forces, and how those qualities affect the outcome of battle. The Tao philosophy is first mentioned here, based on practical observations of nature as a means to guide action. The advice is to frame an army to behave like an irresistible force of nature, similar to a great amount of water that has been held back by a dam and then suddenly released.

Chapter 5: Energy

Sun Tzu and his commentators approach the idea of putting energy into both "normal" (or direct) force to engage the enemy and "extraordinary" (or indirect) force to win on the battlefield. This is accomplished through a general's ability to structure his forces into organized blocks, so they act like logs or stones rolling downhill. While this constitutes the application of a direct force, it is most effective if it is not apparent to the enemy; what is, in truth, cohesive action, has the deceptive appearance of being chaotic.

Chapter 6: Weaknesses and Strengths

This chapter discusses a variety of techniques a wise general can employ to undermine the strength of an enemy before a confrontation takes place. The point of this stratagem is to know as much about what an opponent has in mind as possible without revealing anything in return. This requires a habit of continually changing tactics in an unpredictable manner to take maximum advantage of opportunities as they arise.

Chapter 7: MANŒUVRE

Sun Tzu continues his comparisons with the forces of nature introduced in previous chapters, and returns to direct and indirect energy discussed in Chapter 5. He acknowledges that "nothing is more difficult than the art of manœuvre," because it presents both advantages and dangers that can be real or illusions. The technique of signaling troop movements using both sound (drums) and sight (flag signals) is introduced. The art of tempting the enemy with bait is offset by also knowing when to allow the enemy to retreat.

Chapter 8: The Nine Variables

Sun Tzu has touched on the position of the general in previous chapters. In this chapter, he goes into more detail about how the skillful general balances himself autonomously between his sovereign and the troops placed under his command to ultimately benefit the state. Such a general must employ the nine variables of ground to his advantage so that his opponent is forced to take the less advantageous positions. At the same time, five qualities of a weak general must be taken seriously.

Chapter 9: Marches

The advantage of arriving at the field of engagement first means the general is able to control key points of engagement. In this way, he is afforded the opportunity to deploy various sections of his army to give each the best chance of forcing the enemy into weakened, divided, and confused conditions. Sun Tzu further outlines a series of conditions of encampment and parlay by which the state of the opponent's forces can be determined.

Chapter 10: Terrain

Opening the chapter with a description of different types of ground, Sun Tzu goes on to use these as metaphors to explain the "terrain" by which control of troops is—or is not—maintained by the general and his commanding officers. "Good commanders are both loved and feared" means a general's troops trust him to guide them to victory because he treats them as his own children with consistent and unemotional discipline.

Chapter 11: The Nine Varieties of Ground

Sun Tzu lays the groundwork in this chapter for the advantages of playing a hand "close to the chest" in letting no one know the full extent of a plan, while at the same time making use of whatever possible means to discover the plans of the enemy. Sun Tzu also brings up the idea that allying oneself with other states carries risk, while separating an enemy from allies is an effective way to secure victory.

Chapter 12: Attack by Fire

This brief chapter describes five uses of fire in the art of war. A general wishing to use fire must take into account the weather and time of day, as well as how the enemy reacts to it. As in previous chapters, Sun Tzu also uses the metaphor of fire to comment on the way in which an enemy can be made to "catch on fire," by playing on his emotions to induce recklessness.

Chapter 13: Employment of Secret Agents

Although this is the last chapter, it is the one Sun Tzu recommends the wise prince and general employ first, well before any military engagement. It makes use of intelligent and well-paid agents to gather information about a potential enemy. Such agents can be recruited from within the enemy ranks or employed to infiltrate from without. Such individuals may also be enticed to supply the enemy with false information and divide a sovereign from his ministers to create as much confusion and discord as possible.

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