The Art of War | Study Guide

Sun Tzu

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The Art of War | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Though not all scholars agree Sun Tzu was a real person, it is generally acknowledged that if he were he probably lived between the 8th and the 5th centuries BCE. The Art of War, a collection of military strategies, is attributed to him and has been used as a manual for war in Asia ever since. In 1772 it was translated into Frenchand then into English in 1910.

The 13-chapter treatise gives advice on planning and waging war, including developing armies, using terrain, and managing espionage. It has been used by military officers in conflicts for hundreds of years and more recently by politicians and businesspeople. Gamers, lawyers, and athletes all find its theories and advice helpful. Even the fictional mob boss Tony Soprano from the hit HBO show The Sopranos read and used The Art of War.

1. Tactics from The Art of War were used in battles in the Vietnam War.

Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese revolutionary who fought against first the French and then the Americans in Vietnam from the 1940s to the 1960s. Ho, who led the Vietnamese Communist forces, admired Sun Tzu's precepts. He followed his advice for understanding the enemy, finding the enemy's weaknesses, and exploiting those weaknesses through strategy and subterfuge, resorting to violence only as a last measure. Other officers in the Vietcong army, the guerrilla forces of South Vietnam, were well versed in The Art of War and supposedly could recite much of it from memory.

2. Scholars are not certain Sun Tzu really existed.

When, or even whether, the author of The Art of War lived is a question that has long intrigued historians. The work was published in China, though no one is sure when, and it was written sometime between 475 BCE and 221 BCE, a time of great conflict called the Autumn Period in Chinese history. Some historians claim its purported author did not exist and the book was a compilation of military advice written over centuries and collected as a handbook for military leaders.

3. The Art of War is used by professional poker players.

Professional poker players Vanessa Rousso and David Apostolico are among those who have used The Art of War to best their opponents. Rousso, who won almost $1 million in the European Poker Tour High Roller Championship in 2009, first read Sun Tzu in college. She noted:

Like Sun Tzu teaches, if you only know your enemy you will win some battles and you will lose some. Those who want to win all of their battles must know the enemy and themselves. And yes, if you fail to understand your own weaknesses and address them, you will certainly become your own worst enemy as a poker player.

Apostolico, who has written a book called Tournament Poker and the Art of War, agreed with this, and added, "Sun Tzu would certainly discourage foolish bluffs. He would cherish deception, though. Poker is much more about deception than bluffing."

4. The Art of War was vital in the rescue of 24 American crew members of a spy plane.

In 2001 a U.S. spy plane had to make an emergency landing in China after it collided with a fighter jet the Chinese sent to intercept it. The 24 crew members survived and were held by the Chinese. The American ambassador to China at the time, Joseph Prueher, said, "I dragged out Sun Tzu again and said, 'How are they [Chinese officials] thinking about this?'" Prueher realized the Chinese wanted the Americans to apologize for the incident so they could publicize the apology. By apologizing, the United States followed Sun Tzu's precept, "wrest from [the enemy] what he cherishes most, and he will have to comply with your wishes." After the Americans apologized, they were able to get the crew released from custody.

5. Sun Tzu became a general by putting his words into practice and beheading two concubines.

One of the best-known stories about Sun Tzu takes place when the king of Wu, an area in southeast China, noticed The Art of War and asked Sun Tzu to test his theories. Sun Tzu had the king bring out 180 women from the palace, including the king's favorite concubines. Sun Tzu divided the women into two companies, each with a favored concubine at its head. He explained to the women he would give them orders as if they were soldiers, and they must obey. The women agreed, so Sun Tzu gave orders for the women to march and turn. They only laughed. This happened several times. As the orders he gave had been clear but the women had not obeyed, he ordered the leader of each company to be beheaded. The king, of course, protested, but Sun Tzu was adamant. He beheaded the women, and the companies then marched and turned perfectly. As a result the king made Sun Tzu his general. This story promotes Sun Tzu's theory that a good leader must be consistent and maintain discipline.

6. One Japanese feudal lord was said to have won every battle without guns because of the wisdom in The Art of War.

A famous saying from The Art of War states, "One hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the most skillful. Seizing the enemy without fighting is the most skillful." Takeda Shingen, a Japanese military strategist of the 16th century, was believed to have used this idea in his battles, winning them all without using guns.

7. Kaiser Wilhelm claimed Germany would have won World War I if he'd known about The Art of War.

After Germany lost World War I in 1917, German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm is said to have stated, "I wish I had read The Art of War 20 years ago." Whether this would have helped Germany in the long, desperate slog that was World War I is unclear, but British military historian Liddell Hart noted if more generals had read Sun Tzu's work, the horrors of trench warfare that defined much of the war could have been avoided.

8. The Art of War inspired a teacher to create a game called The World Peace Game.

John Hunter, an African American high school teacher, grew up with parents who quietly but effectively worked in the civil rights movement. He believed they incorporated many of Sun Tzu's ideas into their lives and attitudes, and he tried to live his own life based on those concepts. When asked to teach a class of gifted 9th graders, Hunter created The World Peace Game, which he describes like this:

Students are divided into teams or national cabinets with prime ministers, defense ministers, financial officers, etc. and given charge of various nations with varying levels of wealth, energy resources, assets and raw materials. They are all given military forces and in some cases air and space weapons capability. Their mission after accepting a 4-page crisis document is to solve all crises and increase the asset value of all nations, without combat if possible.

He finds the teams that incorporate Sun Tzu's theories into their thinking and action tend to get the best results, achieving peace and prosperity, often without conflict, for their nations.

9. One general relied on The Art of War in both his military and business careers.

At the apex of his career, British military man Sir Robert Fry was deputy commanding general of the coalition forces in Iraq in 2006. When he left the military, he became the executive chairman of McKinney Rogers, a performance improvement corporation. In both careers Fry relied on the wisdom of The Art of War. He noted:

Ultimately, Sun Tzu was writing about how to engage a sentient opponent and come out on top. About avoiding a draining, attritional conflict and finding another way to win. About looking at your competitor and saying, "Where am I stronger?" And of course also saying, even though it hurts, "Where is he stronger?," and accepting that answer.

These, Fry believed, are all concepts useful in both the military and business.

10. Football coach Bill Belichick used The Art of War to shape his team's strategy.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick relied heavily on The Art of War when planning his Super Bowl–winning strategies in the early 2000s. He believed games were won or lost before they even started if the team knew its opponent's strengths and weaknesses. He also liked to trick the opposing team, sending players out in different positions to confuse the quarterback. About Sun Tzu, Belichick once said, "I'm just glad I'm not fighting him."

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