Saturday, July 7, 2007

Book Report Weekend: Sun Tsu's The Art of War


This weekend, I am going all C-SPAN 2 on my readers and devoting both posts to book reviews. Today, it's The Art of War by Sun Tsu, written some 2,500 years ago. Tomorrow, the companion piece is on Carl Von Clausewitz's On War, written less than 200 years ago. It is an odd twist of fate that the older work from the culture more removed from our own is the more popular and better known book today. It is made odder still by the fact that Clausewitz's work was hailed by many in its time and for generations afterward as a major philosophical treatise.

In the editions I have of Clausewitz and Sun Tsu, there are long introductions by the editors, translators and others, including brief biographies of the original authors. Remarkably, no one working on presenting Sun Tsu mentions Clausewitz and vice versa. Obviously, there are differences between the works, but there are also significant similarities, not only in topic (duh!) but in style, most notably that both authors give their advice on the conduct of war in the form of lists. I will follow suit and give both reviews in list form.

1. Right away, boss! Sun Tsu's writing style is quick and to the point. Clausewitz can take a very long time to say something, and consider the opposite, and give you warning that there are counterexamples, and consider the possibility that there is no overriding theory... okay, you get the point. People on a time crunch should read Sun Tsu.

The reason lies in the books' original audience. Sun Tsu was an itinerant expert in war. The people who would read his work were the people who might employ him. Not such a good idea to waste their time. This is also true of Machiavelli, though he was writing to impress only the Medici after working for the Borgias, while Sun Tsu would be employed by many princes in his day. Clausewitz, on the other hand, was a smart guy writing to impress other smart guys, and like many of his time (and to this day, in some cases), writing a lot so you didn't miss anything was considered proper form.

2. As seen on TV! The latest surge of popularity in the works of Sun Tsu can be attributed to his biggest fictional fan, Tony Soprano. When Tony quoted both Sun Tsu and Machiavelli on the show, sales of both works showed an impressive spike. (Or as Paulie Walnuts would say, Sun TaSue and Prince Matchabelli are really smart guys, and the boss reads 'em so you should, too. If you know what's good for ya.)

3. Take what you need and leave the rest. A lot of The Art of War deals precisely with war, war as it was fought 2,500 years ago in China. People who read it today probably don't need to understand the logistics of how to move this many soldiers and that many horses 300 miles and have them all ready for battle when they get there. But a gem of advice like this still rings true today.

For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.

Sun Tsu's work became popular back in the 1980s as a companion piece to some of the more vicious self-help books like Looking Out for Number 1. A lot of the advice can be applied to any competitive field, and this accounts for many people in the boardrooms knowing Sun Tsu very well. A dear friend of mine who teaches high school tells me she was given The Art of War as a reading assignment when she was in training to become a teacher. Of course, I would never think of my students as an enemy force that needs to be subdued by force or treachery. (Or at least I would like it if you didn't tell them.)

4. Warlike? The Chinese? China, of course, has fought many wars in its long history, both internally before the nation was unified and wars both offensive and defensive against its neighbors, as well as the Communist revolution in 1949. In the most recent past, some of the bloodiest wars the Chinese have fought have been defensive, whether trying to end Western influence in the Boxer Rebellion or being invaded in Manchuria by the Japanese in the 1930s. On the other hand, the Chinese invaded several neighbors in the 20th Century as well, most notably their continuing occupation of Tibet.

For all that, Sun Tsu does not get the blame for all the wars fought by the Chinese in the past 2,500 years. Clausewitz, who was born in an era when Germany was not a unified nation, does get blamed by some for the many horrible acts committed by other Germans long after Clausewitz is buried in his grave.


5. A kinder, gentler slaughter. Sun Tsu comes from a time when war was a fairly regular practice, and no one thought they would ever see the end of it in China. He was wise enough to see that a vicious victory was often the impetus for the next war. The humane treatment of prisoners, even to the point of capturing them intact and getting them to work for you, is brought up many times in his work.

2,500 years ago, all the major Chinese kingdoms were roughly equal in strength. Sun Tsu's advice on war is not unlike good advice on poker today, learning the art of bluffing and slow play, so that you're opponent is never sure if you are strong or weak, even when you show clear signs of strength or weakness.

In conclusion, I recommend The Art of War as light summer reading. (Kidding, but only a little. After my season long campaign with Clausewitz, Sun Tsu feels like light reading.) There are many chapters about marches and terrain and varieties of ground that may seem completely uninteresting to anyone who isn't planning on fighting a war in ancient China, but still some of the aphorisms even in these chapters can provide important insights in today's world.

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