The Art Of War By Sun Tzu – Book Summary

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Branded as the oldest book in East Asian warfare, The Art of War is a legendary book which was written in the 5th century BCE. The book started as a military treatise for the Chinese armies, as penned down by a military strategist, Sun Tzu. However, with 1500 years and several translations, the target of the book has become multifaceted.

Not just armies, but business tycoons and legal strategists have also gained from the book. Although The Art of War originated in China, it has heavily influenced the Eastern and Western thinking of formulating strategies to achieve victory. The deep analysis of the Chinese army and its tactics (as devised by Sun Tzu) was used to train the Chinese soldiers for centuries to come.

The book is divided into 13 chapters (or books, as referred by others), with each chapter concentrating on certain interrelated tactics of warfare, beginning with building the foundation for the plans. Respective translators have named the chapters differently, hence the chapters are often referred to by the number and the contents of the same.


1. The planning of the war

The book traces the fundamental principles one must consider before planning (since the book was authored for military strategies- these principles have been also applied for business applications) – the way (ethical implications), season, terrain, leadership, and management. For any venture to succeed, following these principles is imperative. Planning must be systematic to avoid any glitches on the way. By estimating the appropriate weather, land, the chain of command and the organization of the troop, the scales in the coming war can be tipped to our side. In the world of business, this translates to ensuring that every factor affecting the venture favors profit.

The weather and terrain must be considered before beginning any journey. Good weather ensures high morale and devoid of any issues. Since Sun Tzu concentrates on planning for war, he states that the war must be planned with such precision to ensure that no climatic conditions contribute to the loss of their army. The terrain must be familiar to the soldiers and they must be preferably trained on similar ground.

The person in command must be able since the conclusion of the war depends upon their skills to lead the soldiers through a difficult time. If the leader is not able, the reins of the war will soon escape their hands and fall into that of the enemies. The leader must also pay attention to the management of the soldiers during the war – this includes everything from acquiring weapons to getting into formations on the battlefield. Lastly, the moral compass of an army, as well as a businessman, must be calculative, and minimal collateral damage must be recorded.

2. The practicality of war

While planning goes until a certain way, the actions undertaken by people during the task are also crucial to the result of said task. Decisiveness is a desirable trait before and during a war. The process of planning occupies a major portion of time, so other trivial yet crucial decisions must be made, collectively called as the logistics of the war.

Within this lesson, the economy of the war must be considered, and the division of money must be made to ensure victory. A balance must be maintained between the supplies of food and the requirements of the war. An imbalance in so can lead to lower than optimal performance.

3. The nature of war

Sun Tzu also emphasizes that all wars need not be won based on conflict and competition. Encouraging competition and provoking conflict may present itself as a higher form of victory, but instead requires more resources and energy than coming to a practical solution. If the arrival of war is certain, it must be resolved quickly and swiftly.

How a captured enemy must be treated also be traced. An enemy must not be subjected to a scheme of torture which can render them useless. A practical approach must be adopted to tactfully extract information about the enemy from their estranged soldier. This learning is in line with avoiding unnecessary conflict. Torturing is a way of provoking the enemy and inviting their loss.

Lastly, a contingency is laid out for success, which involves five steps – attack, strategy, alliances, army, and cities. The plan must be carried out in this sequence to ensure organization and systematic development.

4. The theory of war

The theory of war asserts the importance of understanding the objective behind the war and what one wishes to gain post-victory. Around the time the book was written, military strategists would spend all their time finding meaning in the concept of war and how victory can be guaranteed. One of the main motives was to minimize loss.

Sun Tzu blames overconfidence as one of the causes of an army’s downfall. As he narrates the story of two generals in a conflict. While one of the generals was certain of his victory, his opponent managed to defeat him. In every battle, no matter how certain the victory might seem, overconfidence will lead to failure.

5. The chain of command

In the army or even in a workplace, a hierarchy is required. The assertion of the hierarchy is not necessary, but it must exist to maintain the integrity of the team. A chain of command ranges from the caption of the troops to the lowest rank of solider. An administrator must overlook the work of his subordinates and those under him since they are the ones in charge before the war.

However, in the face of a battle, everyone is equal. The enemy does not recognize each soldier by their rank – instead, just aim at defeating them.

6. Manipulation of terms

To tip the scales in one’s favor, they must use every tactic – be it deception. The use of bait is an old yet useful technique to lure the enemy out of their camp or to distract them momentarily. The techniques of manipulation must also evolve with time so that the enemy does not recognize the pattern. Sun Tzu mentions that luring an enemy is best done by deceiving them with a route of escape.

7. Managing the strength and weakness

A leader must assess the strengths and weaknesses of their army before venturing out into the battlefield. Strength must be exploited optimally, while a weakness must be worked upon within the army. The weakness should be kept out of the ear of the enemy since it can result in a loss. The leader must ensure their strengths are more than their weaknesses. If this is not the case, the army will be back at square one.

8. Ensuring the safety of the army

Outside the battlefield, the reins of control reside with the commander. It is their responsibility to guarantee the safety of the army. This includes being out of the sight of the enemy, ensuring there is no traitor within them, and ensuring the good health of each soldier.

Safety is also prioritized while working on the weaknesses presented by the army. The weaknesses must be rectified in ethical and moral ways (since it is one of Sun Tzu’s primary requisites) to keep up the energy of the army.

9. Have flexibility

While Sun Tzu encourages having strict regulations at each level in an army, the flexibility of so also factors into the condition of the army. Rules are implemented to control the soldiers, while flexibility is necessary to ensure the soldier’s loyalty. As the author mentioned before, the safety of the troops must also be considered. Thus, to attend to their essential needs, there must be flexibility – concerning their health, the camps, the food, etc.

10. The importance of leadership

Sun Tzu suggests that every soldier must inculcate in them the trait of leading. A leader – even if only by the mind – is an entity who has the confidence to win the war. Healthy psychology is crucial to triumph over the enemies. The real leader and the management must also adopt a healthy attitude towards their army as well as warfare. A glitch at the upper levels of the army can trigger a cascade of reactions that can dissolve all the plans of victory.

Poor leadership can be the reason for the downfall of an able army. A platoon of healthy and strong soldiers cannot guarantee a win that a responsible person as a leader can. Since most of the steps in warfare rely on the presence of an able leader, Sun Tzu considers it a priority.

11. Marking of territory

One of the key points, as described by the author earlier, was the need for familiar territory. On the battlefield, the territory must be marked for each type of soldier and a distinction between the two sides. The territories must be marked so that there is no mutual loss. There must be a clear absence of communication between the two sides to secure information. An argument over the territory is also not suggested.

12. Management of the war

Sun Tzu reemphasizes the need for proper management and leadership as required from the basic steps in warfare until the very end. Precision planning, decisive thinking, leadership skills, adhering to the troops, clarity of plans, and perfect execution of plans are Sun Tzu’s techniques of achieving triumph over the enemies.

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