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Sun Tzu was a Hippie

  • Jun 15, 2013
You would think a book called The Art of War would be useful propaganda for, you know, fighting a war. Instead, Sun Tzu, the legendary strategist to end all legendary strategists, makes it quite clear that fighting in a war isn't the way he would want to go, and he would prefer to avoid them altogether.

Sun Tzu knows the terrible truth about war and he makes that very clear right from the start. The second chapter of The Art of War is a fast argument on just why it's better to avoid getting into a war completely rather than fight a long, protracted conflict. He makes it very clear that war is something that happens only as THE ultimate, absolute, last-ditch option. If, in the unfortunate case that it comes down to war, the war is to be fought as fast as possible and that the object is to end the war in victory, not to try to run out, occupy, command, and destroy the other side. There's one chapter in which Sun Tzu writes that the best thing to do if you have an army that greatly outnumbers the other side is to surround the other side rather than fight.

Surprising? Naturally. That's not the most impressive part, though: Throughout The Art of War, Sun Tzu shows a very strong vein of compassion. In some versions, there are footnotes which place certain violent-sounding passages in a historical context, and that leaves the impression that The Art of War preaches more about compassion than about actual warfare. What do you know? Sun Tzu was just another dirty hippie! It's difficult, even thousands of years later, to argue with the logic: Be nice to the people you're invading, and you might be able to win their hearts and minds.

One could argue that The Art of War was written thousands of years ago, so things like that may not apply these days. Trouble is, first of all, that very few countries at war are even trying it, or have ever tried it. The second problem is that The Art of War has an incredible bare-boned feel to it. It's formless, as pointed out by the footnotes of the version I read. And that makes it very appropriate that throughout The Art of War, Sun Tzu preaches about the virtues of keeping an army in formless shape: Mostly, it has to do with adaptability and the ability to take an opponent off guard. The Art of War is formless enough to be able to be applied not jut in real war, but in any situation in which a potential conflict might pop up and take you off guard.

Sun Tzu seemed to have a fondness for numbering the types of factors he discovered as a general: The Nine Changes, the Nine Grounds, the Five Kinds of Fire Attacks. It seems that at least half the chapters in The Art of War begin with such a declaration. This would come off as antithetical to Sun Tzu's own declaration of how an army should stay formless and adaptable, but if you think about it, it doesn't. I got the feeling that Sun Tzu was describing the kinds of experiences he had himself, and he created the philosophy of staying formless in order to make sure his army would be able to succeed in circumstances he hadn't thought of.

Sun Tzu also preaches the importance of having cooperative soldiers and being able to command their loyalty and respect. Toward the end of the book, Sun Tzu's methods of inspiring the best in soldiers tends to come off as extreme: Throw them into strictly survival situations, and let their instincts take over. If they really care, they'll fight to live.

The Art of War uses a lot of things that would seem to be common sense, and others that appear to be the opposite. When I set out to read it, I was hoping to find a version with as few footnotes as possible, because I like to discover my own understandings and ideas. With The Art of War, I'm glad I had one which is rich in contextual footnotes, so I could better know about the world Sun Tzu lived in, and understand the way he adapted to situations might aid me. The Art of War is a very short book in and of itself - it could be finished within an hour. The real study and applications of it, though, might take some real pondering.

One thing is for sure: If you take the teachings of Sun Tzu to heart, you'll quickly learn to forget about that dream you have of becoming The Infallible Dictator of the World.

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June 16, 2013
These days nations are having enough trouble tending to their own affairs let alone trying to expand outside of their limited domain. The ones that tend to engage in warlike actions outside of their domain are flirting with being a failed state.
June 16, 2013
I've noticed. It's a shame the only people who seem to be able to see that are never the ones running any countries.
June 17, 2013
You noticed right.
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About this book


This new translation of the ancient Chinese military treatise includes chapters of historical analysis touching on its relevance to today's corporate environment.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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ISBN-10: 081331951X
ISBN-13: 978-0813319513
Author: Sun Tzu
Genre: Business & Investing, History
Publisher: Basic Books
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