Relevance of Sunzi’s Art of War
Helal Uddin Ahmed
Background: The military experiences of the Euro-American clique suggest that technology in some way is a dynamic, absolute force to which doctrines, strategies, and force structures must be adapted and adjusted on a continual basis. An emphasis on efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and rationality in the strategic perspective assumes a self-evident truth that military triumphs belong to the most powerful, best equipped, and best-prepared warriors. The Euro-American cultural cum spiritual values presuppose the imperative of decisive victory as the common standard against which all should be evaluated and judged. Although almost all military forces recognize the need to possess and develop the advantages of new, more sophisticated and technologically advanced weaponry, an excessively narrow focus on forces and technologies carries the risk of indifference to other social, cultural and philosophical factors.
While acknowledging cultural diversity and asymmetry, the cultural approach exposes the historical development of particular cultural patterns in using military force. In contrast to the relatively brief history of modern Euro-American strategic outlook, China’s strategic culture has emerged over a period of three millennia. History has dwelt on China’s strategic cultural development—similar to those of several other cultures—along the path of weakness confronting strength, and softness overcoming hardness. By embracing technology not as an absolute force but as an instrument of human will, Chinese military strategists have drawn their power more from the masses and nature than from military superiority or technical prowess throughout the annals of civilization. When they were incapable of achieving decisive battlefield victories over superior foes, the Chinese commanders learned to defeat an enemy’s intent, frustrate the foe’s will, erode the opposing troops’ morale, and destroy the rival rulers’ determination. From positions of weakness, the Chinese generals often developed strategies, campaign plans, operational concepts, and tactics to win wars without decisive victory in every battle—to win a war without fighting. Instead of the orthodox, modern force-based strategies of the Euro-American clique, China’s ancient strategic culture developed military strategies based on intent—defeating an enemy’s aim often by countering with friendly intent and affable postures.
Sunzi’s Art of War: Among the ancient Chinese texts on military art and science, ‘Sunzi’s Art of War’ (Sunzi Bingfa) still stands out as an outstanding work on the subject. Authored by Sun Wu, respectfully called Sunzi, it consists of 13 chapters having around 6,000 characters. Sun Wu was born towards the end of the ‘Spring and Autumn Period’ (770-476 BC) of Chinese history, between 550 and 540 BC. He was an inhabitant of the state called Qi, but later moved to the Wu state and became a trusted strategist of its king. Many scholars believe that the book was written during the ‘Warring States Period’ (475-221 BC), as it bears certain features of that era. It represents the military theories of the Sunzi School as penned down by Sun Wu.
Sunzi’s Art of War is considered as one of the greatest classics among the over 3,000 books on war from the pre-Qin era (before 221 BC) up to the Qing dynasty (1616-1911 CE). It is superior to other books with respect to the designing of military strategy, its philosophical basis, as well as its tactical applications. The book has been respected across the world over the centuries as the ‘Source for all books on war.’ The strategic views of Sunzi are encapsulated in the following lines through a few examples.
Examples from Sunzi’s Strategies: The first example ‘Planning before going to war’ emphasizes on comparing and analysing all factors on both sides before entering a war. These factors include: ‘moral, climatic, terrain, commanders, and rules’. These five considerations were later described by the German military expert Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831 CE) as strategic factors, all of which should be considered in a comprehensive and holistic manner in war situations.
The second example ‘One can fight and win a hundred wars if one knows both oneself and the enemy’ is probably the most widely quoted concept from the book ‘Sunzi’s Art of War’. It points out that it is not easy to know the enemies, as they do their best to hide their secrets and resort to all kinds of deception. Knowing oneself is also not very easy, with such questions cropping up: “What do the people think about the war? What is the capability and state of mind of the commander? How is the morale and training of the troops?” One may be misled by false impressions if a thorough analysis is not conducted about these factors, which are usually not self-evident. As Sunzi had said, “One can fight and win a hundred wars if one knows both oneself and the enemy. The odds for winning are half if one knows oneself but not the enemy. And one is bound to fail if he knows neither himself nor the enemy.” Therefore, a military expert should have a clear idea about all war-related aspects as well as methods to deal with any situation while declaring war.
With regard to the third example of strategy, ‘The army survives by trickery’, Sunzi explained, “The use of force is actually the use of trickery.” He meant by trickery: “the army should appear to be incompetent when it is competent, appear to be unprepared to fight when it is prepared, appear to be retreating when it is advancing, appear to be advancing when it is retreating.” It implied that it was crucial to deceive the enemy with false impressions. Through trickery, one should “tempt the enemy with gains, attack the enemy when they are in disorder, be prepared for the enemy when they are equal in strength, avoid the enemy when they are stronger, (further) aggravate the enemy when they are angry, cause the enemy to be arrogant when they are prudent, tire the enemy when they are at rest, and sow discord among the enemy when they are united.” Therefore, trickery is meant to entice the enemy to make all kinds of mistakes, and defeating them after they fall into a state of chaos and disorder. It also entails, “attacking the enemy at an unexpected place and time.”
The fourth strategic example “Winning a war without fighting” demonstrated that Sunzi did not like large-scale killings and destructions, which he considered the worst strategy. The goal of war was to achieve victory, not to kill as many people as possible. One should avoid destroying the enemy stronghold and people as much as possible. The best strategy is to conquer a city and avoid destruction of life, which was termed by Sunzi as ‘decent victory’. Sunzi explained, “Winning a war without fighting is the best one can do. Therefore, the highest art of war is to outwit the enemy strategically; the second level is to foil their diplomacy; the third level is to attack their army; and the lowest level is to attack their city. Attacking the city can only be used as the last resort.” These ideas show Sunzi’s profound understanding of what is now called the ‘holistic war’.
Sunzi’s Dialectical Philosophy of War: Situations always change as the world is forever changing. Thus, the military commander must be able to keep abreast of changes and adapt to those. Sunzi therefore declared, “There is no fixed way of using force, just as there is no fixed form of water. He who can achieve victory by adapting to changes in enemy forces is a master of the art of war.” He reminded military men to evaluate gains and losses from both positive and negative sides and warned, “Some routes can be taken but should not be, some enemy troops are vulnerable but should not be attacked, some enemy cities can be captured but should not be, and some enemy territory can be obtained but should not be.” This is a caution for becoming aware about not only potential gains, but also potential losses. Sunzi further advised, “Do not intercept the enemies on their retreat to their homeland, leave a gap when besieging the enemy, and do not approach a desperate enemy.” It implied that going beyond limits in military operations may make things turn in the opposite direction after reaching the extremes.
Sunzi also emphasized on pushing the enemy into their opposites for the benefit of one’s own troops. He added, “By taking a tortuous route deliberately while tempting the enemy with small gains, we can arrive earlier despite having started later than the enemy.” This strategy turns a tortuous route into a straight one, and Sunzi concludes, “The expert commander is able to make the enemy follow his direction, not the other way round.”
Warnings against Waging War: Although Sunzi’s Art of War outlines a complete set of strategies and tactics to win a war, the book paradoxically does not encourage rulers to be belligerent; rather, it repeatedly warns them to refrain from waging a war without careful consideration. The book points out at the very outset, “The use of force is a matter of death for the soldiers, the people and the country.” It can never be taken very lightly. This warning was levelled once again in the concluding part of the book, “A country’s head must not wage a war spurred by a momentary bad mood. He must take into consideration overall national interests for declaring war or desisting from it. Anger can turn into delight and a bad mood can change into a good mood, but a country lost is lost forever, and those killed are dead forever. Therefore, a wise ruler must handle matters of war with extreme care, and good commanders and generals must handle them with the greatest caution as well. This is the cardinal principle for safeguarding the country and the army.” In a world where the threats of nuclear war now loom larger than ever before, Sunzi’s cautions deserve serious attention of those who have the authority to push the button for launching nuclear arsenals.
Wisdom beyond the Military Sphere: Sunzi’s Art of War was introduced outside China from the reign of Tang Dynasty (618-907) onwards. A Japanese scholar named Kibimakibi took it back to Japan in 734 or 752 CE. The Joseon Dynasty introduced it to the Korean peninsula during the 15th century CE. Over 170 books on the study of Sunzi’s Art of War were published in Japan up to the 17th century CE. A Jesuit missionary from France named Jean-Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718-93 CE) published a French translation of the book in Paris in the year 1772 CE. The Russian translation was published in 1860 CE. The book was later translated into many other languages including English, German, Italian, Czech, Vietnamese, Hebrew, and Romanian.
Renowned strategists and scholars from various countries around the globe took a new interest in Sunzi’s Art of War after the Second World War. The British Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery (1887-1976 CE) had declared during the War that all military academies across the world should include the book in their curriculum. Newer translations of the book and numerous research works on it have been published since then on a continuous basis. However, many people regard the book not only as a military book, but also as a work on the philosophy of strategy applicable to all spheres of social life. Many contemporary scholars view the wisdom of Sunzi to be universal, similar to the wisdom of ancient Chinese philosophers Confucius and Laozi.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed PhD was a Capstone Course Fellow (2016) of the National Defence College. He is a retired Additional Secretary of GoB, former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly, a ‘CCSP-Understanding China’ Fellow of the Beijing-based Confucius Institute Headquarters (2016-17), and currently an editorial columnist of The Financial Express. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org