I just finished reading the first book in the Well-Read Man Project, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. It is a short book written by a successful Chinese general from thousands of years ago; I finished it in just one day. Even with its terse content, it is hard to summarize in a short blog post due to its diverse structure. Each of its chapters provides bullet-point lists of military-grade advice—good advice no doubt, but not the stuff from which movie scripts are drawn.
Much of Sun Tzu’s content applies easily to our modern situation: “Consider your enemy’s personality defects and use them to your advantage” is good advice. There’s also, “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” I mean, who can argue with that? Other statements from the text are specific to his time and circumstance. In the second chapter, Sun Tzu recommends avoiding a “prolonged war,” which is great. But from the context, a prolonged war is one that last more than a few days, a week at the outset. World War II would not have met the standard.
He also documents specific costs in measured silver for each troop on the ground, numbers that are laughable in the era of the military-industrial complex. Even when he speaks generally, some sayings just don’t feel right. In Chapter 1, he famously states that “all warfare is based on deception,” and he provides many tools for keeping the enemy in the dark. But near the end of the book, he also stresses the importance of keeping your own troops confused and unsure of your strategy until just before an attack. It seems like a textbook case for failure. I’m just saying.
As I read through the book, I seldom thought of what the original author had to contend with in an ancient Chinese military. Instead, I kept reflecting on America’s military reality, with its weapons and soldiers stationed in locales foreign and domestic, and its TSA-blessed barriers against terrorism. Can the words of a military commander from three millennia ago guide us in an age of improvised explosive devices and airport pat-downs? Perhaps. Sun Tzu does provide useful bromides for any situation, especially in his Boy Scout “Be Prepared” attitude that ties the text together. But even when his ideas are far removed from us historically, his overall system for teaching military strategy is useful.
If there is a soundbite to be drawn from the text, it is, “Know your enemy, know yourself, and then you will know what to do in battle” (my paraphrase). Whether you are attacking a four-foot stack of books, or working to quell international terrorists, knowledge of yourself and of your enemy—the art of war—is essential.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.