07 June 2006

Review: The Art of War

Sun Tzu's famous work, The Art of War, is practically required reading for military commanders, and was given to me as a graduation present by a former Army Ranger (who also gave me The Book of Five Rings, which I reviewed earlier). Rabid pro-military bloodthirsty neocon that I am, I've been meaning to read The Art of War for quite some time, and found the source of my copy quite appropriate.

While I've naturally heard of this work, just as I've heard of von Clausewitz's treatise, I wasn't entirely sure what its scope was. So for the benefit of those who may similarly be curious, I shall expound.

Sun Tzu was, as you no doubt know, a famous Chinese general. He lived during the time of the Chou Dynasty, which lasted from circa 1027 B.C. to 221 B.C. Born in 544 B.C., Sun Tzu was in the service of King Ho Lu from 510 B.C. - 496 B.C., during which time he apparently wrote the notes left to us as The Art of War, which were not properly translated into English until Lionel Giles undertook the work in 1910.

In this work, Sun Tzu (Sun is his family name and Tzu is an honorific) expounds on the art of war, from the characteristics of a winning general to the ways in which to use terrain to the types and uses of spies. It's very interesting and provides valuable insight to war on the ground, and also to the sort of work that special forces must do.

As with The Book of Five Rings, the lessons are useful in terms of the broad strategy they articulate, rather than in terms of the actual statements. For example, Sun Tzu says to never besiege a walled city, which makes sense when you consider the massive fortifications that were Chinese cities at the time. Directly attacking such a city rather than using intrigue and stratagem would be sort of like using explosives instead of a safecracker to open a bank vault. (Sorry, I've been watching a lot of Matlock and Magnum, P.I. this week.)

One characteristic I found interesting is Sun Tzu's treatment of the human aspects of war. He mentions several times that a war should not be prolonged due to the human costs, in terms of lives and destruction of farmland, and he seems (judging from the translation) to be approaching this from a moral perspective rather than an economic perspective or even a common-sense perspective (it's reasonable to conjecture that the less farmland you've destroyed, the less resentful the peasants you've just conquered will be). I certainly agree with such an approach, but it's sort of funny to think of how your average anti-war leftist would react to it.

I can't help but wonder what Sun Tzu would have written had he lived in a later time, when war was also waged in the air. He writes at length of the difficulties and costs inherent in sending armies long distances, with supply trains and various ragtag following along. I never quite thought about how much aircraft must have changed the face of war.

This edition, the Barnes & Noble Classics edition, has the text both annotated and unannotated. The annotations are primarily those of the translator, Lionel Giles, who translates works of the major Chinese commentators and adds quotations from other military works. The modern-day editor also includes various remarks and quotations of her own, and says that the definitive line of The Art of War is this: "All warfare is based on deception."

I'd recommend this edition of The Art of War, as the commentary is useful and interesting, and you also have the option of reading the text without the annotations.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read "The Complete Art of War" coupla years back, good stuff. Sun Tzu and Sun Pin in one book, translated by Mark D. Sawyer, methinks I need to get my own copy. Legend has it that Sun Pin (great-grandson of Sun Tzu) was so good at strategy that on of the generals at the time had him mutilated and cut off both his hands and both his feet, so he won't be able to appear befor the emperor. The dude survived and continued his service, often observed and advised strategy from a litter overlooking the battlefield.

Icepick the Mad!

10:56 PM  

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