The Art of War by Sun Tzu has been heralded as the book everyone in both the military and the business world should read. Adopt the principles of Sun Tzu and you will always win, or so we are told. Some even suggest it will help the average person with daily life.
I bring neither experience as a soldier nor as a business person to the table, so I can’t really say for sure, but I found most of what Sun Tzu says in The Art of War to be painfully obvious.
Use spies in order to know your enemy. Stay flexible, able to move to suit the situation. Avoid attacking if you cannot be certain of victory. Use overwhelming force whenever possible. Understand the terrain of battle before the battle begins. Attack from higher ground. etc. etc.
This all seems like tactics 101 to me. Of course one has to start somewhere, and this is as good a place as any to start, I suppose. But I was expecting something more unexpected from a 2500-year-old text. Of course, someone had to put down all the basic rules first.
It’s probably useful to have a comprehensive set of tactical rules catalogued in a slim book like this one. But I found The Art of War too close to the sort of advice books that used to be popular on daytime television shows. Lisa Adams and John Heath describe this sort of book in Why We Read What We Read. Here’s how they describe The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Sean Covey:
His treatment of each habit can be monumental; for instance, his presentation of the fourth habit, “Think Win/Win,” reaches nearly mock-epic proportions. To the uninitiated, this practice would appear to need little defence, but Covey spends thirty pages arguing that win-win is generally superior to other possibilities, such as, for example, lose-lose. There are charts listing all the possible permutations, with analyses of the pros and cons of each. Clearly, Covey often doesn’t quite know when to stop (he is the father of nine, in case one is looking for further evidence). And he’s got graphs and pictures. This is a project born for the boardroom, with enough diagrams to inspire even the most ineffective middle-management wannabe.
Take away the charts, the graphs, the pictures, the mock-epic proportions and you have The Art of War —a series of propositions about how to engage in or to avoid combat that seem so obvious they need little defence. So little that Sun Tzu offers none. Maybe I should say “to his credit Sun Tzu offers none.”
James Clavell’s edition contains the examples set down in one of the early mass produced versions of The Art of War. The examples do serve to prove Sun Tzu’s point, but I kept thinking that the question was just more complicated than either Sun Tzu or James Clavell was willing to admit.
Mr. Clavell claims that had the generals involved read The Art of War then the U.S. would not have engaged in Vietnam nor would we have lost in Korea. Both world wars would have been avoided and the English would still have their empire. This presupposes that the generals involved did not read Sun Tzu, but do we know that? Weren’t there simply forces involved in these situations that were beyond the scope of China in the 5th century B.C.E.?
As for whether or not Sun Tzu really applies to the boardroom, I have no idea. I suppose it does, but I can’t see this as a sign of a healthy society. Corporations have been annihilating their competition for some time now, and I’m not convinced that the world is a better place as a result.
It may be that The Art of War is still a very useful little book. I guess I just wish it weren’t so.