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The Art Of War — Book Review & Quotes – Kyle Harrison – Medium

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A small group of Junto members decided to put together a monthly book club to read what we termed ‘classics.’ This could extend a to a wide variety of books, but our focus was on books that we had often heard of, that had withstood the test of time, but that we had never read.

Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ was first on the list and, more than anything, I was struck by the specificity of war. In the tech industry, The Art of War is often held up as a guideline for how to compete in business. While there are certainly key principles that can apply to any competitive situation, there is also a lot of detail about what kinds of dirt are best for different types of combat. More so than the specifics on warfare, it was the psychology of warriors that stood out as most applicable to me.

“Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.”

As I read this book hoping to learn valuable lessons from the past, I respected most the discipleship of Sun Tzu to his craft; he may not have been the wisest leader in every area and discipline, but he knew well his craft, and it encouraged me to better define the parameters within which I want to succeed and to excel at them.

Some Highlighted Quotes From The Book

“If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if his orders ARE clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.”

“He who relies solely on warlike measures shall be exterminated; he who relies solely on peaceful measures shall perish.”

“The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one’s deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field. 4. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.”

“[The five cardinal virtues of the Chinese are (1) humanity or benevolence; (2) uprightness of mind; (3) self-respect, self- control, or “proper feeling;” (4) wisdom; (5) sincerity or good faith. Here “wisdom” and “sincerity” are put before “humanity or benevolence,” and the two military virtues of “courage” and “strictness” substituted for “uprightness of mind” and “self- respect, self-control, or ‘proper feeling.’”

“Without constant practice, the officers will be nervous and undecided when mustering for battle; without constant practice, the general will be wavering and irresolute when the crisis is at hand.”

“[On which side is there the most absolute certainty that merit will be properly rewarded and misdeeds summarily punished?]”

“[Sun Tzu, as a practical soldier, will have none of the “bookish theoric.” He cautions us here not to pin our faith to abstract principles; “for,” as Chang Yu puts it, “while the main laws of strategy can be stated clearly enough for the benefit of all and sundry, you must be guided by the actions of the enemy in attempting to secure a favorable position in actual warfare.” On the eve of the battle of Waterloo, Lord Uxbridge, commanding the cavalry, went to the Duke of Wellington in order to learn what his plans and calculations were for the morrow, because, as he explained, he might suddenly find himself Commander-in-chief and would be unable to frame new plans in a critical moment. The Duke listened quietly and then said: “Who will attack the first tomorrow — I or Bonaparte?” “Bonaparte,” replied Lord Uxbridge. “Well,” continued the Duke, “Bonaparte has not given me any idea of his projects; and as my plans will depend upon his, how can you expect me to tell you what mine are?”

“All warfare is based on deception. [The truth of this pithy and profound saying will be admitted by every soldier. Col. Henderson tells us that Wellington, great in so many military qualities, was especially distinguished by “the extraordinary skill with which he concealed his movements and deceived both friend and foe.”] Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

“Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought.”

“The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.”

“When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength. Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.”

“Chang Yu says: “So long as victory can be attained, stupid haste is preferable to clever dilatoriness.”

“There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”

“The skillful soldier does not raise a second levy, neither are his supply-wagons loaded more than twice.”

“This may seem an audacious policy to recommend, but with all great strategists, from Julius Caesar to Napoleon Bonaparte, the value of time — that is, being a little ahead of your opponent — has counted for more than either numerical superiority or the nicest calculations with regard to commissariat.]”

“Now in order to kill the enemy, our men must be roused to anger; that there may be advantage from defeating the enemy, they must have their rewards.”

“In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.”

“Sun Tzu said: In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.”

“Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.

“The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, [This vivid simile of Ts`ao Kung is taken from the spectacle of an army of ants climbing a wall. The meaning is that the general, losing patience at the long delay, may make a premature attempt to storm the place before his engines of war are ready.] with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege.”

“If attackers and attacked are equally matched in strength, only the able general will fight.”

“There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army: — (1) By commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey. This is called hobbling the army.”

“The saying of T`ai Kung: “A kingdom should not be governed from without, and army should not be directed from within.”

“(2) By attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army. This causes restlessness in the soldier’s minds.”

“(3) By employing the officers of his army without discrimination, [That is, he is not careful to use the right man in the right place.] through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to circumstances. This shakes the confidence of the soldiers.”

“The skillful employer of men will employ the wise man, the brave man, the covetous man, and the stupid man. For the wise man delights in establishing his merit, the brave man likes to show his courage in action, the covetous man is quick at seizing advantages, and the stupid man has no fear of death.”

“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.”

“If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

“To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”

“Hence the saying: One may KNOW how to conquer without being able to DO it.”

“Sun Tzu said: The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers.”

“Mei Yao-ch`en: “CH`I is active, CHENG is passive; passivity means waiting for an opportunity, activity beings the victory itself.”

“When two countries go to war, they are naturally inclined to make an ostentatious display of their strength. Yet our spies have seen nothing but old age and infirmity. This is surely some ruse on the part of the enemy, and it would be unwise for us to attack.” The Emperor, however, disregarding this advice, fell into the trap and found himself surrounded.”

“The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too much from individuals. [Tu Mu says: “He first of all considers the power of his army in the bulk; afterwards he takes individual talent into account, and uses each men according to his capabilities. He does not demand perfection from the untalented.”] Hence his ability to pick out the right men and utilize combined energy.”

“You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended. [Wang Hsi explains “undefended places” as “weak points; that is to say, where the general is lacking in capacity, or the soldiers in spirit; where the walls are not strong enough, or the precautions not strict enough; where relief comes too late, or provisions are too scanty, or the defenders are variance amongst themselves.”] You can ensure the safety of your defense if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked.”

“[In Frederick the Great’s INSTRUCTIONS TO HIS GENERALS we read: “A defensive war is apt to betray us into too frequent detachment. Those generals who have had but little experience attempt to protect every point, while those who are better acquainted with their profession, having only the capital object in view, guard against a decisive blow, and acquiesce in small misfortunes to avoid greater.”]

“All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved. [I.e., everybody can see superficially how a battle is won; what they cannot see is the long series of plans and combinations which has preceded the battle.]”

“Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances. [As Wang Hsi sagely remarks: “There is but one root- principle underlying victory, but the tactics which lead up to it are infinite in number.” With this compare Col. Henderson: “The rules of strategy are few and simple. They may be learned in a week. They may be taught by familiar illustrations or a dozen diagrams. But such knowledge will no more teach a man to lead an army like Napoleon than a knowledge of grammar will teach him to write like Gibbon.”]

“In an historical romance Sun Tzu is represented as saying to Wu Yuan: “As a general rule, those who are waging war should get rid of all the domestic troubles before proceeding to attack the external foe.”]

“We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbors.”

“When you plunder a countryside, let the spoil be divided amongst your men; [Sun Tzu wishes to lessen the abuses of indiscriminate plundering by insisting that all booty shall be thrown into a common stock, which may afterwards be fairly divided amongst all.] when you capture new territory, cut it up into allotments for the benefit of the soldiery.”

“A clever general, therefore, avoids an army when its spirit is keen, but attacks it when it is sluggish and inclined to return. This is the art of studying moods.”

“When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. [This does not mean that the enemy is to be allowed to escape. The object, as Tu Mu puts it, is “to make him believe that there is a road to safety, and thus prevent his fighting with the courage of despair.” Tu Mu adds pleasantly: “After that, you may crush him.”]

“Chang Yu says: “No town should be attacked which, if taken, cannot be held, or if left alone, will not cause any trouble.”

“Reduce the hostile chiefs by inflicting damage on them; [Chia Lin enumerates several ways of inflicting this injury, some of which would only occur to the Oriental mind: — “Entice away the enemy’s best and wisest men, so that he may be left without counselors. Introduce traitors into his country, that the government policy may be rendered futile. Foment intrigue and deceit, and thus sow dissension between the ruler and his ministers. By means of every artful contrivance, cause deterioration amongst his men and waste of his treasure. Corrupt his morals by insidious gifts leading him into excess.”

“There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general: (1) Recklessness, which leads to destruction.”

“A delicacy of honor which is sensitive to shame; [This need not be taken to mean that a sense of honor is really a defect in a general. What Sun Tzu condemns is rather an exaggerated sensitiveness to slanderous reports, the thin-skinned man who is stung by opprobrium, however undeserved. Mei Yao- ch`en truly observes, though somewhat paradoxically: “The seek after glory should be careless of public opinion.”]

“Wei Liao Tzu, ch. 4: “The art of giving orders is not to try to rectify minor blunders and not to be swayed by petty doubts.” Vacillation and fussiness are the surest means of sapping the confidence of an army.]”

“With regard to ground of this nature, be before the enemy in occupying the raised and sunny spots, and carefully guard your line of supplies. [The general meaning of the last phrase is doubtlessly, as Tu Yu says, “not to allow the enemy to cut your communications.” In view of Napoleon’s dictum, “the secret of war lies in the communications,” we could wish that Sun Tzu had done more than skirt the edge of this important subject here.”

“When the common soldiers are too strong and their officers too weak, the result is INSUBORDINATION.”

“When the officers are too strong and the common soldiers too weak, the result is COLLAPSE.”

“General Baden- Powell says, italicizing the words: “The secret of getting successful work out of your trained men lies in one nutshell — in the clearness of the instructions they receive.”

“The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, [It was Wellington, I think, who said that the hardest thing of all for a soldier is to retreat.] whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.”

“If we know that our own men are in a condition to attack, but are unaware that the enemy is not open to attack, we have gone only halfway towards victory. [That is, Ts`ao Kung says, “the issue in this case is uncertain.”] If we know that the enemy is open to attack, but are unaware that our own men are not in a condition to attack, we have gone only halfway towards victory.”

“When he has penetrated into hostile territory, but to no great distance, it is facile ground. [Li Ch`uan and Ho Shih say “because of the facility for retreating,” and the other commentators give similar explanations. Tu Mu remarks: “When your army has crossed the border, you should burn your boats and bridges, in order to make it clear to everybody that you have no hankering after home.”]

“Ch`en Hao says: “to be on ‘desperate ground’ is like sitting in a leaking boat or crouching in a burning house.”

“On desperate ground, fight. [For, as Chia Lin remarks: “if you fight with all your might, there is a chance of life; where as death is certain if you cling to your corner.”]

“Take advantage of the enemy’s unreadiness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack unguarded spots.”

“Carefully study the well-being of your men, [For “well-being”, Wang Hsi means, “Pet them, humor them, give them plenty of food and drink, and look after them generally.”] and do not overtax them. Concentrate your energy and hoard your strength.”

“Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight. If they will face death, there is nothing they may not achieve.”

“Henderson says: “With all respect to the text books, and to the ordinary tactical teaching, I am inclined to think that the study of ground is often overlooked, and that by no means sufficient importance is attached to the selection of positions… and to the immense advantages that are to be derived, whether you are defending or attacking, from the proper utilization of natural features.”

“Walk in the path defined by rule, [Chia Lin says: “Victory is the only thing that matters, and this cannot be achieved by adhering to conventional canons.” It is unfortunate that this variant rests on very slight authority, for the sense yielded is certainly much more satisfactory. Napoleon, as we know, according to the veterans of the old school whom he defeated, won his battles by violating every accepted canon of warfare.]”

“Unhappy is the fate of one who tries to win his battles and succeed in his attacks without cultivating the spirit of enterprise; for the result is waste of time and general stagnation.”

“I prefer the interpretation suggested by Mei Yao-ch`en alone, whose words I will quote: “Those who want to make sure of succeeding in their battles and assaults must seize the favorable moments when they come and not shrink on occasion from heroic measures: that is to say, they must resort to such means of attack of fire, water and the like. What they must not do, and what will prove fatal, is to sit still and simply hold to the advantages they have got.”]

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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !