I came across this while browsing through the book stores in Newport: It’s the Arcturus 2017 edition of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Many full-colour illustrations adorn the glossy pages inside the hardback red silk cover.
The book was authored around 2,500 years ago, and it’s likely Sun Tzu recorded his observations throughout his military career and organised them into thirteen sections at a later point. It has been studied by world leaders throughout the 20th century, we’re told in the introduction. Like Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings that came 2,000 years later, which deals more with actual combat and tactics, the Art of War is still used by modern-day strategists in warfare and business. I’ve seen and heard many a Sun Tzu quotation among the little quips of wisdom from SNCOs in the British Army.
Widely quoted and consulted as it is, I don’t think Sun Tzu actually offers much here that should be mistaken for a philosophy or deep insight into human nature that’s very usable to most of us. The closing chapter of this particular book addresses its applicability to business, politics and sport, but it doesn’t quite manage to make the parallels between those things and armed conflict.
You’ve probably heard it said that ‘success = preparation + opportunity’. I think main content of the Art of War can be summed up by a simple paragraph: Success is certain with the right amount of research, planning, preparation and execution. The plan should be developed based on what’s known of the environment, the disposition of allies and adversaries, the resources available, predictions about the adversary’s behaviour, and many other factors. By secrecy and deception, one could also prevent the adversary making calculated decisions.
But business managers are not military officers or warriors, and human relations in the civilian world, even between rivals, aren’t battlefields. Neither is warfare the default mode of human affairs, but something that happens after civility and diplomacy fails. However, I think the Art of War could provide us with another dimension of insight into notable historical events and the decisions made by world leaders today.
Sun Tzu and the Economy of Warfare
Sun Tzu argues that ‘there is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare‘. In the second chapter, ‘Waging War’, he explained that prolonged military campaigns impose economic demands on the state that could outweigh the benefits – these are immediate costs of mobilising soldiers and supporting infrastructure, and the costs of maintaining that deployment at an optimum fighting condition. Eventually weakened economically, and perhaps socially, the state could become less capable of defending itself against another adversary.
Intelligence and the Use of Agents
The final section deals with the use of spies and espionage, and I found this worth commenting on because of its parallels with today’s intelligence and espionage. Sun Tzu’s greatest concern was the economic and social costs of the ineffecient usage of military resources, of protracted deployments, and he viewed espionage as a solution to that very problem.
Sun Tzu defines five classes of spy, and the method for using them:
’21. The enemy’s spies who have come to spy on us must be sought out, tempted with bribes, led away and comfortably housed. Thus they will become converted spies and available for our service.
22. It is through the information brought by the converted spy that we are able to acquire and employ local and inward spies.’
Looks very familiar, doesn’t it? Sun Tzu is making a reference to the management of insiders who become agents through the exploitation of some character flaw. This is followed up by sending the ‘doomed spy’ to create disinformation and perhaps to provide a cover for the ‘surviving spy’.
’23. It is owing to his information, again, that we can cause the doomed spy to carry false tidings to the enemy.
24. Lastly, it is by his information that the surviving spy can be used on appointed occasions.’
We also find social engineering, starting with a recce to determine certain details about people associated with a target:
‘Whether the object be to crush an army, to storm a city, or to assassinate an individual, it is always necessary to begin by finding out the names of the attendants, the aides-de-camp, and door-keepers and sentries of the general in command. Our spies must be commissioned to ascertain these. […] It is through the information brought by the converted spy that we are able to acquire and employ local and inward spies.’