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Have you ever wished you had a master strategist to guide you through tough challenges  in work or life? The Art of War by Sun Tzu is one of the most enduring guides on strategy and warfare, offering timeless insights on military strategies and competitive advantage. The ideas are useful for anyone looking to improve your ability to think strategically, navigate challenges, seize opportunities, and achieve your goals.  In The Art of War summary, you’ll get an overview of Sun Tzu strategic insights, as translated by Thomas Cleary.

Who is Sun Tzu?

Sun Wu, better known as Sun Tzu, was a formidable military strategist, who became the general of the State of Wu. Under Sun Tzu’s command, the Wu forces achieved notable victories, including the defeat of the Chu State and quelling other neighboring states.

Sun Tzu’s philosophies and military strategies were well-documented by historical scholars. His descendants, such as Sun Pin, continued to shape military thought long after Sun Tzu’s death.

Sun Tzu’s teachings are relevant not only for military campaigns, but also for leadership and management in the modern era. This translation of The Art of War includes interpretations and contributions from scholars and historical figures like Tu Mu, Mei Yao-ch`en, and Ts`ao Kung (Cao Cao), serving like a simple study guide.

Sun Tzu’s text was originally written in 13 chapters. In this summary, we’ve distilled the insights into 13 sub-sections below, consolidating certain points that were repeated across chapters, and integrating different interpretations under 1 core idea where possible.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

Here’s a visual summary of all 13 sections of The Art of War.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu - summary of 13 chapters

We’ll dive into details for the first 2 sections and briefly outline the rest. Feel free to check out our full 20-page summary for details!

1. Laying Plans (始計)

Preparation, foreknowledge, and detailed planning can decide the difference between victory or ruin in warfare.

The Art of War: 5 Crucial Elements

There are 5 crucial elements that govern the art of war.

  • Moral law is about aligning the troops with their leader, so they’re ready to follow him fearlessly.
  • Heaven refers to environmental factors that impact military operations, such as seasons, weather, day and night.
  • Earth refers to physical conditions, such as distances, types of terrain, and levels of danger and security.
  • Certain leadership qualities are needed to lead the troops effectively, including: wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, and courage.
  • Method and discipline involve organizing the army, logistics, and military expenditure.

All 5 elements are essential for successful military campaigns. Leaders must assess where they stand relative to their foes, and flexibly adapt their strategies/tactics to changing circumstances. Use these 7 questions to assess your relative chances for success:

  • Leadership alignment: Is our leader in sync with the people, inspiring loyalty and courage?
  • Commander’s ability: Does our commander have more skill and wisdom than the enemy’s?
  • Environment: Which side has the advantage in terms of natural conditions and terrain?
  • Discipline: Which side enforces discipline more effectively?
  • Strength: Which army is stronger both in spirit and in numbers?
  • Training: Are our troops and officers better trained and more practiced than theirs?
  • Reward and punishment: Which side is more consistent in rewarding desired behaviors and punishing wrongdoings?

Deception, Strategies and Tactics

Deception is vital in warfare. Seek to manipulate the enemy’s perception of your strength, distance, and readiness. Key tactics include: feigning disorder to bait attacks, avoiding direct conflict with strong opponents, provoking impulsive action from temperamental leaders, and using unexpected moves to keep the enemy disorganized and unprepared. These are covered in detail in other chapters of the Art of War.

Keep your strategies and plans confidential, so your enemy cannot anticipate and counter them.

Let’s recap these ideas visually:
The Art of War summary - Laying Plans

2. Waging War (作戰)

Minimize the costs of war through efficient and effective campaigns.

It takes significant resources to sustain a large army. This includes both direct costs (e.g. provisions and equipment) and indirect costs (e.g. inflation, economic destabilization, and distress to the populace).

It’s neither wise to rush into action, nor to drag out a war. Long conflicts can be dangerous, as they drain military strength, morale, and state finances, increasing its vulnerability to threats. The faster a conflict can be resolved, the less resources and human suffering it will cost.

To reduce logistical burdens, armies should carry initial provisions, then forage from enemy territory. This concurrently (i) minimizes the burdens of resupply operations from the home country, and (ii) increases the economic pressure on the enemy.

Generally, it’s much more cost-effective to use your enemy’s resources than your own. Integrate captured enemy resources into your supply chain.
• Use some of the captured resources as rewards for soldiers.
• Treat captured soldiers well, potentially turning them into allies to augment your own forces.

Once again, here’s a visual summary:The Art of War summary - Waging War

3. Attack by Stratagem (謀攻)

Seek to outwit and outmaneuver the enemy, instead of relying on brute force. Ideally, conquer an enemy’s territory intact (to preserve its full value and resources), and win without fighting.

Check out our complete summary for more strategies and tactics to achieve this, including rules of engagement and mistakes to avoid.

4. Tactical Dispositions (軍形)

The right strategies and tactics–both defensive and offensive–are essential for military success. This section addresses both sets of strategies/tactics and the importance of switching flexibly between them.

5. Energy (兵勢)

Know when to exert force, when to conserve it, and how to make every move count. Learn the key principles in managing an army, how to use direct vs indirect maneuvers, and leverage the combined strength of the entire force.

6. Weak Points and Strong (虛實)

Exploit the enemy’s weaknesses and leverage your strengths. Learn to control the battle conditions, take advantage of their weak points while avoiding their strengths.

7. Maneuvering (軍爭)

Use tactics to integrate your forces and outmaneuver your opponents. These include tactics for: movement, positioning, communication, morale, timing, strategic deception, engagement, combat, and use of terrain.

8. Variation in Tactics (九變)

Adjust your tactics flexibly to adapt to the circumstances, choosing your battles wisely, knowing when to follow norms vs break them, and varying your tactics to exploit the terrain and situation.

9. The Army On the March (行軍)

Know the strategic considerations for mobilizing and positioning forces. Adopt the best movement and encampment strategies for different terrain, including: mountains, rivers, marshes, and plains. Learn to interpret your foes’ intentions based on their positioning and behaviors, and prepare accordingly.

10. Terrain (地形)

To secure victory, you must understand the capabilities/conditions of your enemy, as well as your troops, relative to the terrain. Specifically, know the 6 types of terrain with differing strategic considerations.

11. The Nine Situations (九地)

Tailor your strategies to match different situations. Understand the 9 types of strategic grounds upon which battle is waged, and seek to secure the most advantageous position.

12. Attack by Fire (火攻)

Effectively use fire and other elemental tactics. Sun Tzu details 5 methods to attack using fire, with additional tips for preparation and timing.

13. The Use of Spies (用間)

Espionage is crucial both tactically and strategically for achieving peace and victory.  Given the high costs of war, it is both wasteful and inhumane to prolong any conflict. Learn how to use 5 types of spies and to manage espionage masterfully, so as to influence the outcome of a battle or an entire war.

Getting the Most from The Art of War

Sun Tzu’s Art of War offers not just military tactics, but also insights into business strategy, competition, and human behavior. However, the ancient text invites varied interpretations. This translation by Cleary includes notes, interpretations, references, examples, and contributions from various experts, to enhance your understanding of Sun Tzu’s strategies, tactics, and insights.

If you’d like to zoom in on the ideas above and get more detailed insights, examples and actionable tips, do check out our full book summary bundle that includes an infographic, 20-page text summary, and a 30-minute audio summary.
The Art of War summary - Book Summary Bundle

You can also purchase the book here.  Ready to apply the Art of War to your business and organization? Check out our summary of Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Managers!

About the Authors of The Art of War

The Art of War was written by Sun Tzu–a Chinese military general, strategist, and philosopher who lived in the ancient State of Wu in approximately 5th century BC. His work, The Art of War, is a military treatise that has become one of the most influential texts in military strategy globally.

This book was translated by Thomas Cleary, an author and translator who also translated various other Asian classics. Cleary held a Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University.

The Art of War Quotes

“That general is skillful in attack whose opponent does not know what to defend; and he is skillful in defense whose opponent does not know what to attack.”

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

“Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

“The quality of decision is like the well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim.”

“Energy may be likened to the bending of a crossbow; decision, to the releasing of a trigger.”

“The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.”

“In war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.”

“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.”

“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys.”

“The enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead; the good general cultivates his resources.”

Click here to download The Art of War infographic & summary


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