5. The Book’s Wisdom is Still Relevant
Perhaps the most quoted line from The Art of War is, “To overcome others armies without fighting is the best of skills.” Of course that is much easier said than done, but the quote underlines the importance of long-term strategic thinking. Sometimes there is no alternative to fighting, but many times war represents a failure of diplomacy, effective alliance building or credible power projection. Misdirection and mystery are important tools for achieving victory, as this quotation makes clear: “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.” Sun Tzu reminded readers to be vigilant, to never underestimate the enemy or the potential hazards of a campaign when he wrote, “When you know yourself and others, victory is not in danger; when you know the sky and earth, victory is inexhaustible.”
4. Ideas Can be Adapted to Disciplines Like Politics and Sports
People often use military language to talk about sports and although lives are not on the line, the hyper-competitive nature of sports leads players and coaches to seek almost any advantage over their opponents. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has led his team to three Super Bowl championships, has studied The Art of War to sharpen his strategic skills and to view problems in creative ways. Sun Tzu repeatedly stresses the importance of cultivating a detached professionalism about one’s opponents. Whether in business, politics or sports, effective decision-making is more likely when the decisions are based on a rational evaluation rather than assumptions and emotion.
3. The Armed Forces Still Study the Book’s Principles
Sun Tzu’s classic treatise is not just standard reading for the Chinese military. The United States Military Academy, Naval Academy and Air Force Academy all teach The Art of War to their students as part of their education in strategy and tactics. The Art of War covers a wide range of military topics including maneuvering armies, terrain, intelligence, force and siege warfare, even though the last topic may not seem relevant given the modern state of warfare. But in modern terms, we can think of it in terms of a “siege mentality.” If your forces can intimidate the enemy, they will be on the defensive and you will be one step closer to victory. The importance of discipline is a major theme in the book. Discipline has been a key ingredient in the success of the U.S. military going back to Gen. George Washington, who described it as the “soul of an army.”
2. The Book Emphasizes Human Factors Over Technology
Sun Tzu emphasizes the importance of people over weapons. One of the most important things people do in warfare is gather, analyze and make use of intelligence, or what he referred to as “foreknowledge” when planning military operations. Military leaders should learn everything they can about the enemy’s soldiers, how they are trained, led and the tactics they rely on. They also need to know about the enemy’s civilian population, industrial capacity and the character of the leadership. If you study history or follow the Global War on Terror you know these factors are just as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago. As was the case in ancient China, the use of spies to gather information, or what today is called human intelligence, is usually the most effective method. The growing fleet of unmanned U.S. drones is a valuable intelligence asset, but relying too much on technology can leave you vulnerable to the constant efforts of enemies to mitigate it with low-tech countermeasures.
1. The Book Offers Insights for the War on Terror
In his memoir, American Soldier, Gen. Tommy Franks wrote about the importance of momentum in battle. This quotation from The Art of War makes the same point: “Force means shifts in accumulated energy or momentum. Skillful warriors are able to allow the force of momentum to seize victory for them without exerting their strength.” The modern, media-saturated world demands everything happen immediately. However, the defeat of an insidious ideology like militant Islamism might take decades and cannot be tied to election cycles or artificial timetables. Victory in the Global War on Terror will require much more than high-profile tactical successes such as the killing of Osama bin Laden. There has been a debate within the military and national security circles since 9/11 about how well the U.S. understands al-Qaeda and its allies. Many would argue that patience is a key attribute of the enemy, that they are willing to bide their time. They are confident that even if their jihad takes 100 years, they are destined to succeed because they believe it is the fulfillment of Allah’s will.