I don’t remember when I bought my copy of The Art of War, but whenever I did, that copy must have been the last one in the store because the front cover is scuffed, yet I bought it anyway. It’s a beautiful book, with dark hardcovers sewn together with red, glossy thread. The words—both in traditional Chinese and English—are printed on cream-colored sheets of paper folded in half with the writing on the outside. From the note on the second page I learned that the book is bound in traditional Chinese style. To turn a page, I slip my finger underneath the thick edge where the sheet is folded. This is the kind of detail that matters if I ever wrote a story about China before the 20th century CE.
I began reading this book because I’ve been working on two important battle scenes in my historical novel. What I found between those beautiful dark covers was not only military knowledge for my battle scenes, but also psychological insights for the development of my characters and rhetorical artistry for my writing. But that’s putting it in a fancy way. What I found inside this book was a rollercoaster of ah-ha! and wow! moments, which translated into dozens of notes on the side of my manuscript. And there was something else: excitement that I was getting some of that history stuff right whenever I found validation for my story decisions in Sun Tzu’s text, a text written maybe in the 6th century BCE, or possibly in the later Warring States period (475–221 BCE), yet present today on the reading list of the United States Marine Corps.
The Art of War
By Sun Tzu
Page 13: Where I learned how a rookie commander fails
Thus, although I have heard of reckless haste in war, I have never seen wise delay. Nor has any state benefitted from prolonging war. Only someone who understands the perils of waging war can also understand the best way of conducting it.
Page 17-19: Where I learned what the general in my story should know
Winning a hundred victories out of a hundred battles is not the ultimate achievement; the ultimate achievement is to defeat the enemy without even coming to battle.
Thus it follows that the highest form of warfare is to out-think the enemy; next is to break his alliances; then to defeat his armies in battle; the lowest form is to besiege his cities. Siege warfare should only be undertaken if it is unavoidable.
Page 33: Where I learned who should arrive first on my battlefield
It is a general principle that the army which arrives first at the site of battle and waits for the enemy will be fresh, and the army that arrives second to the field and has to rush into battle will be laboured and exhausted.
Page 39: Where I stopped and gaped
Military strategy is like water, which flows away from high ground towards low ground; so, in your tactics, avoid the enemy’s strengths and attack his weaknesses. Water adapts its course according to the terrain; in the same way you should shape your victory around the enemy’s dispositions. There are no constants in warfare, any more than water maintains a constant shape.
Page 43: Where I found validation for my story decisions
A ruler must understand the priorities of the local nobles before he can make profitable alliances; a general must acquaint himself thoroughly with the terrain—its mountains and forests, its halts and impasses, swamps and marshes—before he can march his army through it. He must use local knowledge to take best advantage of the natural features.
Page 45-47: Where I learned some of the mechanics of battle
In battle, the human voice is not strong enough to be heard which is why we use gongs and drums; our eyesight is not acute enough, which is why we use banners and flags. (…) In night warfare, make more use of signal fires and drums, and in daytime rely on banners and flags, thus adapting to the eyes and ears of your troops. (…)
In the morning a soldier is full of fight, in the afternoon he is slowing down, and in the evening he thinks only of returning to camp. (…)
Here are some of the basic principles of war: never attack uphill, nor defend downhill; do not be lured into attack by feigned flight, and do not attack an enemy who is rested and full of fight. Do not swallow the bait put out for you, and do not get in the way of an army that is homeward bound. When you surround an enemy, always leave them a way out, and do not press a cornered foe too hard.
(Translator’s note: These last three pieces of advice seem uncharacteristically soft on the enemy, but they should be understood not as letting the enemy get away, rather as denying them the savage courage that comes from desperation.)
Page 55: Where I learned about marching an army through different kinds of terrain
All armies love the high ground and hate the low, and prefer sunny places to dark and shade. If you look after the health of your men and camp on firm dry ground, your army will avoid all the usual diseases. (…)
When you come to hills or man-made banks, take up position on the sunny side with the high ground to your right and rear. (…)
If the army is passing through hilly ground where there may be ponds with reed beds or woods with thickets, these must be thoroughly searched for they are ideal cover for spies and traitors.
Page 57: Where I learned of hidden signs and other killer details
If trees and bushes seem to be moving, the enemy is advancing. If you see unusual clumps among the reeds and grasses, the enemy is laying some kind of trap. If birds suddenly rise in their flight, there is an ambush and startled animals mark a surprise attack.
(Translator’s note: This does not mean birds rising from cover when disturbed by the enemy taking up position for an ambush. More subtly it means that birds in flight will deviate upwards from their course when flying over concealed men.)
Page 57: Where I learned to pay attention to dust patterns
If dust rises high and distinct in the air, it is a sign of chariots; if the dust stays low but spreads out, it has been caused by infantry. When the dust separates along several different paths, the enemy are out collecting firewood. Small clouds of dust moving to and fro mean the enemy is pitching camp.
Page 67: Where I had a sudden moment of recognition
If you treat your soldiers like your children, you can lead them into the deepest darkest places; if you see them as your beloved sons, they will stand by you to the death. If, however you are too soft and do not establish firm leadership, too kindly and do not enforce your orders, if you are lax in your organization and cannot keep control—then your troops will be as useless to you as spoilt children.
Page 75: Where I imagined what was like to be there
Soldiers of whatever rank lose their fear in dangerous circumstances; they stand firm when there is no retreat; deep in hostile territory, they show a unified front; when there is no alternative, they will fight to the last. (…)
Ban all omen-taking and superstitious practices so that death is all they have to worry about.
Page 81-83: Where I learned to add some deception
It serves no purpose to tell them if they are in danger.
You can lead them into the most desperate of situations confident that they will survive, for victory is to be plucked from defeat when they are in the greatest danger.
Page 89: Where I found a perfect line of dialogue
A ruler should not call his general to arms simply out of anger; a general should not attack because he has been insulted. Only advance if it is to your clear advantage, otherwise stay put. Anger may change to contentment and insult to pleasure, but a kingdom once destroyed cannot be recovered, and the dead cannot be brought back to life. Thus a wise ruler is cautious, and a good general alert. This is the way to keep a country at peace and its armies intact.
Page 91: Where I learned that war is no metaphor
For what enables a wise ruler and an able general to attack decisively and to succeed where ordinary men fail, is foreknowledge. And foreknowledge cannot be found by consulting the spirits, or by comparing similar situations. It is not to be found by measuring the movements of heaven and the earth; it is to be obtained from men who have accurate knowledge of the enemy’s situation.
Page 95: Where I learned about using spies
When you find the enemy’s agents spying on you, offer them bribes, lavish care on them and lodge them handsomely. Thus they may become converted spies and be of use to you. It is through these converted spies that you will be able to recruit local spies and internal spies. It is through them that your expandable spies will feed false reports to the enemy. And it is also through them that your permanent spies will be able to act as occasion demands. A ruler must know how to employ all five kinds of spy, and this understanding comes necessarily from the converted spies.
And that’s just from a first reading. Now, turning back to the first page…