The Art of War

by Kenneth Champeon, May 27, 2003 | Destinations: China / Beijing

Possibly the most striking thing about The Art of War, the ancient Chinese military treatise, is how war-weary and sagacious its tone and message. Far from glorifying conflict, it accepts conflict as inevitable and goes about explaining how to be victorious. As the first paragraph has it, "War determines life and death, the rise and fall of a State. It is therefore of vital importance that the art of war should be studied with great care."

The ancients, be they Chinese or Greek, were very fond of simplistic lists and certain numbers. In The Art of War, the lists are plentiful and the favored number seems to be 5. Warfare has 5 principles (moral cause, climate, terrain, command, and discipline and organization), there are 5 ways to victory, 5 headings under which "the science of war may be summarized", 5 ways for a general to be at fault, 5 ways to fight with fire, 5 kinds of spies (one of them being "doomed").

There are a few exceptions to the Rule of Five. Types of terrain are 6 in number, as are the ways to destroy an army - flight, insubordination, collapse, ruin, disorganization, and rout - and there are 9 types of military positions - dissentious, facile, critical, open, commanding, serious, fearful, beleaguered, and desperate. Truly desperate men, by the way, "lose all fear of death."

I have found in ancient, especially Eastern texts an equal fondness for redundancy, like the mantra "peace, peace, peace" appearing after individual Upanishads. Although the translator of The Art of War claims to have removed much repetition from the original text, some remains. But rather than boring the reader, the repetitions, like the mantras, serve to underscore main points - for instance, that a formidable enemy may be forestalled by "seizing first whatever they most prize."

Being a treatise of military science, and not of political science, The Art of War offers a very candid explanation for why wars are started ("provocation") and why they continue ("loot"). War, we are told up front, is motivated not by ideology, religion, or justice but by one thing: "gain."

Using beautiful similes drawn from the power of Nature, the book teaches how wars should be conducted - swiftly and with overwhelming force. "A confident army attacking," it says, "is like flood waters pouring into a chasm thousands of fathoms deep." A great general "pushes his army forward just as gravity and momentum create an avalanche thousands of feet down a mountain slope."

The book also counsels leaders to avoid war unless victory is guaranteed and to "avoid protracted wars." In many ways, it anticipates (by 2500 years) what has come to be known as the Powell Doctrine, named after the US general and Secretary of State known - accurately or not - for his caution. Drawing on the lessons of the protracted Vietnam War, Powell asserts in so many words that a military action should have a specific goal, employ overwhelming force, and minimize (one's own) casualties.

But arguably The Art of War goes further in its distaste for war, as it states flatly that "to conquer the enemy without having to resort to war is a greater achievement than fighting to win every battle." As options, it offers clever strategy and the formation of alliances. But in the latter it also counsels caution: "Do not enter into an alliance with any other State sovereign unless you fully know his plans."

The Art of War is a composite of treatises of military science extant about 500 BC, but fell into disuse during a period of pacifism ending with the Wei Dynasty (55-220 AD). A Jesuit first translated the text into French in 1772, but its first English translation did not appear until 1910 (just in time for the First World War, one might say).

Recently, the book has enjoyed a vogue among capitalists thinking that making money is, like the ancient Chinese thought war was, "mainly a game of deception." Such bracing language as "throw them into complete disorder so that they may be crushed with ease" probably cheered them when dealing with labor disputes or hostile corporate takeovers. And the readers of books with curious names like The Chaos Theory of Management would probably find corroboration in statements like, "Be subtle, unpredictable, almost mystical, intangible!" and with the text's recurring emphasis on the power of blinding speed. The present volume has been reprinted 10 times since its first appearance in 1982.

But because of its antiquity, the book also contains specific information about ancient Chinese warfare and ancient China - much of it irrelevant to modern warfare and the modern world - as well as many illustrations of Chinese warriors. A li is a measure of distance, a tael apparently of weight. Gongs, drums, banners, flags, and fire are used for communication between soldiers, "fires and drums by night", "banners and flags by day". Wars are sometimes waged by laying siege to walled cities, but The Art of War finds this of all ways "the least satisfactory." The weapons of war include "chariots and carriages", a whole chapter is devoted to the use of fire, and in this same chapter the use of water as a weapon is also encouraged. The scale of war is great: hundreds of thousands of men, marches over a thousand li, thousands of taels of silver spent every day. During war, "as many as seven hundred thousand families may find it impossible to pursue their ordinary occupations." The names of great and fallen soldiers are cited - Zhu and Cao Gui - as well as great spies - Yi Zhi and Lu Ya - as well as old feuds - that between the Wu State and the Yue State. Spies, say the masters, are better for gathering intelligence than prayer.

To contain so much in a mere 78 octavo pages including illustrations, The Art of War is undoubtedly deserving of its longevity. Like the sacred texts of some major religions, it favors peace, but it also offers sound advice for situations "so critical that there is no alternative" to war.

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Review of The Art of War, trans. A. and B. Chen [Graham Brash (Pte) Ltd., Singapore, 1999]

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