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GEZAEE ASEEFA - April 20, 2020



The Art of War was written by Sun Tzu in China about 2,500 years ago.  Sun Tzu was an ordinary man unknown to most people; soon after he wrote The Art of War, he became a famous general.  I find it interesting that his writings about war tactics are still perhaps the most prestigious and influential literary works, not only regarding war but also business portfolios and risk management practices all over the world especially in Asia. 


The work of Sun Tzu is focused on competition and conflict in a broad sense, and on every level from personal to communal to national to international.  Knowing what your opponent can do and predicting and knowing the potential action of an opponent is the biggest challenge and should be examined carefully.  Overcoming this challenge, is pivotal task and the more work you do the better off you'll be.


In the chapter "Laying Plans," Sun Tzu says: "according as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one's plans." This’s one of the focal points he discusses in his book- that one shouldn't stick to any plan to the point that it affects the outcome of the plan.  One has to exercise and explore all opportunities with some cost linked to the changing of plan in order to achieve the mission.  Sun Tzu also stated the following:


All warfare is based on deception; hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him.  If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Attack him where is unprepared, appear when you are not expected.

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The above quote reinforces the first quote that "according as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one's plans."   The work of Sun Tzu is to a great extent about being flexible and remaining unknown to an opponent.  This is why building high walls, digging trenches and having huge army don't guarantee security, while armored tanks and sophisticated weapons do not guarantee strength. One could attack an opponent or win a war with fewer resources and smaller numbers of soldiers, if and only if a wise military command is prepared and acts when he should.  Knowing yourself and knowing your opponent, and engaging in careful planning and swift action can lead to a total victory.

Of course, one has to understand that there is no permanent victory. The idea of knowing yourself and being unknown to your opponent was stressed again and again by Sun Tzu as a key to success. I think, this was pointed to suggest that information is power and if the accessed information is valid and accurate, it could and should be used carefully and surprisingly in attacking an opponent. To attack when the enemy is unprepared and to appear when not expected is the secret behind gathering intelligence and action.


One can link intelligence gathering with knowing an opponent very closely. Thus, 2,500 years ago the power of information as it is now was equally important to accomplish any task. The more you know about your opponents the better you will be in predicting the moves of the enemy, and deceiving and manipulating them.


The Art of War is devoted to the importance of military strategy.   In preparation for military action, the book brings up five entities one should consider before undertaking any offense:  the leadership, the military leadership, the weather, the terrain and discipline.   The general leadership and the general public have to work together at all times.   The support of the general public for the leadership, especially in wartime, is very crucial and the leadership has to earn its legitimacy to lead and influence people to have the same aim and to be in the same direction.


The military leadership criteria offered by Sun Tzu is that the military should have the following criteria:  intelligence, trustworthiness, humanness and courage. These four characteristics independently would be less effective than they would more  effective enough if so coordinated with each other.  To cite an example, intelligence without courage is like knowing the weakness of the enemy and having no motivation to take action.


The weather assessment and the question of the season for action have great significance for the outcome of the war. To cite an example, if the season is winter and the country's in point economy is based on agriculture then it is wise to avoid a war if possible.  If a war broke out massive numbers of the productive workforce would have to join the army, and as a result the entire agriculture season would be disrupted.  This will have a ripple effect on future of the country's overall economy.  The public will run out of grain and the army may end up with a shortage of food and the opponent can easily take advantage of this situation.


The terrain has to be measured in terms of distance, travel difficulty and safety.  To hold strategic terrain is decisive to the outcome of the war.  To defend your position from the opponent an d to gain an upper hand in a war time, holding strategic terrain is crucial.   People who know the terrain well-enough are also decisive and their presence in the army could save energy and time and help to minimize the loss of human lives.


The fifth and last item assessed by Sun Tzu is discipline, and he refers to organizational consistency and efficiency.  Discipline is directly connected with the trustworthiness and loyalty of the military to the leadership.  A well- disciplined, loyal and committed force is regarded as vital and an y country should have one.  To accomplish this, great deal of emphasis must be placed on establishing system in which reward and punishment will be esteemed by the general armed forces as fair and impartial.


Sun Tzu, following the above five assessments, goes on to state that: a military operation involves deception.  Even though you are competent, appear incompetent.  Though effective, appear ineffective.  A victorious army  knows others while not being known to others.   A surprise attack on the enemy is directly connected to knowing others while not being known to others, and taking a calculated risk sooner rather than later.   


Sun Tzu also put great emphasis on not prolonging war because war consumes huge resources and human li ve s.  Thus, the leadership should take into account the urgency to end war as soon as possible.


In sum, the vocal message of The Art of War seems to be more focused on knowledge and information.  The power of knowledge enables an army to count on victory.   Sun Tzu states that when you know both yourself and others you are “never’ in danger (quotation mine), when you know yourself but not others you have a chance of winning, and when you know neither yourself  nor others  you are in danger  in every battle.   Acquiring information through various intelligence techniques was stressed in The Art of War to define the strengths and weaknesses of one's force.


Sun Tzu, throughout the book, emphasized heavily that when you know yourself and others, victory is certain.  The key to achieving victory is to know what is happening around you and acting accordingly.  Being flexible and decisive and less rigid regarding planned ideas would make you victorious.  Sun Tzu refers to water, changing its shape to the shape it seizes.

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