The Art of War by Sun Tzu is one of the great Chinese classical texts, compiled more than 2,000 years ago. Enjoy this excerpt titled “Strategic Assessments” — which includes both the original text and astute commentary from Chinese military thinkers — from our Shambhala Collection.
Master Sun: Military action is important to the nation. It is the grand of death and life, the path of survival and destruction. So it is imperative to examine it.
Commentary: Military action is inauspicious. It is only considered important because it is a matter of life and death. And there is the possibility that it may be taken up lightly.
Master Sun: Therefore measure in terms of five things. Use these assessments to make comparisons and thus find out what the conditions are. The five things are – the way, the weather, the terrain, the leadership, and discipline.
Commentary: Five things are to be assessed – the way, the weather, the lay of the land, the leadership, and discipline. These are to be assessed at headquarters. First assess yourself and your opponent in terms of these five things deciding who is superior. Then you can determine who is likely to prevail. Having determined this, only then should you mobilize your forces.
Master Sun: The way means inducing the people to have the same aim as the leadership so that they will share death and share life without fear of danger.
Commentary: If the people are treated with benevolence, faithfulness, and justice, then they will be of one mind and will be glad to serve. The I-ching says, joyful in difficulty, the people forget about their deaths.
Master Sun: The weather means the seasons.
Commentary: In ancient times many soldiers lost their fingers to frostbite on campaigns against the Hun’s and many soldiers died of plague on campaigns against the southern tribes. This was because of carrying out operations in winter and summer. This is the meaning of the saying; don’t go into another territory at an unfavorable time.
Master Sun: The terrain is to be assessed in terms of distance, difficulty, or ease of travel, dimension, and safety.
Commentary: In any military operation, it is important first to know the lay of the land. When you know the distance to be traveled, then you can plan whether to proceed directly or by a securitas route. When you know the difficulty or ease of travel, then you can determine the advantages of infantry or mounted troops. When you know the dimensions of the area, then you can assess how many troops you need, many or few. When you know the relative safety of the terrain, then you can discern whether to do battle or disperse.
Master Sun: Leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and sternness.
Commentary: The way of the ancient kings was to consider humaneness foremost, while the martial art is considered intelligence foremost. This is because intelligence involves the ability to plan and to know when to change effectively. Trustworthiness means to make people sure of punishment or reward. Humaneness means love and compassion for people, begin aware of their toils. Courage means to seize opportunities to make certain of victories without vacillation. Sternness means to establish discipline in the ranks by strict punishments. Reliance on intelligence alone results in rebelliousness. Exercise of humaneness alone results in weakness. Fixation on trust results in folly. Dependence on the strength of courage results in violence. Excessive sternness of command results in cruelty. When one has all five virtues together, each appropriate to its function, then one can be a military leader.
Master Sun: Discipline means organization, chain of command, and logistics.
Commentary: organization means that troops must be grouped in a regulated manner. Chain of command means that there must be offices to keep the troops together and lead them. Logistics mean overseeing supplies. Everyone has heard of these five things, but only those who deeply understand the principals of adaptation and impasse will win.