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Sun Tzu wrote a book on warfare 2,500 years ago. The advice in the book has stood the test of time and still applies to modern warfare. Photo: Shutterstock

ReviewSun Tzu’s The Art of War and how it applies to battles modern and ancient

  • Written some 2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, with its ‘five decisive factors’ and ‘nine variables’, is as relevant to military strategy now as then
  • From the Roman defeat of Carthage to Napoleon in Prussia to the first Gulf war, this is shown in a new English translation produced the traditional Chinese way

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War Illustrated: Chinese Bound, translated by James Trapp, Amber Books, 4/5 stars

The first thing to understand when reading an English translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is that you are dealing with what former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “known unknowns”. Scholars are not certain when the book was written (estimates range between 770BC and 221BC), whether it was written by one or several authors, and what motivated the author(s) to write the book.

Another thing to recognise is that the book is about war and warfare – not business, sports, relationships, leadership or the many other subjects to which it has been applied in our own time.

Sun Tzu wrote about kinetic war in a very sophisticated and commonsense manner. The Art of War, like Machiavelli’s The Prince, is a book of advice based presumably on experience – in Sun Tzu’s case, the experience of commanding troops in battle.

The Art of War is about warfare in ancient China, but is still widely quoted today. Photo: Shutterstock

The third thing to understand is that the book is a product of its time – it is about warfare in ancient China, possibly written during the “Warring States” period between 403BC and 221BC. In the book’s introduction, however, translator James Trapp notes that many other scholars believe Sun Tzu wrote it sometime during the Spring and Autumn Annals period between 770BC and 476BC.

The Art of War Illustrated consists of 13 chapters in both Chinese and English, each of which is followed by a scholarly case study attempting to show how various battles or military campaigns throughout history reveal the wisdom of Sun Tzu’s advice.

This new edition was produced using traditional Chinese bookbinding techniques dating back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), in which single sheets of paper printed on one side are folded in half and the book block is sandwiched between two boards, then sewn together. It includes maps, photographs and illustrations related to the case studies in each chapter. It is both visually pleasing and informative.

Sun Tzu identified war’s “five decisive factors”: moral compass (which joins the people to their ruler); heaven (climate and physical environment); earth (topography and terrain); the commander (the qualities of a military leader); and regulation (supplies and logistics).


He advised: “You must study them when laying your plans and thoroughly understand their relevance.”

The cover of the new book.

A successful general, Sun Tzu explained, “plans for many eventualities” before the battle begins, and seizes opportunities by adapting to changing circumstances – unlike, as one contributor points out, the Allied armies who, during the Mediterranean campaign in the second world war, failed to exploit their victory in Sicily, which allowed Axis troops to escape to the Italian mainland.

Strategy, Sun Tzu wrote, can bring victory at lower cost. “The highest form of warfare is to outthink the enemy,” he explained. This can be achieved by breaking the enemy’s alliances, knowing when to fight and when not to fight, carefully preparing for battle while catching the enemy unprepared, and using superior numbers to attack a smaller force.

“If you know yourself and know your enemy,” he wrote, “you will gain victory”, as Alexander the Great did in defeating the Persians at Granicus in 334BC, where he repeatedly outthought the enemy by leading a “highly coordinated martial collective whose equal the world had not yet seen”.

The Art of War Illustrated uses battles throughout history as case studies.

A great and victorious warrior, Sun Tzu wrote, “places himself in an invincible position, and then ensures he does not miss the crucial opportunity to defeat the enemy”. Skilful preparation, attention to logistics, and correctly calculating advantages “means you are fighting an enemy who is already beaten”.


The United States and its allies in the first Gulf War in 1990-91 placed themselves in an “invincible position” by deploying air, naval, and ground forces in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, then launched a swift and decisive campaign that defeated an “already beaten” Iraqi enemy.

Refreshing new insights into Chinese military classic – book review

Sun Tzu advised attacking inferior forces with superior numbers, using subtlety and deception to bring the enemy to battle when the enemy is least prepared. He recommended varying tactics and strategies, while attacking the enemy’s weaknesses and avoiding the enemy’s strengths. “There are no constants in warfare”, he explained, “any more than water maintains a constant shape”.


At the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993, Somali forces avoided US forces’ strengths and attacked their weaknesses, resulting in a US withdrawal.

Much of Sun Tzu’s advice on warfare still holds true today.

Skilful generals, Sun Tzu wrote, achieve mastery of morale, emotion, deception and circumstance, like the Mongols did in defeating the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohi in 1241.


They must understand the advantages and disadvantages – the so-called “nine variables” – of battle, like the Han dynasty’s forces did in pre-emptively attacking the Xiongnu homelands at Mobei in 119 BCE, and as Napoleon did in defeating the Prussians at Jena-Auerstedt in 1806.

To be worthwhile, battlefield victories must be consolidated, Sun Tzu wrote, and a “good general builds on his victories”. The American army failed to do this in Vietnam after the Battle of Ia Drang in 1965.

A successful general, Sun Tzu explained, will use spies to “gain accurate knowledge of the enemy’s situation” and to spread disinformation to confuse the enemy, as Japan’s Tokugawa forces did to defeat insurgents at Shimabara in 1638.

Captured Iraqi soldiers are marched through the desert in Kuwait on February 24, 1991. A victorious warrior does not miss the opportunity to defeat the enemy, wrote Sun Tzu, yet US and allied forces withdrew from Iraq without fully defeating Saddam Hussein’s army. Photo: Sadayuki Mikami

Sun Tzu warned against prolonging a war. “A protracted campaign,” he wrote, “depletes the state’s resources” and drains the will of the people.


The Roman victory over Carthage at the Battle of Zama in 202BC demonstrated the wisdom of Roman general Scipio Africanus, who followed Sun Tzu’s advice by finally ending the protracted Second Punic War through the use of sea power to boldly invade and decisively defeat Hannibal’s army in northern Africa.

While Western military officers have been studying Sun Tzu since the early 20th century (the first English translation was completed and published in 1910), the Chinese have been studying his writing for 2,500 years.

For that reason alone, Western (and other Asian) military leaders and strategists should continue reading and reflecting on Sun Tzu’s enduring classic.

Asian Review of Books

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: How historic battles reveal wisdom of an ancient text cancien analysing battles through theories of ancient warfare