Written by a Chinese general sometime between 300 and 500 B.C., the Art of War consists of thirteen chapters describing how a military chieftain should conduct warfare. Written as a manual for other Chinese generals, it was intended to help them achieve victory in battle. As one of the oldest written guides to war, it naturally has attracted a lot of attention since it was first published in the West in the 18th Century. Its subject matter and reputation also attracted the attention of this reviewer.
Most of the book consists of tactical and strategic common sense, items which are often overlooked in warfare. The most important general point in the book is preparation. Throughout the treatise, the author stresses the value of preparation prior to battle. From the laying of plans, through the necessity of intelligence, to the use of terrain during combat itself, Sun Tzu emphasizes that victory almost always goes to the side which is best prepared. Preparedness not only means drawing up a plan of battle based upon knowledge of the enemy's dispositions, but also preparing one's own forces for combat. Preparedness also means knowing when and when not to engage in battle.
The first chapter is very short and deals
. . .
portant, the true test of a great general lies in his ability to gauge his enemy and control his own force (53). The eleventh chapter describes the nine situations found in combat: dispersive ground, facile ground, contentious ground, open ground, ground of intersecting highways, serious ground, difficult ground, hemmed-in ground, and desperate ground. His conclusions concerning some of these situations do not seem logical under modern conditions, while others should be second nature to most modern commanders. Dispersive ground is where an army fights on its own territory; such a situation is not favored because soldiers will likely seize the opportunity of being near to their homes to desert. Facile ground is where an army has made a shallow...