Who was the Art of War Written for?
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The Art of War for Today
Who was the Art of War Written for do we really need to put a straitjacket on what Sun Tzu wrote? If should we then not do the same with other famous individual authors such as Themistocles, Pericles, Shakespeare, Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal, Plato, Andrew Jackson, Leviticus, Lao Tzu and so many others? Should we only learn about them and what they had to say as it applied in their times and not ours?
In our world we are highly informed on how the Art of War has been applied to all manner of things today, even to how to survive the zombie apocalypse of all things. I believe is that he was only a seer or prophet in regards to predicting the outcome of battles. Sun Tzu had no interest in what was going to happen thousands of years into the future, he had enough to deal with in his life time. He was dedicated to his beloved country, where it was and where he believed it should be.
We have all read mutilated utterances attributed to Sun Tzu as well as other quotes that have nothing to do with his work. So be it, the ignorant are happy and contented until that ignorance bites them on their ass. Ignorance is one thing but to inflict a stern limitation on the application of the book is something else entirely. Note there is a difference between ignorance and chosen ignorance. One is a factor of youth, the other a terrible decision.
Sun Tzu mentions war four times and warfare eleven. If he can make a differentiation between the two, why should we be denied such a judgement? He mentions the word ‘art’ twenty times in thirteen chapters. I have asked myself countless times why the ‘art’ is so significant. Some believe that he ‘focuses closely on rapid offensive warfare, and as such leaves out many other aspects of war such as how to defend a city under attack’. Others says ‘he probably should have talked about the realistic need to consider timing even more importantly than tactics and strategy’. Others in other forums have spoken about lack of commentary on chariots, specific weaponry and other points. All excellent points however I believe it misses the nature of the book. It is not a war manual. It was never meant to be. There were many other highly respected war books at the time that dealt with the specifics of war and warfare in greater detail. So why should he have written another? We all agree that Sun Tzu was intelligent was well as smart. He, if he was the author but let’s not get into that rabbit hole, would probably have wanted to write something different to stand out.
Over time, my belief evolved that the Art of War is not a war manual as such, was never intended to be. It is a book on the philosophy of why and how to conduct war and warfare. Let me put in another way: a study of the theoretical basis of a particular branch of knowledge or experience, in this instance, conflict. In other words, a book detailing a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour in the face of conflict. How to avoid it and how to deal with conflict that can’t be avoided.
This book was not written for the foot soldier, the politician, a sales man or some aggro bloke at a pub on Saturday night. It is my proposition that it was not even written with other generals in mind. It is my belief it was written for anyone in power who is contemplating war and warfare. Sun Tzu was a realist, as peaceful as you want to be there will be times when war and conflict will be brought to your door no matter what you do to avoid it. When this is the case you should deal with the conflict as quickly as possible so as to minimise the cost. However I also believe he believed that there are times when war is a profitable option over peace means. The example of the beheaded concubines supports this belief. The modern example is when parents tell their kids the best way to deal with a bully is to smack him down so bad that the bully and his mates will leave their kid alone.
War warfare and conflict involve people and people are complex. Sun Tzu tells us that ‘Now the general is the bulwark of the State; if the bulwark is complete at all points; the State will be strong; if the bulwark is defective, the State will be weak’. One of the major talking points, if not the major talking point in the thirteen chapters is ‘people’. In over two millennia people have not changed. Nor have the wars, only the weaponry and the lethality of such.
Dealing with people is an art form, always has been and always will be. There is no scientific formulae to apply that will guarantee people will behave in a certain way. This is the basis that of my belief that the Art of War is applicable today as it was then. War and conflict involve people. Soldiers and generals are people. Small but important fact. Can we ever prove that no one in the times of Sun Tzu ever read the Art of War and used it to build a commercial empire? Of course not. How does one prove a negative? One can no more today prove the existence of God or the nonexistence of life forms on other planets in the galaxy. Just because you can’t disprove or prove such things doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. So one is open to believe whatever one wants and if it makes their lives better, where is the harm?
If we take the laws of friction and aerodynamics, we can use them to design jet aircraft, ballistic missiles or a better golf ball. The laws of friction and aerodynamics have not changed before or since we ‘discovered’ them. Only our understanding and application has deepened and expanded to the benefit of billions of people. So it is with the Art of War. He wrote of ‘laws’ as he understood them in his time. We can apply them as we understand them in our times. Not to do so is unwise verging on being criminal.
In short the Art of War was written for those who chose to benefit from the knowledge contained within. You don’t have to be a general or soldier. You can be a student, a mother, a businessman, a musician, anyone dealing with conflict.
You don’t have to be a genius or attend elite educational institutions. You simply have to be able to read, have the imagination to learn how to use the knowledge to your benefit and the desire to improve your life. It may not have been what Sun Tzu had in mind when he wrote his masterpiece but does that really matter now? He could not have imagined how the world has changed, is changing and will continue to change. The only things that don’t change are the universal laws like those of gravity, friction and his proven methods of dealing with conflict.
So the choice is clear. You can either benefit from the knowledge in his book, as others have or you can chose to remain ignorant. So what do you chose?