In Sun’s treatise on war, the general has total authority and responsibility for the army’s strategy and the outcome of battle. Because the general is fully autonomous, he bears the whole weight of victory or defeat. A wise and skilled general earns his authority by his moral rectitude—that is, by focusing on his responsibilities, not personal glory. By invoking what he terms “the Way,” Sun shows that true and honorable leadership arises from such moral integrity and selfless service. Sun’s perspective represents the prevailing philosophies of the time, which accepted the total authority of a single figure, albeit with the proviso that leader was virtuous.
According to Sun, in war, ultimate authority rests with the general, who is accountable to no one and has no obligation to explain his plans or schemes. The general should answer only to himself: “Have a capable general, / Unhampered by his sovereign.” While the general serves the ruler, it is the former—and experienced warrior—who knows the battlefield and its complexities best, and as such he should be given full control of the situation. Sun adds, “There are ruler's orders/ Not to obey,” meaning it is perfectly acceptable for a wise general to disregard orders sent from a distant court, which most likely has outdated information anyway.
Not only can the general ignore advice from a sovereign, he also has no obligation to share his strategies with his men: “He pursues / His own secret designs, / Overawing his enemies.” Sun primarily refers to deceiving the enemy here, yet that can only be ensured by keeping his plans wholly secret, in case a spy informs the enemy of his intentions.
In fact, there is no for the general need to explain anything at all to the men, who ought to serve their leader unquestioningly: “Deal with a whole army / As if it were a single man. / Apply them to their task / Without words of explanation.” It is for the general to know; it is for the men to carry out orders. In this way, Sun reflects a traditional Chinese acceptance of hierarchy, with those at the top in total authority.
Yet, those in authority are not permitted to be tyrants. Balancing the general’s complete control is his ultimate responsibility for all matters concerning the army and the wider nation. Even the men’s loyalty is the general’s own responsibility: “Consistent and effective orders / Inspire obedience; / Inconsistent and ineffective orders / Provoke disobedience.” His own ability to marshal and inspire the men determines the general’s authority in the first place, revealing the interdependent nature of authority and responsibility.
Meanwhile, life and death rests in the general’s hands, as his decisions decide the fate of the men and the nation itself: “The wise general / Is a Lord of Destiny; / He holds the nation's / Peace or peril / In his hands.” The success or failure of a general’s strategies determine the outcome of war, that is, “survival or extinction.”
This is not only true on the battlefield. The nation’s entire strength—which could influence another nation’s decision to engage it in war in the first place—rests on the general’s military aptitude and moral standing: “The general is the prop / Of the nation. / When the prop is solid, / The nation is strong. / When the prop is flawed, / The nation is weak.” Because of the great power vested in the general, he is the foundation for the nation’s entire strength. The general must accept this ultimate responsibility when accepting authority, but also the sovereign must choose a general wisely.
When the general is single-mindedly focused on serving the state and its people, and the men unswervingly serve their leader, this creates a unity he refers to as “the Way”—that is, the perfected way of doing something, in this case leading men and a nation. Sun refers to this ideal leader/lead relationship as “the Way,” which “Causes men / To be of one mind / With their rulers, / To live or die with them, / And never to waver.” This is built on trust—that the leader is effective and has the men’s and the nation’s best interests at heart. By invoking the higher concept of the Way—i.e. the perfect, heaven-decreed approach—Sun echoes the acceptance of various levels of authority present in all areas of social and government life in his era.
In serving the men and the nation, the general’s focus is to preserve peace, another concept Sun represents as of higher, divine importance: “So the enlightened ruler / Is prudent; / The effective general / Is cautious. / This is the Way / To keep a nation / At peace / And an army / Intact.” The righteous leader acts with these goals at the forefront of his mind, not for glory or for selfish gain. Only by taking a cautious, considered approach can he maintain the Way and achieve victory.
According to Sun, ultimate authority and ultimate responsibility are inseparable. Not only does securing total autonomy come at the price of bearing total liability, the general is also wholly at fault if he is unable to bring his men into line. In detailing these interdependent notions, Sun shows not only that unquestioned authority was accepted in his society, but also it was seen as the most effective structure. With authority and responsibility held in one pair of hands, decisions are taken quickly, and blame is easily laid on the correct culprit. That he refers to this approach in philosophical terms, i.e. the Way, demonstrates the strength of this conviction.
The Responsibility of Authority ThemeTracker
The Responsibility of Authority Quotes in The Art of War
Victory should be
If victory is slow,
Strain the public treasury.
He regards his troops
As his children,
And they will go with him
Into the deepest ravine.
He regards them
As his loved ones,
And they will stand by him
It is the business of the general
To be still
To be upright
He must be able
To keep his own troops
To deceive their eyes
And their ears.