Sun-Tzu is commonly believed to have lived either during China’s Spring and Autumn (722-481 BC) or Warring States (403-221 AD) period, in which numerous smaller states battled for ultimate control of the empire. Yet Master Sun does not describe war as a way of life, but rather the last resort when it comes to defeating one’s enemies and protecting the home nation and its people. A general’s ultimate aim should be to secure victory and to ensure the army’s safe return. This is achieved by conquering one’s rivals, but not necessarily on the battlefield. It is the undoing of the opponent’s plans and the cessation of hostilities that wins the war, not a massacre. With his focus on victory and general distaste for the horrors of warfare itself, Master Sun’s treatise reveals the longing for peace that characterized the turbulent times in which he lived.
In perhaps one of the best-known arguments in The Art of War, Master Sun asserts that the greatest, most efficient kind of victory is when there is no battle at all. But even where battle is unavoidable, there is no need for slaughter. Fittingly, for Sun winning a war is all about strategy, not brute force. As such, “Ultimate excellence lies / Not in winning / Every battle / But in defeating the enemy / Without ever fighting.” By outmaneuvering one’s rivals, they can be defeated without the matter coming to blows—for example by undermining the opponent’s alliances, leaving their forces depleted and forcing their withdrawal from the battlefield. Thus, violence is not key to warfare. Instead, wisdom wins out.
Where combat is necessary, Sun advocates only taking proportionate measures: “In War, / Better take / A state / Intact / Than destroy it.” Razing enemy kingdoms to the ground is not victory in and of itself. In fact, keeping the state as a vassal and taking taxes or tributes could create more wealth for the homeland—a greater victory longer term.
Where battle is required, Sun further advises making (reasonable) haste and avoiding delay in order to reduce the harm and cost of war. In his view, conflict is a messy and inconvenient matter that is best concluded as soon as possible. He states, “No nation has ever benefited / From a protracted war.” The financial and human costs of war are monumental, and so campaigns are better won quickly to keep the collateral damage to a minimum. This could be seen as a humanitarian approach, but his primary focus here is on how to secure a holistic victory.
Master Sun goes on to add, “In War, / Prize victory, / Not a protracted campaign.” In other words, generals should keep their eyes on the prize, as there is no benefit to dragging out the conflict. Warfare itself is not the goal—victory is. Battle, in turn, is just one route to victory, which is the ultimate objective, and the general that does not focus on that goal cannot win.
Bloodthirsty or foolish warriors that rush headlong into battle are thus destined for defeat: “The victorious army / Is victorious first / And seeks battle later; / The defeated army / Does battle first / And seeks victory later.” When violence is sought for its own sake, victory is not a priority and therefore becomes harder to achieve. This advice also indicates that strategy and wisdom succeed on the battlefield, not mindless bravado. Throwing oneself into battle does not ensure the win, no matter how courageously the army fights.
Sun argues the general should be so focused on victory alone that no other concerns should influence the army’s movements: “Never move / Except for gain; / Never deploy / Except for victory; / Never fight / Except in a crisis.” Decisions must be focused on defeating the enemy and ensuring success, or at least survival. Indeed, fighting at all is only an option in the direst of circumstances, showing it is not glorious or desirable in its own right
While victory is the ultimate goal, the central point is to protect peace. It is peace, not war, that motivates the wise general, Sun argues. Victory is a means to bring peace, while defeat brings destruction: “The wise general / Is a Lord of Destiny; / He holds the nation's / Peace or peril / In his hands.” Thus, the aim of success in warfare is not domination, or the outcome of a bloodthirsty campaign for enjoying in its own right—the central purpose is to protect the home country’s peace.
Indeed, Sun stresses that the ruler and the general should be devoted to prolonging and ensuring peace as their primary endeavor: “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.” Unnecessary deaths and murderous intent have no place in Sun’s art of war.
While Sun’s treatise does not shy away from the brutal realities of conflict, he has no time for mindless savagery. War is not an end in itself: it is a complicated affair with terrible consequences for all those involved, both directly and indirectly. Wise leaders seek only victory, which should be won as quickly as possible. As such, war is simply a means to an end, and that end is invariably peace. Living in a time where rulers were in constant battle for supremacy, the writer’s longing for peace informs his considered, measured approach to warfare.
War as a Means to Protect Peace ThemeTracker
War as a Means to Protect Peace Quotes in The Art of War
Victory should be
If victory is slow,
Strain the public treasury.
To the question
"How should we confront
Numerous and well arrayed,
Poised to attack?"
My reply is
And he will do your will."