If you have heard of Sun Tzu and “The Art of War,” then you’ve probably seen this:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

That usually gets boiled down to the phrase: “Know thy enemy.” The philosophy has been taken several ways, ranging from simply understanding the practical strategies and tactics of an enemy, to understanding their core values and mindsets, and translating them to the battlefield.

However, Sun Tzu’s book is full of nuggets that are not often quoted but hold just as much wisdom.

For this reason attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the pinnacle of excellence. Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.

A lot of “The Art of War” follows this line of logic. It is incredibly objective and simply prioritizes resources. Most battles are decided before the battle is fought, given tactical position, equipment, training and other similar considerations. If you can win the battle without even fighting, why wouldn’t you? If you can defeat the enemy before the fighting begins then you win not only those battles, but all the practical resources that would have been expended on the war effort, not to mention the lives that would be saved.

Of course, we all know that war is more complex than that. Kings have gone to war simply to bolster their economy; the Japanese didn’t defend Iwo Jima because it was smart regarding resources or even because they thought they could win, their goal was to make American forces think twice before invading mainland Japan. However, “The Art of War” doesn’t account for all possibilities and all reasons behind waging war in one way or another — it is a philosophy that can greatly influence every aspect of warfare, from the General on the horse to the private in the mud.

In general, whoever occupies the battleground first and awaits the enemy will be at east; whoever occupies the battle ground afterward and must race to the conflict will be fatigued. Thus one who excels at warfare compels men and is not compelled by other men.”

“The early bird gets the worm,” may come to mind here. And while this philosophy can be taken literally, being first on the battlefield, it can also be applied elsewhere. At its core, this is about discipline and preparation — preparing for a fight long before the fight even begins.

Someone unfamiliar with the mountains and forests, gorges and defiles, the shape of marshes and wetlands cannot advance the army.”

Before we get too philosophical, Sun Tzu reminds us: this is still a physical fight. If you don’t know the physical realm — if you’re not present in body and mind, you can’t win. I’ve seen this many times. New guys come in with this ideas of “tactics” and “training” that are damn near romantic or fantastical. Clearing a malfunction on a SAW is purely physical; there is no sound philosophy or metaphysical poetry there.

When the general regards his troops as young children, they will advance into the deepest valleys with him. When he regards the troops as his beloved children, they will be willing to die with him.”

This speaks to the nature of good leadership. I have never served under a great leader who, at his very core, did not care deeply for his subordinates. And in caring for them, especially in war, they treat them like the adults that they are. Like an old father leading his son, who is also adult, but one that respects the judgement and experience of his elder.

When the men have been unified the courageous will not be able to advance alone, the fearful will not be able to retreat alone.”

Last, but not least (the whole book is worth reading several times), I believe this quote to be more relevant now than ever. Interpret it how you will.


Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, altered by the author.