The Art of War, Chinese strategist-philosopher Sun Tzu’s treatise on military strategy, is studied not so much for the advice it gives but for the state of mind it encourages. Developed in only six thousand Chinese characters and 25 pages of text, this way of thinking has held vast sway in such fields as military planning, strategic management, and negotiating. “Every battle is won or lost before it is fought.”
Something exceptional about the Art of War is the extent to which it’s devoted to methodically avoiding battle altogether. War isn’t something to be entered rashly or for petty reasons. “A sovereign should not start a war out of anger, nor should a general give battle out of rage. While anger can revert to happiness and rage to delight, a nation that has been destroyed cannot be restored, nor can the dead be brought back to life.”
Nor is war’s dominant purpose to cause physical destruction to an enemy. Instead, the pinnacle of military skill is to conquer one’s opponent strategically—by penetrating his alliances, rattling his plans, and coercing him diplomatically—without ever resorting to armed combat. “Why destroy,” Sun Tzu poses, “when you can win by stealth and cunning? To subdue the enemy’s forces without fighting is the summit of skill.”
Sun Tzu’s insistence that an enlightened strategist can attain victory without fighting echoes the foundational Taoist doctrine of “non-action (Wu-Wei.”) Armed conflict, therefore, is the last resort. War in itself represents a significant defeat. As a matter of course, Sun Tzu allocates a good chunk of the Art of War to the line of combat and attack. A savvy general must, however, take every accessible measure to gain victory swiftly, with minimal casualties and suffering for both sides. “The best approach is to attack the other side’s strategy; next best is to attack his alliances; next best is to attack his soldiers; the worst is to attack cities.”
Again and again, through implication, Sun-Tzu’s war document posits peace and restraint—the avoidance of battle—as the utmost victory. To fight at all, Sun-Tzu insists, is already a substantial loss, much worse than losing in war.
Idea for Impact: The Art of War is a worthy course on conflict management because avoiding confrontation requires more remarkable skill than winning on the battlefield.
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