There have been many books written over the centuries that have become known as classics. That is, the importance of the work transcends time and retains a valuable relevancy no matter how many times the conventions of literature change. Many of these classics, however, lack relevancy beyond their origination point. In the case of WALDEN, for example, outside of the realm of those who are fans of classic American Literature, there is relatively little interest in reading this work.
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With Sun Tzu’s classic work, THE ART OF WAR, there exists a classic that has transcended time and remains relevant in the world today and, in addition, continues to find new audiences in the military and professional world. The reason for this is simple: when it comes to a book dealing with the concept of developing a successful strategy for winning, there has never been a work on the level of Sun Tzu’s text. It literally has no equal or comparison.
Sun Tzu lived 500 years BC in China and his most famous work, THE ART OF WAR, dealt primarily with military strategy as it related to the time era that he lived. While the book was originally presented for the benefit of the domestic Chinese army, its lessons transcend any nationality and time period. While THE ART OF WAR is considered by many to be an academic text, Sun Tzu was far from being exclusively an academic figure.
Sun Tzu was a general in the Chinese army and, later in life, he would on to become a mercenary who fought in nuerous wars. From the battles that he faced, Sun Tzu developed a certain philosophy regarding how to strategically plan military campaigns.
Apparently not wanting the valuable information he learned in life to die with him when he passed away, Sun Tzu chronicled his thoughts in THE ART OF WAR. So revered was the thought process that Sun Tzu developed, the book became mandatory study for military figures in China and, eventually, for military leaders all over the world, proving that Sun Tzu’s ideology was perpetually accepted as the best of its kind.
Tzu’s work chronicles all manner of facets of waging war including such conventions as espionage, evaluating weaknesses and strong points, energy, maneuvering, tactics and other facets. If anything, THE ART OF WAR is fairly comprehensive in terms of the amount of material that it covers. Because of this, there is very little that the book lacks and this comprehensiveness is a major factor in the book lasting in print for as long as it has.
What personally intrigues this essay’s author is both the durability of the work and the malleability. That is to say, the themes present in the work transcend a singular military perspective. Because of this, Sun Tzu’s work becomes more than just a strategy manual, but also a valuable philosophical look on how people think and how important it is for people to be introspective in terms of their abilities, careers and even personal decisions and life.
As previously mentioned, what was probably the greatest testament to Sun Tzu’s immense credentials is the fact that his body of work is still studied many centuries after he has long since departed the earth. Despite the fact that the technology and strategies of war have advanced monumentally since Sun Tzu lived, his work is still relevant and studied to this very day. What this essentially says is that there has truly been no room for improvement on Tzu’s work as it is perfect in its concept and design. This is why it is still revered to this day.
Part of the reason for this is the fact that Tzu’s concepts were very basic in their design. That is, Tzu was not trying to delude people into thinking there was anything magical and mystical to the reasons behind a successful military campaign. This can be viewed in the most famously quoted statement found in the pages of THE ART OF WAR: “Know thy enemy.”
While the words, “Know thy enemy” might not seem tremendously profound on the surface, the reality of the matter is that many wars have been lost due to a lack of understanding of the opposing force. As such, some of the greatest military minds and commanders made horrible mistakes that could have and should have been avoided. Probably the greatest example of not knowing the enemy in history was the United States’ conflict in the country of Vietnam. When the US forces invaded the country, the feeling was that the Vietnamese populace would support the troops as the United States was saving the country from the ravages of communism. While the communist overlords of the country were notorious for their maltreatment of the populace, the US forces did not understand that Vietnam had fought imperial invasions by foreign powers (China, France and Japan) for centuries. As such, the public did not see a foreign power as a liberator, but rather saw the Americans as expanding imperial aggression. Because of this, the war was lost even before it was fought and the bulk of the remaining years of the war were spent stalling for time while looking for an honorable way to withdraw as opposed to finding a way to win.
Compare this to the US led liberation of France from Nazi occupying forces during World War Two. France had been conquered and occupied by German forces and had been fighting to liberate their country unsuccessfully. When the American forces landed, the liberation was successful because the American forces understood that their presence in France was both wanted and desired. When it came to the German hordes, the US “knew its enemy” and realized that the French people opposed what the Nazis stood for so, the US led invasion proved successful.
This concept of knowing the enemy is probably the simplest lesson that THE ART OF WAR teaches to its readers. Three simple words convey are great deal of logic that basically provides the most important information any military could learn. Furthermore, the lesson of “know thy enemy” does not even have to refer to a military lesson. This is why those in the business world looking for insight regarding how to develop a successful business strategy; in this instance often study THE ART OF WAR, “know thy enemy” can be replaced with “know thy competition.”
For a company to be successful, it needs to understand the marketplace in which it is operating. In order to arrive at a complete understanding of the marketplace, a business must understand who else is operating in the same marketplace and how their product differs as well as what deficiencies may be present in the company. By understanding how the competition works, one can maximize the success of one’s own individual company. This does not mean that a company must crush its competitors; it simply means that it must maximize its potential and a great deal of the ability to maximize potential comes from understanding what established competitors are doing and how they are performing in the marketplace that is shared.
The following words from Sun Tzu provide great insight into the out of the box style thinking process that the man was well known:
“In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.”
The reason that such a statement is so profound is that it goes against the logic that most people would assume would equate to success on the battlefield or the business environment. Most people believe that they need to be ruthless in order to succeed or to wage a “scorched earth” campaign so that people will bend to their will in order to comply as the necessary compliance is based in fear. While this may seem like the logical choice for success, in actuality it is not.
The moral lesson that is learned in this statement is that being a tyrant will never yield success. If the people you oppose or even associate with feel that you are inherently evil because you leave them with no hope or dignity, then those whom you oppose will always see you as an enemy. Because of this, there will never be a lessoning of tension or a healing process occurring. So, the war will never end and it will exist perpetually and nothing positive can come out of such a situation.
Another example of an incredibly profound ideology expressed by Sun Tzu is found in the following:
“When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men's weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength.”
That is to say, perpetual commitment to something that is not working will not eventually yield a successful result. To do so is to invite disaster as it is ludicrous to expect a different result when taking the same actions over and over again. So, in order to develop a reversal of fortune in a negative campaign, there needs to be a clear examination of strategies in order to see what works and what does not work so as to change directions and get back on a track of success as opposed to a quagmire.
For example, if one designs a marketing strategy for a business and sales do not increase, then there needs to be a revision of the sales policy in order to see sales pick up. Also, there needs to be a clear understanding of when to give up because victory is not an option. For example, no matter how many years the Edsel would have stayed on the market, it was a car that was never going to sell.
Sun Tzu’s THE ART OF WAR is a classic of military and business strategy that gets better as time goes on. It retains its relevancy even in a world where information changes by the minute. If anything, the continued faith and support the world provided Sun Tzu’s work is a testament to its greatness.
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