I read this for the first time a good long while ago, but circumstances allowed me to listen to the audiobook version in the last few days.
Everyone should read Tzu’s work. It is an impressive text, for its very short length. The audiobook recording is just two hours and much of that is given over to modern analysis. It’s also public domain work by now, available in full, for free, online through Project Guttenburg and others.
The positives of the great text are well-known and don’t really bear that much repeating. It’s one of the definitive texts on warfare and strategy, a guide that even the most uninformed layman can grasp. Written over four thousand years ago, it’s lessons (most of them anyway) remain relevant even in todays wars. It’s clear, concise, yet covers a broad variety of topics.
But, in my opinion, the text has problems. It really is the idiot’s guide to war: most of the lessons contained within are very much of the “Well, I sorta knew that already” variety. Sun Tzu can be forgiven for this, after all, he might have been the first person to write this sort of stuff down in a legible form.
But, it means that it’s not such a gigantically useful book as it used to be. An example I often quote is (and I paraphrase):
“If you are strong, attack. If you are not strong, do not attack.”
Along with such stunning maxims as advising you to attack if you outnumber your enemy ten to one and fleeing if the situation is the opposite. Sun Tzu is the opposite end of the scale to Clausewitz, the other big recognized military strategist of history. Clausewitz is often too complicated and difficult to follow and interpret. Sun Tzu is too simple, to the point of uselessness.
Only parts of the text though. I suppose the trick is finding ways to apply Sun Tzu’s teachings to modern wars. The section on dealing with troop discipline and morale is certainly one that all soldiers in a position of command should read. And his most famous and enduring lesson, that to know the enemy as you know yourself is the best path to victory, is one that Rumsfield and company learned far too late in Iraq.
The Art Of War should stay on army bookshelves. It’s value to the field of military history and the history of strategy in immense. But, it’s really an introduction text if anything.
Start with Sun Tzu. Work your way to Clausewitz. Try not to go mad in the process.