The Art of War may be one of the most adaptable books of the past two millennia. There’s an Art of War for small businesses. There’s an Art of War fordating. There’s even an Art of War for librarians.
According to Jessica Hagy, author of the newest version, The Art of War Visualized, the book has spawned so many interpretations because it can be read as not really being about war at all. “It’s about creative problem-solving,” Hagy told me. Hagy, who doodles the quasi-mathematical logic of human foibles on the popular blog Indexed, found three copies of Sun Tzu’s classic among college textbooks and Tom Clancy novels while cleaning out her basement last year, and she saw in its short verses the kind of logic she likes to draw, as in this recent example from Indexed:
“It was so much less hypermasculine and bloodthirsty and vicious than you think it is, and it’s very thoughtful,” Hagy said of The Art of War. “About the first read through I really saw that war was just a metaphor for hassles and problems and issues that people face in every scale of life from really petty, stupid things to really big, world-changing, ‘Should we invade this country?’ sorts of questions,” Hagy said.
Indeed, one under-appreciated feature of The Art of War is how much of it is devoted to avoiding actual fighting. “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting,” Sun Tzu wrote. Also: “[T]he skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.” He also explained why this is: “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.”
Or in Hagy’s updated interpretation: “Quit the awful job, or leave the dysfunctional relationship, or don’t sit in traffic, go around it. That avoidance idea is applicable in so many ways.” Pick your battles, as the cliche has it—which, at least the way I interpret it, is better phrased as “decline nearly all of the battles.”
Here are a few examples of what that looks like in Hagy’s charts and graphs, accompanied by Sun Tzu’s verses.
“Sun Tzu said:
The art of war is of vital importance to the state.
It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.
Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”
“When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be dampened.
If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength.
Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.”
“In war, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.
Thus it may be known that the leader of armies is the arbiter of the people’s fate, the man on whom it depends whether the nation shall be in peace or in peril.”
“Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.
The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided.”
“There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.
It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war who can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.”
“The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming rats, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken.
Such are the disastrous effects of a siege.”
“Thus the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy.
Hence the saying: One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.”
author: Kathy Gilsinan an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers global affairs. She was previously senior editor at World Politics Review.