Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is arguably one of two great books written on the topic, the other being Major General Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. Others might include “The Book of Five Rings” by the samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi.
“The Art of War” is primarily considered a classic treatise on military strategy – as is Musashi’s work, while Clausewitz’s treatise is primarily considered a work on the philosophy of war. There is still some debate as to the identity of Sun Tzu an when he wrote his masterpiece. Most scholars argue it dates to the evocatively-named Spring and Autumn period (722–481BC). Some believe it was written during the later Warring States period (476–221BC).
Over the centuries, and especially over the last, a number of translations have appeared. This reviewer prefers and recommends that of US Marine Corps Brigadier General Samuel B Griffith, completed “in part satisfaction of requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy” at Oxford University in October 1960. It thus has an academic rigour missing from many other translations, combined with the common sense of a serving soldier – Griffith commanded the 1st Marine Raiders Battalion on Guadalcanal, was executive officer of the 1st Raider Regiment in operations on New Georgia and commanded the 3rd Marine Regiment in China. The English is uncommonly clear as well, giving us a book that is easy to read and understand.
The wikipedia, which has excellent entries on Griffith, Sun Tzu and “The Art of War”, well worth reading in their own right, notes the book is composed of 13 chapters, each of which is devoted to one aspect of warfare. “It is said to be the definitive work on military strategies and tactics of its time, and still one of the basic texts.”
Griffith, in his preface, notes that Sun Tzu considered war “a matter of vital importance to the state”, demanding study and analysis. The ‘Art of War’ therefore is “the first known attempt to formulate a rational basis for the planning and conduct of military operations. … His purpose was to develop a systematic treatise to guide rulers and generals in the intelligent prosecution of successful war.
“The Art of War has had a profound influence throughout Chinese history and on Japanese military thought; it is the source of Mao Tse-tung’s strategic theories and of the tactical doctrine of the Chinese armies. Through the Mongol-Tartars, Sun Tzu’s ideas were transmitted to Russia and became a substantial part of her oriental heritage. The ‘Art of War’ is thus required reading for those who hope to gain a further understanding of the grand strategy of these two countries today.” Indeed. A well-thumbed, heavily annoted and highlighted copy of this book should have a place of pride in every military professional’s library.
Sun Tzu (translated by Samuel B. Griffith)
The Art of War
Oxford University Press