Finding Modern Day Relevance in ‘The Art of War’


By Anirudh Ramakrishna Phadke

A critical analysis and review of some of the thoughts from Sun Tzu’s finest work ‘The Art of War’.

The world embarked on a journey filled with wars and saw the changing dynamics of war from being a mere land & naval warfare and now producing weapons of mass destruction and cyber (virtual) warfare. This piece is my thoughts on how your work is practically implemented in today’s world.

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Firstly, I would like to recall that his timely classic has survived through many centuries and has been considered as one of the greatest military science literature of all time by famous French revolutionary and world war figures such as Napoleon, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, General MacArthur, and Joseph Stalin. Your ideologies now represent contemporary behaviours and geopolitical happenings of the Chinese government and its military wing- People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

I totally agree with the values your work presented. One such famous quote from your book ‘know your enemy and know yourself and fight hundred battles without danger’ and the other ‘know yourself but not your enemy and win battle but lose another’ still stands fresh as written in your times. We need to be always careful of enemies and prepare ourselves for different kind of responses enemy have, thus, not just likely to focus on central part of planning. I would like to touch up on six key points from your work.

First aspect which you touched upon was how one must understand significance of terrain. It is vital that one must know key features of terrain such as urban areas, deserts, valleys, rivers, hills, and mountains as these features dictate how to gain a strategic advantage over any battle. In 2020 India and China engaged into fierce hand to hand combat near Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. Although India had a victory followed by huge losses of its soldiers, both the nations struggle to solve the problem because their administrations fail to understand the concept of terrain and separation of boundaries. Right from the beginning no roundtable discussions were able to identity who owns which part of the key areas of terrain along the Indo-China border stretching all over Himalayas.

Secondly, your quote ‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle’ rightly can be phrased as information is key to success. In today’s scenario every information is digitalised and stored in form of data and nations devise strong cyber defence capabilities to guard themselves from data thieves called hackers. Thus, countries move up the ladder to success by processing relevant geopolitical happenings by form of gathering information.


Next quote which I would like to place here is “There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.” This aptly suits for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Long insurgency of nineteen years by US did not reap edible fruit and finally resulting in handing over the US’ backed administration to Taliban. Currently the territory under Taliban called as ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ created much further rising tensions of local communities.

Fourth, you mention the use of spies and assassins in your strategy guide. In today’s scenario the core concept remains the same while execution of this item has much evolved than it was during your times. Today many countries established a special cell units called intelligence departments, whose sole work is to collect and analyse the movement of enemies. Furthermore, the military have a specialised branch of well-trained men usually labelled as special forces.

For example, India has special units under each of its military divisions called Para SF (for army), Garud Command Force (for air force), and MARCOS (for navy). These units deal with the functions like spies and assassins belonging in your era. Raised in July 1966…..

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All the views and opinions expressed are those of the author. This article was originally published by the author in his book titled ‘Research Papers on Defence & Strategic Studies Vol. 1’. For image credit click here.

About the Author

Anirudh Phadke is the Founder/Editor of The Viyug. He is currently working in an international organisation based in Singapore. He holds a Master of Science (Strategic Studies) and a certificate in Terrorism Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

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