The Art of War Book Summary & Analysis Chapter-wise by Sun Tzu


The 5th Century text is one of the earliest treatises on military conduct and battle strategy. Written by Sun Tzu or ‘Fugitive Warrior’ the text has been exploited by numerous army generals and emperors to establish and consolidate their reign of power and domination like Mao Zedong etc.

The origins of the text and the veracity of its author are often debated but it has stood the test of time for its detailed and insightful deconstruction of wars and its tactics and ploys.

The text was translated completely in English in 1910 and has become one of the most quoted texts in the world. The text is divided into 13 chapters with each delineating on a unique perspective and detail of war and its strategy.

Plot Summary

The introductory chapter refers to Planning. It lists important elements and topics to be investigated —the route taken, management, leadership, and terrain encountered. An able general is able to consider all of them and calculate the odds of failure and triumph.

The next chapter discusses the costs involved in a war. It encourages the leader to win quickly and emphatically and thus limiting the economy of military endeavour.

In the next chapter, Tzu extols the need for uniformity and unity in an attack. He claims that it’s not the sheer numbers that count but the ability to stay united and together in face of an enemy through alliances, coalitions and strong leadership.

The next chapter deals with the ability to limit mistakes and opportunities of advantage for the enemy. This can be achieved by consolidating one’s position before embarking on advances and forward marches. Similarly, the use of creative and novel stratagems to build momentum is encouraged in the chapter titles, ‘Forces’.

Continuing the same theme, one must also be aware about the continuously changing and evolving situations regarding one’s own army as well as that of the rival army. An appraisal of relative strengths and weaknesses helps to be adaptive and nimble on the battlegrounds.

Direct conflicts should be avoided but in a case of an inevitable collision it should be precise and swift in execution. Adaptability of the leadership can help mount such direct confrontations.

The next chapter deals with ‘Movement and Deployment of soldiers” by pre-empting the enemy maneuvers.

A thorough analysis of barriers, blockades and dangers is discussed in chapter called, ‘Terrain’. It also enumerated 6 positions of such dangers and how to counter these positions.

The author then breaks down war into nine different phases (battlegrounds) and how to tackle each of them. The use of arsenal and weapons is discussed next with different forms and formations of attack and how to neutralize each of them.

The ability to extract and gather intelligence on the enemy is discussed in the next chapter with Tzu enlisting 5 different kinds of information and the process of decoding them.

Key Thoughts

The entire treatise is based on the ability to know when to fight and when not to fight and knowing one’s own strength and weaknesses relative to the enemy. In the end all wars are forms of deception.

To appear strong when one is weak and appear weak when one is strong. To appear dormant and far when one is actually active and close. This gives the ultimate advantage to strike at the heart of the enemy’s powers and cause chaos in their ranks.