Military operations generally require a thousand combat chariots, thousand transport wagons, and arms and armor for thousand men. All these expenses cost 1000 gold pieces a day, which s 60% of the state’s revenue. War became big business in Ancient China.

So far, it’s all been about dramatic changes in China between the 8th and 4th century BC. What we have are transformations in the scale, scope, and expense of war. Huge armies all owning standardized weapons, that at the same time require large logistical support systems. But the problem was even though they had all these radical changes, the old notions about command and traditional emphasis on personal valor and blood vendetta, still prevailed. Anachronistic notions about the purpose of war tied to the new means of warfare was a very dangerous combination.

Think back to the story of Wu, Sun Tzu provided the king of Wu with the methods to radically increase his military prowess, and the leadership to use that power efficiently and effectively. In the hands of Sun Tzu, the military was the guarantor of Wu’s power and prosperity. But in the hands of lesser men, men bent on revenge and personal glory, the military was wasted and thus lead to the destruction of Wu.

This is why the first line of the Art of War reads “The military is the greatest affair of the state the province of life and death, the path to survival, or ruin”. So by the 4th-century BC, all the remaining Chinese states face a paradox. A new and lethal military capability but, dangerously anachronistic notions about what the military was for and how to use it.

The Art of War takes this head on, by offering you a new way of military command and thinking strategically. A way of thinking that is appropriate to military and political realities of its time. Moreover, the author of the Art of War was trying to sell this new model to the ruler of one of the states who is contending for ultimate hegemony.

Think about this: the Art of War is an argument for military command based on merit, not birth. It’s very critical of the anachronistic notions about what war is about, in other words, it argues that the military should be used to bring tangible benefits to the state, not in the pursuit of glory or vengeance.

Who are the people who are going to think about old fashions of war? It’s simple. It’s the hereditary rulers of the warring states themselves. The Art of War tells us “100 victories and 100 battles are not the supreme, but to reject battle and force submission of the enemy’s troops, that is the supreme excellence”. Simply put, it’s better to win without fighting.

That change which the Art of War is pushing is based on two interrelated arguments. The first is that the sole purpose of the existence and use of the military is to increase the wealth and power of the state. Simply put, it is about profit and I quote “if it does not profit the state, do not use the military”. The second argument is that the general must have complete autonomy, as again I quote “the ruler who has able generals and does not interfere in their affairs will be victorious”.

These 2 core arguments are amplified when we understand the backstory of Qi, the backstory about the transformation of warfare, and the backstory of the rise and fall of Wu. Knowing that whole story adds depth and complexity and context, to our reading of the Art of War.


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