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Thinking like Sun Tzu – Part 1



This is the first in a 2-part series that aims to help people better understand and use a number of Sun Tzu’s aphorisms. They will help the reader improve their ability to think, plan, make decisions, act, assess outcomes, and adapt. The author advocates how learning from Sun Tzu’s aphorisms can be used to gain an advantage over one’s opponents. With an understanding of these important concepts comes the potential to attack an opponent’s strategy[[1]] and plans[[2]] at a very early stage, perhaps even at or before their inception.

Part one introduces the concept of ‘mental combat’ and explores how adopting Sun Tzu’s aphorisms can help us to think faster and better than an opponent.  This also means thinking differently, removing for example, the notion of an end state and replacing it with a state of continuity. Part 2,] will examine how six maxims can be used to bring some of Sun Tzu’s key Aphorisms to life.

The case for studying Sun Tzu

Actions to impose one’s will on a resisting force often result in ferocious physical fights, but such fights start and finish with the mind. Thus, a phenomenon one can call ‘mental combat’ surges in importance for anyone thinking about or actuating conflict. In fact, the great sage, Sun Tzu, tells of the importance in using one’s mind to win conflicts—attack the enemy’s strategy … attack plans at their inception.[[3]] He goes on to tell us, determine the enemy’s plans and you will know which strategy will be successful[[4]]  Sun Tzu was, of course, a wise man, and his thoughts are timeless. Thus, his aphorisms prove worthy of our time and thought to understand them and turn them into practice.

You too can learn to think like Sun Tzu; such thought will provide many an advantage over a broad range of foes. And, thinking like Sun Tzu helps people make good decisions in complicated contexts. Using Sun Tzu’s thoughts and guidance inspires one’s mind to attain the intellectual wherewithal to bridge 2500 years and put his ideas into practice. The devolution into Sun Tzu’s thinking behind these aphorisms focuses on helping decision-makers, strategists, planners, and intelligence people grasp and use his thoughts to improve their actions, assessments, and adaptations. The idea is to think faster and better than an opponent. Sun Tzu’s aphorisms help one to accomplish both. Who doesn’t want to find ways to strengthen their thinking for making better decisions and creating outcomes to win in conflict in a quickly changing, complicated world?

Sun Tzu’s Aphorisms – very 5th century BC

Looks good and sounds good, but what do the aphorisms mean? How do I transcend 2500 years, learn what the aphorisms mean, and put the meaning into practice pertinent for today’s and tomorrow’s conflicts? As a first notation, this effort, in a broad sense, has a twin focus. It calls for knowing details while acknowledging and respecting the presence of wholes. After all, Sun Tzu thought by way of both details and wholes.[[5]] It follows that when one thinks about conflict, they never consider it to be a singular event. Consider Agincourt, Borodino, Sedan, Somme, Verdun, Stalingrad, Tet, Iraq, and Afghanistan to name but a few conflicts that had far reaching effects beyond the immediacy of the battle(s). All transcend the moment, and all brought forth influence and transformation that transcend many years. Thus, if we think about Sun Tzu’s aphorisms in a broad sense, any conflict appears as intervals, series of actions, and aftermaths and acknowledging that conditions of total closure rarely happens. A mental skill set comes forth and proves essential when putting these considerations into practice. It is holism.[[6]] Employing the thinking skill—holism—in conflict, can bind current actions, their outcomes, with aftermaths. From reading Sun Tzu’s aphorisms, it appears that his holistic outlook brings with it assortments of elements that appear and function in these wholes. Evidence of Sun Tzu’s holistic view of conflict shines as a beacon in fog:

And so knowing victory is fivefold:

Knowing when one can and cannot do battle is victory.

Knowing the use of the many and the few is victory.

Superior and inferior desiring the same is victory.

Being prepared and awaiting the unprepared is victory.

The general being capable and the ruler not interfering is victory.[[7]]

One must take it whole when contending for all-under heaven …

Thus, the military is not blunted and advantage can be whole …

This is the method of the strategy of attack.[[8]]

In sum, when in battle, Use the orthodox to engage.

Use the extraordinary to attain victory.

And so, one skilled at giving rise to the extraordinary

One skilled at giving rise to the extraordinary—

As boundless as heaven and earth,

As inexhaustible as the Yellow River and the ocean.[[9]]

For example, consider as elements to wholes of conflict—adversaries, context, the 14 elements of will, aim, goals, objectives, resources, constraints, strategies, tactics, domains, centres of gravity, decisive points, pressure points, co-evolution, adaptation, context, to name a few. Also, Sun Tzu would ask one to divest themselves of any rigidity in the notion of end states. In its place or as addendum, consider a slightly different phrase—state of continuity—that reaches far into the future. One can see connections among outcomes that comprise aftermaths and their implications for future actions and outcomes. This kind of thinking enables the intervals, series of actions, and aftermaths to bond into aggregations, wholes unfolding into larger wholes, and larger wholes enfolding smaller wholes. This kind of thinking helps Sun Tzu’s aphorisms gain relevance and become commonplace for today because one’s mind recognizes how intervals, actions, and aftermaths should bond into a whole that influences far more than the immediate situation at hand.

Whilst it is hard to disagree with the need to target an enemy’s strategy and plans, this game of wits has numerous pitfalls. Thus, one should respect the opponent, be skeptical of ‘truth,’ and approach enactment of actions with a twinge of mental disquiet. Why? Because the world is complicated and the unexpected inevitably awaits. Of course, conflict has always been tricky, as one has never known for sure what another human being will do, particularly under conditions of extremis. But with Sun Tzu’s aphorisms, and good thinking, one can get closer to the enemy’s actions at their inception via anticipation.[[10]]

Even with a visibility of wholes and their parts, sensitive variables can appear, aggregations, for example can start their relentless march from small to huge, chance and randomness happen, and unintended consequences always appear and wreak havoc on one’s activities. Accordingly, contestants in clashes of will must learn ‘how to think’ about Sun Tzu’s aphorisms and attack their enemy’s strategy and plans with care and circumspection. Nothing will be perfect in this game one enters. Accordingly, a wise leader always crafts generic alternative plans, crafted for flexibility so as to possess a range of contingencies, if the unexpected happens.

Bringing the Aphorisms to life

First things first, let’s start our intellectual trek with a lexicon. That is, inception has a simple meaning—the starting point. Starting point means, in our effort, something used as a first step in an activity.[[11]] Given that one is thinking about employing actions to impose their will on a resisting entity and fending against his actions, one estimates the friendly situation, the context, and elements of will relative to the foe’s. The imperative is to attack the opponent’s mind before he considers his strategy, plans, and actions, and this includes discerning the relationships between ones’ own will, and the foe’s will, including, of course, his strategic aim, goals, objectives, strategy, tactics, context, ways and means to win, and so on.

Appropriately, one designs ways to anticipate the adversary’s pick of a strategy and plans, before he thinks of them. This intent requires prescience. To do so, one anticipates the enemy’s strategic aim, goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics. From his view, one uses foreknowledge to identify what he is after and how he will act to be successful. Like Sun Tzu says, one needs people with knowledge of the situational variables, adversary, and the operational context to find foreknowledge. [[12]]

Naturally, this requires a deep understanding of the adversary’s culture and its rules on how he thinks, and transforms thought into action. While recognizing the challenge, one aims to develop actions of sufficient quality and relativity for defeating the enemy’s mind at the start of its transition from will’s depths—desire, resolve, and life force—and how this enemy plans to trigger desired outcomes via actions. This kind of thinking has its challenges. Thus, one overcomes these challenges via excising or reducing one’s biases and logic errors with tools, functions, decision-processes, and with help from an expert Red Team. And, to enter his mind and see the world as he sees it, one must estimate how the enemy thinks about relative options and how he thinks about how his enemy thinks.

Conflict demands that contestants actuate their visions of desired outcomes. Consequently, visions compete. Thus, one can postulate the presence and influence of battles of visions. These competing visions appear in each adversary’s mind and guide their thoughts. These thoughts shape and craft the inception of plans and strategies. Such thoughts cause one to start shaping and crafting the opponent’s thoughts.

Eventually, one arrives at their adversary’s inception point. Accordingly, one’s mind enters the opponent’s mind before it completely awakens to the seductive pull of the roiling power coming from the enemy’s desire, resolve, and life force. This demand presupposes that one knows much about the opponent, culture, cultural rules, his desires, resolve, life-force, and mental models as they guide the process of inception. Foreknowledge of this enemy’s thought processes includes his feedback mechanisms; he believes them to be essential for success. His vision is a whole that encompasses the probabilities and variations in clashes of will, his expected outcomes, engagements, battles, campaigns, what could go wrong, adversary activities, intrusions of unwanted data and so on. Understanding the elements of the conflict prove confounding because of their complexity and dual nature. That is, one must think as their opponent thinks while this opponent is busy trying to think as his adversary thinks.

In a related way, one can gain a modicum of understanding by considering one of the aphorism’s words— “attack the enemy’s strategy … attack plans …” Note, the word ‘plans,’ is plural, so several plans will be at play. Thus, one must consider and select the right plan, relative to desired aim, goals, and objectives. And, this same participant must consider and decide what to do about unexpected situations or changes before they come to the enemy’s mind. This kind of thinking requires one to develop an assemblage of inceptions and inception points that can lead to the enemy’s choices regarding ‘plans.’

One thinks as the adversary thinks given the scenarios, contexts, and problem sets[[13]] at play. And, one must grasp the enemy’s vision, wholes, and like candling an egg,[[14]] the opponent’s foresight, elements of will, and essentials of his capabilities and strength of motive therein. One often feels this mental journey is like riding a wild pendulum[[15]] between extreme estimates of both opponents, but of particular focus, the swing of the pendulum to discover the enemy’s thoughts and inception points from his view. One also discovers on the wild pendulum the friendly side. One injects the enemy potentialities into the friendly view. The comparison that is forthcoming allows one to gain perspective of the difference and similarity between competing visions. In the course of this discovery, one sees differences and similarities between the views and thinking of leaders on the two sides. Naturally, one exploits the differences and leaves the similarities at rest. A historical example will help us understand the theme of this paper.

Imposing your will on the enemy – the Franco-Prussian War of 1870

It is 1870, and the French and German armies are engaged in the Franco-Prussian War. The Germans besiege French Marshal Bazaine at the fortress of Metz. Marshal MacMahon, the overall French commander, wants to fight the Germans near Paris and thus take advantage of the 150,000-man garrison and secure a viable retreat should a battle before Paris go badly. Instead, MacMahon bows to public and political pressure to take his army to relieve the siege at Metz and thus save Marshal Bazaine. The German commander, Helmuth von Moltke, for a moment cannot believe the French would leave the capital, follow the Franco-Belgian border to the east to relieve Metz, and thus expose themselves to a climactic battle. Nevertheless, he quickly envisions how to impose his will against France’s and sends two of his Armies, already moving westward toward Paris and south of the main line of the French movement, to wheel north, trapping the French at Sedan, and sealing their fate. What follows is as von Moltke wrote about this situation:

In war it is for the most part with probabilities only that the strategist can reckon; and the probability, as a rule, is that the enemy will do the right thing. Such a course could not be anticipated as that the French army would uncover Paris and march along the Belgian frontier to Metz. Such a move seemed strange, and indeed somewhat venturesome; but nevertheless, it was possible…[[16]]

According to Leopold, ‘only Moltke’s penetrating eyes could settle the uncertain future into a concrete plan.’ … Moltke gave orders for first Prince Albert and then Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm to begin wheeling their westbound armies around to the north … Most vexing to Moltke was … the ‘improbability’ of the French move … Mahon and Napoleon III would leave Paris unprotected and march by the Belgian frontier to Metz.  Also troubling was the absence of French cavalry. An eastbound army ought to have secured its exposed right flank with masses of cavalry, but, true to form, the French cavalry hung back, leaving Moltke’s patrols to course unchecked … A Saxon colonel in Prussian … headquarters later asserted that it required Moltke’s ‘veritable clairvoyance’ to make sense of the mystifying French movements and risk the wheel northward to Sedan…[[17]]

In war there are two types of truth – yours and your opponent’s

Acknowledging truth’s chameleon-like appearances allows a person to seek and judge facts from two perspectives—theirs’s and their opponent’s. In particular, one seeks the enemy’s view of validity, which leads to confirmations, recommendations, and conclusions. Obviously, any adversary in a conflict has thoughts considered to be true. And facts verify the truth, or do they? Imagine the incredulity of von Moltke, as he viewed MacMahon’s move to relieve Metz. It was too good to be true, as MacMahon obviously didn’t understand the enemy advantages, ensuing possibilities, and the ultimate German victory that his move toward Metz presented. Oddly, Marshall MacMahon didn’t protect his right flank as he moved toward Sedan even as the German’s were moving toward Paris.

Thus, the Germans had a far more accurate picture of the context and the French movements than the French. Von Moltke overcame his doubts and the inherent risk of what he was planning, and as stated above, truth often changes; therefore, facts fluctuate and affect a person’s view of truth. Truth was, MacMahon was evading a fight until he relieved the besieged Marshal at Sedan. Von Moltke decided for him as he attacked MacMahon’s strategy and plans before their inception and shaped the appearance of inception as it came into being in MacMahon’s mind. Sometimes, as in the case of MacMahon in the Franco-Prussian War, the political establishment dictates facts and truths via social and political guidance regardless of the narrative.

Confirmation bias – believing your own narrative

In other situations, acceptance of truth might occur because it fits a narrative, reinforces predetermined thinking, or confirms validity of assumptions. Thus, truth blooms and the aura spreads throughout involved minds. In mental combat though, these people are prime to fall into the pit of entrapment via confirmatory, hindsight, or group biases, to name a few. Such traps provide the means for attacking the enemy’s strategy and plans at their inception, sometimes because of this enemy’s staid, rigid, and arrogant thinking. The evidence and truth one side wants to find and use because it reinforces his thinking and narrative presents opportunity for inserting ‘treated’ data into the adversary’s intelligence collection and recursion cycles to further reinforce the perceived truth.

As required in critical thinking, one urges their mind to perform better. Surprisingly, it often produces more ideas—creative thinking—about how to proceed in this struggle of wits. One will uncover three ways to think about this challenge from so long ago. First, in a fight, the opponent needs to denote the need to achieve a certain level of quality in his actions. They must occur at the right time, in the right place, and with the right force to create his desired effects. These actions have a predicate; they always link to one or more causes to foment the enemy’s desired action and effect. Thus, an important trio appears, cause—link—effect. More on this phenomenon later. Second, one reasons how the foe could attack and win from his perspective. Third, one ponders—how one would beat one’s own plan. Synthesizing these three thoughts ought to lead to thinking as the opponent thinks. Again, the idea is to discover his thinking as it comes into being. Is this breathing life into ancient Sun Tzu’s aphorisms? Is this ‘a way’ to attack the enemy’s strategy and plans at inception. Only practice and success can suggest whether or not one masters these interpretations and subsequent opportunities for exploitation. But this is only a beginning. Other ways to enact Sun Tzu’s aphorisms exist, and they appear as six interlocked maxims and these will be discussed in Part 2



[1] Wayne Michael Hall, The Power of Will in International Conflict (Santa Monica: Praeger Security International, 2018) 393. Strategy—ideas for employing one’s capabilities in a synchronized and integrated way to achieve an aim, goal, objective, policy with available resources but always accounting for adversary, operational context, and constraints.

[2] Ibid, 392. Plan—scheme or method to accomplish an aim, goal, objective developed via thinking about and wargaming acts and purposes and anticipating an adversary’s actions and attempts to forestall the plan’s actions beforehand.

[3] Sun Tzu, Sun Tzu and the Art of War, trans. Brigadier General Samuel B. Griffith, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 77.

[4] Ibid, 100.

[5] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans., Denma Translation Group (Boston & London, Shambhala, 2002), 65.

[6] Hall, The Power of Will In International Conflict, 389-400. Holism means the theory that the parts of any whole cannot exist nor be understood except in relations to an extant whole or wholes coming into existence via aggregate and aggregation theory. The concept espouses the notion that wholes are greater than the sum of its parts.

[7] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 12.

[8] Ibid, 10.

[9] Ibid, 16.

[10] Wayne Michael Hall and Gary Citrenbaum, Intelligence Analysis How To Think In Complex Environments (Santa Monica: Praeger Security International, 2009), 167. Anticipatory Analysis—Using thought, intuition, foreknowledge, knowledge, experience, and prescience to realize in advance what the adversary … might do …

[11] Merriam Free Dictionary, Free Dictionary and Thesaurus, https://www.macmillandictionary.com/us.

[12] Sun Tzu, Sun Tzu and the Art of War, 144-145.

[13] Hall, The Power of Will In International Conflict, 392. Problem set—difficult problem that either has occurred or is anticipated to occur that has numerous subproblems that relate to the macro-problem at hand.

[14] People candle an egg to determine the condition of the cell, yolk, and white. Candling detects bloody whites, blood spots, or meat spots, germ development. Candling occurs in a darkened room with the egg held before a light. The light penetrates the egg and makes it possible to observe the inside of the heretofore opaque egg. Cermanafarms.com

[15] Hall, The Power of Will In International Conflict, xvi.

[16] Helmuth von Moltke, The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (London: Greenhill Books, 1992), 58.

[17] Geoffrey Wawro, The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France 1870 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 201-206.

Wayne Hall
Deep Think | Website

Brigadier General Wayne M. “Mike” Hall retired from the U.S. Army after 30 years of active military service primarily in the field of intelligence. He served with US Forces Korea, was Commander, 501st Military Intelligence Brigade; Commander, 313th Military Intelligence Battalion, 82d Airborne Division from 1989-1991 and served in that role during Operations Just Cause, Desert Shield, and Desert Storm.

Brigadier General Hall currently spends time with Joint, Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps intelligence analysts, collection people, and operational planners teaching his advanced analysis seminar – a two-week learning experience in advanced intelligence analysis and operational planning. Over 1250 intelligence analysts and operational planners have successfully completed the seminar requirements. He is developing a program of learning for advanced collection to complement his advanced analysis program.

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