A Game of Chess

Upon reviewing Sun Tzu’s Art of War, the transcript can best be described as simple, calm, and thoughtful. Throughout the reading, I felt as though Tzu was characterizing war as a game of chess, which can only be mastered by a player that is methodical, strategic, and well versed in the game. Thus, Sun Tzu’s philosophy in describing war as an art is that war is a skill to be mastered, and the most knowledgeable opponent will succeed.

Similar to lessons at the Naval Academy, Tzu employs the general as the deciding factor in the outcome of war. This is a repeating theme throughout the transcript, as demonstrated by the following excerpt: “The general is the prop of the nation. When the prop is solid, the nation is strong. When the prop is flawed, the nation is weak.” This coincides with the philosophy of the Naval Academy, and I would go so far as to say this is the purpose of this institution. The Academy trains leaders through adversity so that they are equipped with the tools and experience to make the best possible decisions.

Tzu goes on to describe the necessary skillsets of a leader and a warrior. Classifying the leader as a strategist, he says, “A skillful strategist defeats the enemy without doing battle, captures the city without laying siege, overthrows the enemy state without protracted war.” This simplifies to knowing the enemy and conducting proper research and preparations. At the Academy, we often say that war is won off the battlefield. My rugby team, for example, has a plaque in the locker room that can be summarized as: hard work and practice win games; the team that works the hardest off the field will be the victor. Similarly, a leader will not take his troops into battle without being familiar with the enemy, the surroundings, and all components of battle.

Classifying a leader as skillful, Tzu states, “The skillful warrior avoids the keen spirit, attacks the dull, and the homesick; this is mastery of spirit.

  • He confronts chaos with discipline; he treats tumult with calm. This is mastery of mind.
  • He meets distance with closeness; he meets exhaustion with ease; he meets hunger with plenty; this is mastery of strength.”

These “masteries” are best described as taking care of your people. At the Academy, we witness this on day one. During plebe summer, for example, our squad leaders ensure we are rested, physically healthy, mentally sound, and performing at our best. This trend extends to nearly every aspect of Academy life, as we have personnel in place to emphasize each of these points. A leader must be attentive and caring. Consequently, if the troops are well taken care of, they will take care of their superior and perform at their best.

It is difficult to evaluate the examples in Tzu’s writing that coincide with war, as this is not something Midshipmen have yet witnessed. With that said, there is no “versus” component to this analysis. Art of War and the lessons at the Naval Academy closely align. The truth is, there is no mastery of war, but there are principles that every leader should adopt, and the United States Naval Academy teaches many of the same lessons that Tzu speaks of.

John Curley

-Word Count: 547

Sources: Sun-tzu, The Art of War. Trans. John Minford. London: Penguin, 2009.

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