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Understanding Sun Tzu through the Mongols

by Chris Horvilleur

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, written in 400 BC, has shaped strategic thinking for nearly two and a half millennia, foremost amongst military minds but also recently amongst western business leaders. The breadth of the book’s impact makes it worthwhile for military leaders at all echelons to understand its basic structure and principles and consider its efficacy via historical case study. 

The Art of War consists of thirteen chapters which may be grouped into four sections. Chapter One identifies the critical calculations prior to war. These calculations include identifying the morale of the people, climate, geography, leadership and logistics. The next chapter lays out the costs and dangers of mobilizing a state to go to a protracted war. Then chapters 3-12 describe commanders’ skills in the way they lead, maneuver and organize their Army, as well as assessing the terrain and their enemy. The final section, chapter 13, concludes by explaining the importance of spies and intelligence. 

This piece explores three principles (each one a chapter) from The Art of War: picking battles, knowing thy enemy, and using diplomacy as a weapon. In order to bring these principles to life, I will provide historical examples of Sun Tzu’s maxims using case studies from the Mongol military victories of the 12th through 13th centuries. The Mongols, at their height, built the most extensive single-connected Empire in world history—via military conquest according to Sun Tzu’s principles. Leaders today, in our era of great power competition can glean much from these principles.

Pick Your Battles

Sun Tzu wrote, “He whom the ancients called an expert in battle gained victory where victory was easily gained. His victories in battle are ‘un-erring.’ ‘Un-erring’ means that he acts where victory is certain.”

The Mongols had to be selective in their battles due to often being outnumbered while operating in foreign territory. The Mongols therefore became masters of engagement area development. They would steer an enemy into terrain advantageous to their mounted horse tactics or into superior positions. Mongol Generals Subedi and Jebe led some of the world’s most significant cavalry raids scouting territories west of the Middle East and into Russia. Historian John Man writes that Subedi’s genius was that “he fought only when certain of victory.” When Subedi and Jebe encountered a Rus Army (modern day Russia) outnumbering them 10 to 1, they devised a plan to secure victory. The Mongols would lure them away from their cities and into open fields. The Mongol’s superior maneuverability would allow them to destroy the Rus in open fields. The Mongols intentionally left behind stragglers and what appeared to be defeated soldiers. The Rus Army followed the Mongols for nine days exhausting their supplies and horses. Once extended far enough, the Mongols lit smoke pans obscuring the battlefield. The Mongols attacked like a swarm of bees from all angles in a field big enough for the Mounted Archers to destroy the Rus. The Rus went into a panic. Then the Mongols laid chase of the panicked armies, destroying them.

History Podcaster Dan Carlin discusses a what-if situation: who would win between Napoleon Bonaparte or Mongol leader Genghis Khan? He argues that Genghis Khan could win, even with inferior technology, due to his genius in following Sun Tzu—only attacking where and when victory was certain. 

Know Thy Enemy

Sun Tzu dedicated an entire chapter to the benefit of spies and intelligence during a campaign. Sun Tzu wrote, “Advance knowledge must be gained from men for its real knowledge of the enemy’s true situation.” 

The Mongols understood above all other Armies of their time that intelligence should drive operations. They therefore maintained one of the best intelligence networks in their day and used it to their great advantage. The Mongols fully displayed their intelligence capabilities in their war with the Khwarazm Shah.The Khwarazm Shah built a formidable empire centered in modern Iran stretching eastward into Central Asia. He believed he could defeat Genghis Khan. As Genghis Khan’s Army began to enter the Khwarazm Empire, the Shah placed his Army in walled cities to fight the Mongols behind defensive positions. Previous Steppe Nomads from Mongolia suffered large losses fighting against fortified positions, so the Shah assumed—incorrectly—that the Mongols would also fail. 

Unfortunately for the Shah, the Mongols were not like previous steppe nomads. Genghis Khan knew from intelligence reporting they would be forced to penetrate fortified positions. The Mongols therefore came prepared with siege technology from China,  integrated into their formations. The mighty Khwarazm empire fell at the hand of Ghengis Khan within two years. The Mongols then systematically executed every city inhabitant that would dare fight against them.

The Art of War writes about the different spies, including “native agents,” meaning, “those of the enemy’s country people we employ.” Author Jack Weatherford writes how the Mongols would weaponize the high literacy rates in the Muslim world. The Mongols would use native agents to distribute propaganda to the rest of the Khwarazm Empire about the terror that awaited them. Khwarazm cities would surrender after hearing about the terror that followed cities that tried to defend themselves against the Mongols. The Mongols placed significant importance on intelligence, which served them well.

Use Diplomacy as a Weapon

Sun Tzu wrote, “Thus the highest realization of warfare is to attack the enemy’s plan; next is to attack their alliances; next attack their Army; and the lowest is attack their fortified cities.” 

The Mongols knew the value of attacking alliances, effectively employing diplomacy as a weapon. The Mongols’ best chance to win their war against the Jin Dynasty in Northern China was to divide and conquer. The Jin outnumbered the Mongols from 100 to 1; they had far more resources and fortifications. With centuries of experience fighting Steppe Nomads, the Jin expected to militarily trounce the Mongols. 

But the Mongols exploited the ethnic divides that existed within the Jin in Northern China. The Jin comprised several ethnic groups, including the Jurchen, which ruled the territory, and ethnic Chinese and Khitans, another nomadic group within it. The Mongols knew the Chinese Jin despised their Jurchen overloads and would therefore convince local governors and generals to defect in the fight against the Mongols. Furthermore, the Mongols would convince another Nomadic group within the Jin territory, the Khitans, to join the Mongols against the Jin.

The Mongols employed similar practices against the Song Dynasty in Southern China. The Song Dynasty was entirely Chinese and the most technologically advanced civilization on the planet. They were also mortal enemies of the Jin. The Jin explained to the Song that the Mongols threatened both and should join to defeat them. Genghis Khan, however,  convinced the Song to attack the Jin. 

In the end, both the Song and Jin dynasties were broken by the Mongols. The Great Jin Dynasty fractured internally and with enemies all over, fell to the Mongols. Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan later conquered the Song Dynasty. In both cases, if Genghis Khan had stuck to a strictly military approach in invading the Jin, the success of his campaign would have been very unlikely. The Mongols, by breaking up alliances through devious diplomacy, managed to accomplish what was previously seen as impossible.


The common theme of the three highlighted principles (and the Mongol case studies) is that the battle or war can be won before it is fought. It is important for leaders at all echelons to understand these principles in today’s era of great power competition and an emerging Chinese threat. Military leaders operating at tactical, operational, and strategic levels can identify where they want to fight to ensure victory before the fighting begins. Effective intelligence can drive planning and preparation such that no enemy plan can stop it. And finally, understanding civilian considerations and human terrain, at diplomatic and tactical levels, can transfigure an ‘unstoppable’ enemy into a vanquished foe. In his book Sun Tzu At Gettysburg Historian Belvin Alexander argues, “Commanders who unwittingly used Sun Tzu’s axioms in important campaigns over the past two centuries were successful, while commanders who did not apply them suffered defeat, sometimes disastrous, war-losing calamities.”  

And The Art of War holds more wisdom than just these three principles. Junior Officers are able to assess a tactical situation in the same way Sun Tzu would by analyzing the elements of spiritual strength, climate, terrain, command and logistics and make the best decisions. Military leaders at every level benefit greatly from studying both Sun Tzu and the Mongols.

 Major Chris Horvilleur graduated from Norwich University and was commissioned as an Army Officer serving eight years on active duty. He is currently serving as a reservist.

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