5 Self-Defense Lessons Learned from General Sun Tzu & His Book “The Art of War”


Sun Tzu was a masterful Chinese general, and several consider him to be one of the greatest military minds and strategists that ever lived. He ranks with Clausewitz, Napoleon, Patton, Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Joshua, and Machiavelli as brilliant strategists and tacticians for fighting and/or avoiding war. In his nearly 40 years as a general, Sun Tzu never lost a battle, a campaign, or a war, according to Chinese historian Sima Qian of the Han Dynasty. 

One of the Best Military Strategy Books

Sun Tzu wrote an important book titled “The Art of War” which was completed sometime between 500 and 430 BC. It is a timeless classic about military and strategic warfare and its related psychology. It remains today as one of the most famous military texts about 2,500 years after he published it. Many consider it to be one of the best, if not the best, book on the subject. The book is brief, concise, and easy to understand, having only 9,500 words in 13 chapters. His book has won many awards, e.g. Best Multicultural Nonfiction Book of the Year and the Science of Strategy Award for Military Strategy.

384 Tactics and 13 Strategies Can Help

For several of my Air Force years, I taught at Air War College, Air Command and Staff College, and the Center for Professional Development, where we discussed Sun Tzu’s book and its 13 chapters. It was required reading there in some classes. Many, if not all, of his beliefs, strategies, tactics, and psychological lessons are also used today by business leaders, sports coaches, and contemporary organizations in non-military applications. His book includes 384 tactics and 13 strategies. We can use some of the lessons learned from him and his book for our modern-day personal self-defense and our strategies and tactics when dealing with conflict and our adversaries.

Sun Tzu’s Influences on the Vietnam War

Here are just a few of my opinions about the influences of Sun Tzu and his book on the Vietnam War and related strategies and tactics.

  • During the Vietnam War, Viet Cong officers studied “The Art of War” book and could recite entire passages and principles from memory.
  • General Vo Nguyen Giap successfully implemented tactics from the book during several battles, including the battle of Dien Bien Phu.
  • General Vo, the Chief PAVN Military Commander in Vietnam, was an avid student and practitioner of Sun Tzu’s ideas.
  • S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. and General Colin Powell drew inspiration from “The Art of War” book.
  • The Viet Cong used the principles that Sun Tzu outlined in his book, especially deception, use of spies, and knowledge of the enemy and landscape for their Vietnam victories.
  • The guerilla tactics used by the Viet Cong were largely based on Sun Tzu’s strategies and tactics and were well suited to fighting on their home terrain in their own culture.
  • The Viet Cong knew, according to Sun Tzu’s strategies, that drawing the war out would demoralize the U.S. troops and the American public, who were already apprehensive about continuing the war. They won much of the “hearts and minds” of the American public.
  • The Viet Cong used a vast underground network of tunnels, were able to move troops and supplies and make deadly, vicious attacks, in complete accord with Sun Tzu’s principle of deception and psychological influence.
  • Because the Viet Cong lacked a central base of operations and were spread out over their entire country, there was frequently no clear-cut target for the U.S. to attack and capture to end the war. This is based on a key principle of Sun Tzu’s strategies… “Deadlock Ground.”

Applications of Sun Tzu’s Strategies and Tactics for Contemporary Times

So, here are just five of Sun Tzu’s many beliefs, strategies, tactics, or axioms that we can apply today for our self-defense and personal protection, followed by my interpretations and opinions of them as educational lessons for practical application in our self-defense behaviors and actions. I am NOT a lawyer and am not practicing law nor giving legal advice or guidance, so best if you contact your own legal expert or get advice from your attorney if concerns.

“To Win 100 Battles Is Not the Height of Skill, to Subdue the Enemy Without Fighting Is,” Sun Tzu.

Self-Defense Lesson #1

The best way to win our confrontations and deadly-force encounters is not to physically fight at all. Instead, avoid it or delay it and at first use methods other than direct conflict with deadly force.

Tip: Avoid any fight, if safely possible, to do so.

This first axiom or belief of Sun Tzu is probably his most famous and most important one for many practitioners. It is very elementary and uncomplicated. Initially, he believes it is best if we can AVOID deadly-force confrontations which use physical and deadly force, along with its possible lethal and negative consequences. Sun Tzu was a Taoist who focused on living a simple and balanced life in harmony with nature. Taoists believe that conflict is not good and that if you have a problem with something, it is better to find a way around it and avoid it first, if at all possible. The Yin and Yang symbol for opposing yet complementary forces is associated with Taoism.

Tip: Avoidance does not mean weakness.

Just because we do everything we can to avoid a gunfight and a direct deadly-force confrontation does not mean we are weak, afraid, and do not have the necessary skills. If we cautiously think about the repercussions, possible outcomes, pros and cons of first entering into a conflict or deadly-force encounter, there is a much higher probability that we will see the value in not entering into or getting involved in a conflict, IF at all possible to safely do so. AVOIDANCE is best, so we can live another day and enjoy our family and life. Even if there is only a small one percent chance of getting injured or killed, or for a family member or an innocent bystander to get injured or killed… we must ask ourselves, “is it really worth it?”

To respond quickly, emotionally, and subjectively in the heat of the moment might cause us to make a bad decision, to omit or not consider some or many important factors, or to involve deadly force with guns which could be very harmful to many people. Recognizing that there are at least two perspectives to any situation, thus logically and rationally discussing the facts and elements before resorting to the use of deadly force is of paramount priority in any situation.

Tip: Diplomacy and “hearts and minds” psychological approaches are optimal.

Sun Tzu realized back then that the optimal strategy is to defeat the enemy by diplomacy, psychological methods, or other similar means since warfare is extremely risky. He believed that “the greatest victory is that which requires no battle.” Sun Tzu looked at war as a psychological contest, with the military force playing a critical but limited role. He wanted to cause the enemy to submit without battle. And he looked beyond the immediate battlefield to identify the psychological or the belief system of the adversary as the ultimate center of gravity, the enemies will, and morale. Or, as some say now, win the “hearts and minds” of the opposition.

The Inauguration of U.S. Psychological Operations

His axioms substantiate that the nature of war has remained unchanged over many years. This Sun Tzu axiom probably was part of the beginning of the U.S. Psychological Operations strategy and principles, as we know it today, for acquiring objectives and forcing the enemy (or competitors) to surrender without doing direct battle or siege.

Sun Tzu influenced some of my earlier writings and military and business teachings. I co-wrote a book for the Department of Defense (DOD) in 1996 titled “Psychological Operations: Principles and Case Studies.”  I was immensely influenced by my PSYOP experiences with the Headquarters, Special Operations Command at MacDill AFB, FL, my teaching at the Air Force Special Operations School at Hurlburt Field, FL, and by my time as Provost at Air University as an Air Force Reservist at Maxwell AFB, AL. In my DOD book, Chapter 4, I write about “Blending Military and Civilian PSYOP Paradigms.” In Chapter 17, I write about “U.S. and Vietcong PSYOP in Vietnam.” Here is the Link to this book:

Psychological Operations: Principles and Case Studies (af.edu)

Sun Tzu presents the idea of resourcefulness and recognizing that there is more than one tool or method available, sometimes using conventional methods and at other times using diplomacy, psychological, and unconventional strategies and tactics. This certainly applies to our everyday life and avoiding conflict, if possible, and to certain business activities. Success occasionally not by direct rivalry opposition or directly engaging in confrontation, but by avoiding it and trying to resolve differences by mutually discussing results beneficial to both parties, blended with a different product, for example. And some form of win-win “consensus” for both parties in disagreement and/or conflict.

“The Wise Warrior Avoids the Battle,” Sun Tzu.

Self-Defense Lesson #2

If we immediately postpone or omit using physical force or a weapon when dealing at first with a situation, an issue may be amicably resolved, perhaps, without violence, benefiting both parties. This is the Taoist avoidance influence that Sun Tzu believed. This means that initially there would be a verbal discussion or a dialogue among parties about the involved issue, factors, and possible solutions. The goal here would be to have a peaceful meeting of the minds, with both parties having a peaceful opportunity to present their perspective, viewpoints, agreements, and disagreements, to arrive at a win-win understanding. Both participants “win” in a mutually-beneficial situation by a better understanding of situational factors, “owning” some of the solution to an issue or conflict, and supporting each other at least to a degree. This is an effective alternative solution or decision process often used in progressive and profitable business organizations. This is what the term “consensus” means. But is this even a realistic alternative in a deadly-force confrontation?


“Consensus” is an important concept to understand and to practice for some decisions and situations. Usually, because of the emotions and subjective factors in a heated exchange or conflict, there are quick responses in these types of situations, which may actually escalate rather than diffuse them. However, taking the time and “biting the bullet” urge to not immediately respond may be very beneficial and may avoid some bloodshed and de-escalate or abate matters. Of course, some (sadly not all nor many) deadly-force situations where a gun is involved and already presented can be resolved with rational approaches, like through consensus. But certainly, Sun Tzu would try by every means to initially avoid any conflict.

In consensus, common ground is reached through a routine general understanding and agreement where each party supports at least some of the solution, and there is a partial, friendly benefit for each party. Consensus is not the same as a unanimous agreement, where everyone agrees. Everyone wins or gets something from consensus, and there is no disagreement. And consensus is not a majority vote, since everyone’s opinion matters and is desired. Preference by slightly more than half of the people is generally not enough for it. So, it is a time-consuming process. Consensus does account for dissent and addresses it but may not accommodate it.

Tip: Consensus is not the same as unanimous agreement, and there is no disagreement in Consensus since all opinions matter and are at least heard.

There is a proposed agreement where there is usually support for some, if not many or all, of the involved factors and courses of action for the parties. This may take some extended time and future discussions at a later date. Of course, this may not always be possible in self-defense situations, but consideration to initially talking through an issue and its variables may bring mutually-beneficial results without anyone getting injured or losing their life.

Tip: The only absolute way to win in any violent or deadly-force confrontation is to AVOID any confrontation or conflict altogether, if safely possible, to do so.


Self-Defense Lesson #3

Sun Tzu believes this is one of the essential features of “Victory” in battle. And I agree with him in our life’s issues. When faced with life-or-death, self-defense encounters, we must carefully GENERALLY decide upfront when to get involved and shoot or to not shoot before the situation even occurs. But, so very difficult to do and almost impossible to anticipate the many situations and their variables. These personal guidelines about shooting or not for each of us are meant to get us thinking ahead about critical decisions we must make in real-time situations when under tremendous time constraints. Generally, we should, at a minimum, know before an encounter if we can actually press the trigger if necessary in a deadly-force encounter when someone points a gun at us and we have a safe opportunity to use our gun in self-defense. In our classroom simulated deadly-force situations, some students have said they could not use their handgun even when possessing a carry license and when confronted by an aggressor with a gun if a safe moment arose for their self-defense. 

Can You Shoot in Self-Defense if A Safe Opportunity Arises?

We must recognize that our preliminary evaluation and related decision about shooting or not are just a general guide to save us valuable time and maybe our life when an encounter really occurs later on. Of course, the reality is that the situation, facts, evaluation, and decision may and probably will change. But, we have not wasted time. It is valuable time spent since it will probably get us thinking in advance about that situation or others similar to it, whether to shoot or not in an encounter and under what conditions, thus providing benefits and saving time and lives later.

Although this cannot be a definite and final decision about shooting or not later on in any one simulated situation, I believe there are still advantages to doing this. If we can save only a second or two, it might save our life and costly and pending court time and perhaps prevent jail time. And prevent an attacker from using our own gun to kill or harm us. Given that a typical gunfight is very roughly about 3 yards or less away, with 3 rounds max fired, and occurs in 3 seconds or less, time is of the very essence! There may not be a “typical” one.

Using and Not Using A Gun May Be Costly in a Conflict

If the advanced decision for a given situation is to use our weapon, then we must quickly draw and/or present our handgun since delay may cost us our lives. But to not use our gun may also cost lives. This is complicated by the fact that we do not know what kind of situation and when it may occur and the need to use a handgun. So for us self-defense shooters, this means that we should practice and develop muscle memory not only for accuracy but also for speed. And it means that we should also decide before we face any encounters what generally our self-defense game plan and mindset might be, as complex, difficult, and as uncertain as that may be. Shoot or not shoot in any hypothetical defined situation? There are many influencing variables, and the state you live in and use your gun blend together and play major roles. What a major and complex challenge and responsibility for us!

When To Use Deadly Force in Self Defense

Most states have laws, although the wording and definitions vary a lot, about when generally to use deadly force in self-defense. Sadly, there are no well-defined, exact, and explicit events and requirements, and definitions about using deadly force in different situations. Courts usually end up deciding the outcomes after deadly force is used, even if a party appropriately used it. Here is something very important to think about when trying to plan ahead in most states about when to use or not use deadly force in a self-defense fight:

“A person is justified in using or threatening to use deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent IMMINENT DEATH OR GREAT BODILY HARM to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.” This is how Florida’s Statute 776.012 reads, which is similar to many other states as well.

Tip: A handgun is a tool of last resort. Let me emphasize this critical Tip again: A HANDGUN IS A TOOL OF LAST RESORT. It is NOT to be used to resolve petty arguments, minor disagreements, certain property disputes, etc. It is used only to protect innocent life that is in imminent and immediate jeopardy.

In the flash of a deadly-force encounter’s moment and in a few seconds, the defender must consider the situational variables and within the context of the specific situation at that moment to make a major decision about using deadly force. This is so very difficult and complex, so thinking about this ahead of the actual encounter makes sense. This is true even knowing the many uncertainties and facts of the situation may vary and be slightly different and will affect the preliminary decision. However, know ahead of time as best as possible when and when not to present the gun in an encounter and when to shoot or not. Maybe just to save a little time in an actual conflict. What a challenge!

Repeat Tip: Physical engagement and/or use of a gun for self-defense should be your last resort after you have exhausted all other options.

“QUICKNESS IS THE ESSENCE OF THE WAR…If Quick, I Survive. If Not, I Am Lost. This Is Death.” Sun Tzu.

Self-Defense Lesson #4

Without a doubt, if in our personal self-defense encounters we decide to use our weapon, we must quickly draw and/or present our handgun since delay may cost us our lives. Sun Tzu recognized the disadvantages of not being timely in war and battles, and his ideas are valid today. There is a need to bring a deadly-force encounter to a quick end, not only for the defender’s safety but also for others and other considerations.

Sun Tzu said that war is costly and that the longer you wage a battle, the greater the expenditures of supplies, armor, and weapons. Further, he believed that if you lay siege to an area for a protracted length of time, your soldiers will become weak, their weapons will become dulled, and you will run out of money. And delays allow the enemy to reorganize, regroup, and develop counter-attack plans. To engage in warfare intelligently, he said you should attack quickly and avoid any delays. Sun Tzu said that “Victory is dependent upon an army that shares the same focused spirit throughout its ranks.” And one of those essential shared features of victory is to act quickly and decisively in battles.

“He Will Win Who, Prepared Himself, Waits to Take the Enemy Unprepared…Ponder and Deliberate Before You Make a Move,” Sun Tzu.

Self-Defense Lesson #5

Sun Tzu talks about planning, thinking ahead, being prepared, and ingenuity playing large roles in securing victory. He even goes very in-depth, saying that winning is all about planning strategy: moving soldiers into the best position at the best time, ensuring that soldiers are mentally prepared and of one mind with their superior officers, having plans for all eventualities, and having total autonomy. He says to “ponder and deliberate before you make a move.” And “Attack is the secret of defense; defense is the planning of an attack.”

The Three “Ps” of Preparedness

Sun Tzu emphasizes that “One who, fully prepared, awaits the unprepared will be victorious.” So planning ahead and being prepared and ready to confront the enemy is of critical importance, according to Sun Tzu. Without question. It is also important to defenders and those who want personal protection to be prepared ahead of time for a deadly-force encounter. This means three important preparation strategies: Practice. Practice. Practice. To be prepared to be involved in a gunfight with someone intent on shooting us, killing us, or injuring us, we must thoroughly and repeatedly practice the handgun skills necessary to defend ourselves. We must anticipate the possible encounters we may face and skills the enemy may use against us. This includes knowing the laws of the jurisdiction and state that may govern our actions with a handgun used there. A major task involving much time.

Tip: Although Sun Tzu’s quotes and principles are apparently simple and commonsensical on the surface, they are profound. Prepare and deliberate before you take action. Sure we should always be prepared and ready, even if we have never been previously attacked, and never expect to be attacked. But as Sun Tzu points out, violent crimes and deadly force are unpredictable and very costly in many ways. Do not underestimate his principles and glide quickly over them. Think before you act since you are accountable for every bullet that leaves your gun’s barrel. Someone may only be attacked once in their lifetime, but much is at stake, and an individual had better be prepared before the time comes, just in case.

Continued Success, and Be Safe!

* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only, and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense, and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.

© 2022 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col. Ben Findley at ColBFF@gmail.com.

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