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Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War - Project History

I wrote the first words of Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War in April of 2001.  The following is a brief history of the project and its origins.

  • Spring 1985 – Receive first copy of Sun Tzu on the Art of War at Duke University. 

It took another twelve years before I really felt I got it.

  • 1987 through 1992 – Serve as an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne Division and 11th Group Special Forces (reserve).

Some of the best people you could ever know.

  • Spring 1990 through present – Enter business, and am invited to speak around the world on advanced strategy concepts.

The first stop was IBM/ROLM and the IBM Sales School.  The Six Angles of Competition model above is in use by a number of business schools as an alternative or supplement to the Michael Porter Five Forces model. 

  • APR 2001 – Begin writing Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War as a documentary script with guidance from Atchity Entertainment International in LA.  The project focuses on the application of Sun Tzu for non-military disciplines.

I called this getting the first little toe of the first foot in the door of Hollywood. 

  • JUL 2001 – Complete the first draft of documentary script and assemble storyboards with public domain photos and personal photo archives. 

I've received some great comments about these storyboards.  They currently make up the core of my academic seminars on the topic.  Professional seminars take a different tact.

  • SEP 2001 – Witness the attack on the Pentagon.  Decide to change focus of the documentary from business back to Sun Tzu's military origin.  Begin the process of rewriting the documentary script.

I also used to work in Tower 2 of the World Trade Center.  I took a position with Dean Witter when I stopped at the sales training floor while canvassing the building for telecom sales at IBM/ROLM.  By chance, I had already included the words "Naivety can kill your finest" in the script section about vulnerability and invulnerability before 9/11/2001.  

(Additional Photographs from September 11th and Afterward)

  • OCT 2001 – Complete the revision of the documentary script.

The work took a more serious tone.

  • NOV 2001 – Budgetary analysis shows the documentary to be too expensive to produce as written.  Decide to convert documentary to book form.

It would take $1,000,000 to make the documentary at the low end.  That kind of investment on a documentary requires a successful book first.

Memorable quotation:  “Maybe we should do a book.”

  • February 2002 – Track down an original copy of the Lionel Giles 1910 Sun Tzu translation.


    I picked this up through the Barnes & Noble used book store for about $300, and have since seen copies in worse condition for sale in the thousands.  Although written in 1910, this is arguably - and provably - the best Chinese to English translation on the market because the author focuses on the meaning of the passages instead of literal word-to-word translation. 

    I wanted an original copy because I refer to this text in Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War and wanted to avoid any text ownership issues.  This volume is in the public domain.  (The majority of "new" Sun Tzu books on the market are straight copies of this book.)

  • MAR 2002 – Decide to publish through Lynx Publishing of Great Falls, VA.

This became an issue of maintaining control and producing the book I want.  It allows us to build a track record for the book before going to a main line publisher. 

  • SEP 2002 – First book draft completed and edited.  Concepts are there, but summaries to make the concepts useful need development. 

The book still read like a documentary, but without the visuals.  The original book cover looked like it was made in PowerPoint, which it was.  The Chinook Helicopters became prominent in then ongoing operations in Afghanistan.  I spent many hours in this type of helicopter while commanding an anti-tank TOW platoon for the 101st Airborne.

  • OCT 2002 – Getting it done.

A substantial portion of the book was written at two Starbucks and a coffee shop at a Borders bookstore.  The rest was written here at this coffee table.  The 1910 copy of Sun Tzu on the Art of War appears beside the computer.  The thick brown book on the sofa is the thesaurus.  As I approached completion, simple things like shaving went out the window.

  • NOV 2002 – Second draft completed with summaries included.  It is reviewed by the National Defense University.  Cross professional discipline chapters added to the book.

Three great reviews came from the National Defense University.  One instructor uses the book in his National Defense University class. 

  • JAN 2002 – Final draft completed and edited in detail by Black Tree History Group for both layout and content.  

Bill Miller, of Black Tree History Group, edits mostly history texts.  I hoped for and received some added comments about case examples along the way.  Gen. Lee's methods prove more controversial than I thought.  Bill also made a key point regarding Patton that made for a better example.  Key - Patton never said "No one wins a war by dying for their country.  They win it by making the other poor bastard die for his country."  No problem, there were many other colorful quotes Patton actually did say.  

  • 27 FEB 2002 – Final draft sent to the printers.

The original cover art from professional book cover design companies looked like every other Sun Tzu book on the market.  A hand forged, Chinese style spearhead on my China travel shelf solved that problem.  The cover has and continues to receive great comments. 

About the Spear Design

I receive many inquiries regarding the spear itself.  The spear was made by Michael Cardiff from Virginia Beach, VA.  If you want one of your own, refer to his design on the cover of this book and he will make you one.  He can be contacted at:

Michael Cardiff

P.O. Box 2235

Virginia Beach, VA 23450

  • 7 APR 2003 – Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War enters the market

I had hoped to have the first books delivered before the Iraq conflict began, but true to the word of the administration, we did not delay the attack past March so we could get the fighting over before the hot summer of 2003 began.  The book arrived from the printer the day after the invasion started.

Memorable quotation:  “This means I can never say he (George Bush) should have read it first.”

May of 2006 supplementary note: Page 73 includes a passage from Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching that has forecasted the progression of this war with disturbing clarity to include the boastful declaration of victory in the aircraft carrier where the administration forgot that only a defeated adversary, unless he is truely dead, can declare a war over.  "Prophesies" are not fate - they can be changed.

  • MAY 2003 – First Book Reviews Arrive from the Professional Reviewers

1. Heartland Reviews

As a retired military intelligence professional and conflict theorist, I must say this is the best interpretation of Sun Tzu’s classic work I have read. The author focuses on the meanings behind this ancient Chinese war philosopher’s writings. He puts them into a modern context, making them easy to understand. Apparently the Department of Defense agrees with me on this, since they have selected Mr. Cantrell’s book as a text for the National War College in Washington DC. This is a must read for all military officers and business leaders. It rated a perfect five hearts.

Bob Spear

Publisher and Chief Reviewer

2. Reviewer’s Choice Selection for Midwest Book Reviews

Robert L. Cantrell's Understanding Sun Tzu On The Art Of War contains both the complete translated text of Sun Tzu's enduring classic on battle strategy, and a modern-day interpretation packed with advice on leadership, learning to keep one's intentions a secret from one's opponents, leveraging advantages as the key to victory, and a great deal more. An excellent resource for anyone seeking self-improvement through internalizing Sun Tzu's wisdom, Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War is thoughtful and thought-provoking reading of the highest order.


Bob Spear is a tough professional reviewer.  When the book received the highest possible marks with him, I knew, regardless of whether the public picked up on the book or not, I succeeded.  The reviewer's choice selection from the Small Press Review a month later proved icing on the cake.  The Small Press Review/Midwest Review is the only main line national reviewer that will look at a project just released from a first publication small press.

  • 29 AUG 2003 – Nation War College Purchase

The first order for books by the Nation War College (NDU) arrived in August 2003.  The National War College is a division of the National Defense University.  The book is used in the Joint Task Forces class. 

  • Winter 2004 – Critical Success

I make and continue to make high level contacts with the book both in government/military circles and in business.  The book does not directly take a position on the current war against terrorism.  It was published too early in the event.  Much of the book has been very predictive, however, to include page 35:

"To the degree your plans do not actually destroy your enemy's will and ability to fight, the realization of your plans may actually strengthen your enemy's resolve.  If your enemy has any hope to believe his cause can win, even in his individual death, he may surprise you with the horror he can create in return."

  • Spring 2004 – Distribution

Sign with Biblio, a sister company of National Book Networks, to gain broader distribution of the book.  National Book Networks represents Rand, Kiplinger, and Cato Institute among others, which puts me in good company.

  • Summer 2004 – Cards

From September or 2003 to August 2004, I carried around a set of cards that help to put Sun Tzu's ideas into practice.  They are released on August 26th, 2004.  Though the book and the cards do not necessarily require the other to be useful, the book and the cards do present a complete package for students and professionals alike.  I launch a separate Web site for the cards at www.artofwarcards.com.

  • September 2004 – "Validation" of the Card idea

Receptivity to a new idea or approach always comes with uncertainty.  September 2004 ended that uncertainty.  Organizations such as the National Defense University and the U.S. Naval Institute indirectly validate the quality of the work and the effort on the cards by using them for instruction.  The cards make find a place in one U.S. intelligence agency as well, though I was asked not to name them.   

  • October 2004 – Gödel's Proof

On two occasions, outside parties have taken interest in the book and cards not specifically for the strategies described, but for the way they were written.  Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War applies Gödel's Proof to Sun Tzu's Art of War. Gödel's Proof shows mathematically that you cannot explain a system in context with itself.  The concept is fairly easy to understand if you think, as an analogy, how difficult it would be to explain the concept of words to the uninitiated without putting them into context with sentences above words and letters below them.  I had generally avoided this discussion when marketing, but it is a major reason why the book works.

  • November 2004 – Canada

The Canadian market for this book exceeded that of the U.S. by a significant margin.  This seemed to be related, in part, to the use of John McCrae's poem, In Flanders Fields, on a pivotal part of the book's conclusion.  John McCrae was Canadian.  However further investigation showed the book was recommended on a Canadian employment suggested reading reference.  (See Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War on Amazon.ca)  

January 2005 – Left and Right of Center

Based on blogs and chat room feedback, the book and card deck are well received by both the far right and the far left.  As an author, I can only answer:

Better Red Than Red

February 2005 – BCP International LTD

Join forces with BCP International LTD for QDR related work with the Office of the Secretary of Defense.  BCP International LTD is highly involved with the military transformation effort.

May 2005 – Innovation Planner

Sun Tzu has a strong market with creative types.  Innovation Planner™, the next release from Center For Advantage, will, as a byproduct, allow users in the technology field to put Sun Tzu's ideas into actual practice.  Description is as follows:

Innovation Planner™ is a card set of innovation strategies and solutions used for rapid, effective, and efficient problem solving and idea generation. It is based on the Ideation TRIZ innovation methodology that was derived from the analysis of over 3 million patents and 500 standard patterns of technical evolution. You can use Innovation Planner™ for systematic innovation planning, brainstorming, or to play one of several innovation games.

Half the orders for this product come from overseas, to include in particular Germany, Japan, and Korea.

February 2006 – Commercial Traction

Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War sells as many copies as most non-fiction books from the majors publishers, despite a comparatively small footprint.  The vast majority of Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War sell from the Web or through independent bookstores.  Considering that 300,000 books publish each year, and that twenty-seven of those in 2003 were about Sun Tzu, this is a nice result.  In that time, only one used book that was not listed by sellers as being new appeared on amazon.com.  This indicates that those who buy the book keep the book.  Month on month, book sales continue to grow. 

To those who have or will purchase this book, thank you.

20 February 2006 – The Sales Strategy Fundamentals

After a year and a half of preparation, the third in the card series goes to print with the title The Sales Strategy Fundamentals. 

The Sales Strategy Fundamentals is not based on Sun Tzu, although those who study Sun Tzu will make better use of the strategies within than otherwise.  These strategies are in use by the best salespeople in business, and have been taught by such vaunted sales programs as the IBM Sales School where the author received his first business training.  They are inspired by Vince Lombardi's quote that "Excellence is achieved by the mastery of the fundamentals." 

Sales is one of the most fundamental skills of any business professional, including those not officially in sales.  It is as fundamental to the business professional as the use of a sword or spear was fundamental to the ancient soldier.  In fact, every profession that involves person-to-person interaction even actual soldiering, where success may depend on selling a point of action to a village leader depends upon sales skills. 

If you master the sales strategy fundamentals on these cards, you will increase your power to succeed substantially. 

Cards will be available in April 2006.  If you would like to receive notification about their release, please send a note to info@centerforadvantage.com

October 16-17, 2006 - Las Vegas

It was bound to happen.  Gave a strategy seminar for fifty people in Caesars Palace, Las Vegas.  The seminar focused heavily on the cards.  Las Vegas is a natural setting for the decks needless to say.

December 16, 2006 - Violations as confirmed by the Iraq Study Group (Plus a solution in principle)

I read the Iraq Study Group report and noted innumerable violations of military principles Sun Tzu put down 2,500 years ago.  As a note to the military - these violations appear rooted in the civilian leadership, not the services. 

1. "The moral law causes people to be in complete accord with the ruler and to follow him regardless of any danger to their lives."

Statement that explains why Sadr's militia is loyal and effective while the Iraqi national army is not and probably cannot be.

2. "When your weapons are dulled and your enthusiasm diminished, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will appear to take advantage of your weakened condition.  Not even the wisest council - to include the Baker study group - will be able to prevent the resulting consequences."

The future that is unfolding as Iran, Syria, China, and others benefit from the U.S. dilemma.  The next sentence says.

3. "No nation has ever benefited from a prolonged war."

Case in point, the U.S. suffers, the country called Iraq suffers.  The insurgents, which are not a country, do not suffer so, and thus one of the main strategies for an insurgency is to prolong the war.  The Iraq Study Group report puts the eventual price tag of the war at 2 Trillion dollars.  That comes out to about $80,000 per Iraqi citizen.

4. "Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterward looks for victory in the midst of the fight."

This pretty much sums it up.  A decision was made to rush to war because of the expense of the present deployments in 2003 and in order to finish the job before the hot summer of 2003 arrived.

In this author's opinion, the Iraq Study Group proposal piece on negotiating with all parties makes sense only if it is done aggressively to leverage the animosity between groups within the Middle-East in accord with another Sun Tzu passage:

"Reduce the hostile chiefs by inflicting damage on them.  Make trouble for them by keeping them constantly engaged.  Hold out false gains, and make them rush to any given point in their pursuit."

Leverage that for which the population will fight as opposed to pouring yet more resources into an ideal and structure for which the population will not fight, and then use those forces as borrowed hands, willingly or by default, to get the acceptable result. 

November 10, 2007 - Ghost of Christmas Future

Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War went to the printers the day after the invasion of Iraq started.  I have had to remind people who read it that this book was not written in hindsight to the events now taking place.  You have to keep in mind that even 2,500 years before Bremer dismissed the Iraqi army, the importance of "making your enemy's army and chariots your own" was well known.  The note that those who fight first and then seek victory in the midst of the fight are destined to defeat...as opposed to winning the battle before it begins, is likewise common military knowledge dating back at least 2,500 years.  Another 2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu's contemporary Lao Tzu wrote a piece on war that we have tracked through thus far to the letter.  This was written into the conclusion of Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War in 2002.

Lao Tzu wrote: He who serves a ruler of men in accordance with the way of life will not subdue a kingdom through force of arms. 

(This is the initial invasion of Iraq and unfortunate mishandling of the aftermath.)

Such a course is bound to bring retribution.

(This is the rise of the insurgency that started after Bremer dismissed the Iraqi Army.)

Where troops are stationed, briars and thorns spring up.

(This is the collapse of the Iraqi economy, and the displacement of millions of people that resulted from the invasion.)

In the track of armies must follow lean years.

(This will come.  It is masked since payment of the war has been deferred through debt...added under the current administration at least a third to near doubling of the national debt since the "war on terror" began.)

The good general wins a victory and then stops;

(This was the opportunity presented with the globally accepted invasion of Afghanistan.)

he will not continue with needless acts of violence.

(This is what we apparently did by way of the Iraqi invasion.)

Winning, he does not boast; he does not triumph; he shows no glory.

(Remember the aircraft carrier?  Bush boasted, triumphed, and basked in the glory of "mission accomplished.")

He wins because he must.

(A great President Lincoln fought another controversial war.  His greatest speech at Gettysburg reflected this attitude.)

After winning, he will not be overbearing.

(This is where we are in the story, visible in that we, not the Iraqis, still really run the country; that we have relative immunity to Iraqi law; and that we have even contracted much of the war out of the hands of our own military.)

Power lead to fall, which is not in accord with the Way.  What is not in accord with the Way will surely come to an end.

(This is the "Ghost of Christmas Future," where we have forged the chains in our fight that our country will bear for generations.  Is it too late?  It isn't over until it's over.)

December 25, 2008 - Christmas Future?

No desire to comment too much, but the worst financial crisis since the depression seems to have at its root ample inattention to the interests of the country for short term gains.  It will be a test of the country's resiliency.

March 30, 2009 - New Book Publication - Outpacing the Competition: Patent-Based Business Strategy

After two years of writing, Wiley published Outpacing the Competition: Patent Based Business Strategy.  This book is in many ways the equivalent to Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War since the strategic philosophy comes from the same base.  Since business strategy is more complex than military strategy, the book is about six times longer.


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