Mention him by his given name, and no one blinks an eye. Nevertheless, Sun Wu is arguably the most influential military theorist in human history. His writings on strategy are required reading in many circles; it’s rare to find a professional military reading list that doesn’t include his work. His thoughts on warfare are so ubiquitous that it’s as common to find him cited in the rings of the Pentagon as the halls of business and academe. But call him by his honorific title, Sun Tzu, and people take notice.

Master Sun – the literal translation of his honorific – is synonymous with the competitive strategy. His classic treatise on warfare, The Art of War, dates from the Late Spring and Autumn period (approximately 771-476 BCE) of Chinese history and has had a profound influence on military thought. Master Sun drew on his experience as a general and strategist to craft The Art of War, which is composed of 13 chapters that capture the essence of warfighting as only he could.


For nearly 1,500 years, The Art of War opened a Chinese military anthology that was eventually formalized as Seven Military Classics in 1080. In 1772, The Art of War was translated into French and published for the first time in Europe. The first full English translation was completed and published in 1910, allowing the wisdom of Master Sun to continue to influence Western military thinking.

Given the broad and lasting influence of Sun Tzu, it was inevitable that he would eventually find new life as a meme. The relative simplicity of his treatise lends itself to the format. Quotes such as, “be where your enemy is not” or “all warfare is based on deception” make for pithy memes that capture the imagination. With Sun Tzu’s tendency for brevity, it’s almost as if the memes write themselves.

Given the nature of contemporary humor, however, it was probably just as inevitable that Sun Tzu would eventually become a source of levity. Wes Studi brilliantly channeled the master in the 1999 film, Mystery Men, in which he played the role of The Sphinx, a near-mythical figure with a classical bent for military wisdom. His lines from the movie all carry a certain feel to them, almost as if Sun Tzu was mocking himself:

“He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions.”

“When you can balance a tack hammer on your head, you will head off your foes with a balanced attack.”

“We are number one. All others are number two, or lower.”

“You must lash out with every limb, like the octopus who plays the drums.”

It’s almost as if The Sphinx foretold the coming of the comical Sun Tzu meme, heralding their arrival years before they were a thing. But, by the time the Forever Wars reached full steam, those memes were here, and they only gained prominence as the last of those wars came to an abrupt and inglorious end.


My favorites among those memes are probably unrepeatable, at least in a safe for work short article. They range from the sublime to the absolutely glorious. Some spur you to spit coffee at the screen before you while others just cause you to stop and shake your head. But they are all brilliant in their own right.

1. “Always abandon your most strategic airbase right before an evacuation.”

Brutal, but accurate. This meme more or less captured the end of the war in Afghanistan: the frustration, the anger, and the absolute chaos. You can find it on t-shirts and coffee mugs now. Get ‘em while they’re hot.

2. “Everybody is an atheist until they clog a toilet in someone else’s house.”

This is pretty much the acme of bad houseguesting. Do it and you’ll be amazed at the stream of vulgarity that spews forth from your gaping maw. Write them down. You might need them later when you have to explain it all.

3. “Meme them until they cry, then make memes about them crying.”

When it comes to memes, this is the supreme art of war.

4. “Flank ‘em, then spank ‘em.”

Of all the Sun Tzu memes you can find, this one is probably the most accurate when it comes to actual warfare. It’s clever, it’s got rhythm, and it’s funny. This also works on Twitter.

5. “Retreat swiftly when the public affairs officer approaches.”

Without a doubt, one of the most useful pieces of advice. If PAOs had existed in Sun Tzu’s time, I’m fairly certain he *would* have said this.

6. “All warfare is based on quad charts.”

Oof. This is sadly true. And it’s probably a good thing that quad charts didn’t exist in Master Sun’s time, or The Art of War would have a 14th chapter that addresses font choices and general slideology.

7. “An empty browser history reveals more than a full one.”

That one needs to sink in for a moment. It’s true, you know.

8. “If you want to know how to fight, always ask the generals in comment section.”

Keyboard warriors tend to think they all have a little Sun Tzu in them. Most of them are idiots. Be wary about taking any of their brilliant advice. Remember: never read the comments.

9. “The acme of war is to subdue the enemy with briefing slides.”

Anyone who has ever sat through a 100-slide brief on acquisition reform can attest to this. The surest way to defeat an enemy without fighting is to lure them into a mandatory briefing.

10. “When I die, I swear to god I hope no one makes up fake quotes from my book.”

Too late.


Related News

Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.