Thomas Huynh: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: April 14th, 2011 by bobmorris

Thomas Huynh

In 1999, Thomas Huynh founded Sonshi.com, the Web’s most respected resource on Art of War and now consists of a network of authors, scholars, and readers around the world, attracted from various disciplines and joined together by a common interest in Sun Tzu’s classic study of strategy. He is a seasoned business executive and nonprofit board member who earned an MBA from Vanderbilt University. He was named in BusinessWeek magazine’s “Top 12 Most Engaged Reader-Contributors of 2008.” Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Huynh now resides with his wife and child in Atlanta, Georgia. As a war refugee, he seeks to put an end to warfare by affirming the practical ideals published in his book, The Art of War—Spirituality for Conflict.

Morris: Before discussing The Art of War, a few general questions. First, what prompted your interest in the relevance to the modern business world of what ancient thinkers such as Sunzi (Sun Tzu), Laozi (Lao Tzu), and Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu) have to say about leadership, management, and strategy?

Huynh: One way to look at this is to consider the Holy Bible; some parts of the book are well over 2000 year old but countless people still refer to it every day.  If you consider many of the Greek and Roman classics, you realize they discuss many of the societal, motivational, and leadership issues we have today.  Our technology has evolved significantly, but, alas, the human brain and how it makes its decisions have not.

Also the fact that these ancient classics have survived after numerous generations is a testament and argument to their value and usefulness.  For example, a high-ranking Chinese official went to his grave with it in circa 100 B.C. who fortunately gave us the oldest surviving Art of War copy ever found.  Unlike many works that have since disappeared, even one that The Art of War itself cites, Sun Tzu’s book has never been lost or destroyed.

Morris: When and why did you found Sonshi.com?

Huynh: We founded Sonshi.com in 1999 because we wanted a central place to meet to discuss Sun Tzu’s Art of War.  The Web was approaching its adolescent stage and we remember when Yahoo listed us on their directory — a manual process, reviewed by a real, live Yahoo editor — a sign at the time that you have “made it.”  Now any site can “make it” thanks to Google.

Morris: To what does the word “Sonshi” refer?

Huynh: “Sonshi” is an English transliteration of Sun Tzu in Japanese. If you have read General Samuel Griffith’s Art of War book, you will see Sonshi mentioned many times since he researched how the Japanese were very much influenced by the work.  Two very popular and highly successful Japanese strategists Minamoto Yoshitsune and Takeda Shingen made Sonshi Heiho (Sun Tzu Art of War) their text of choice.

The main reason why we chose “Sonshi” was that we wanted a word representative of the ideal reader, someone who takes the study of The Art of War seriously and diligently.  Even thoughThe Art of War was written in China, who eventually took the work to heart and promoted it were the Japanese leaders.  Sonshi.com has similar enthusiasts (a few rather rabid) of Sun Tzu’s Art of War.  I’m perhaps its most ardent advocate since I truly believe it is the greatest book ever written; it has the answer to end the worst, still pervasive human activity: war.  Having been born in an environment where war dominated (Vietnam), I hope you understand why.

Morris: To what extent (if any) has its mission changed since then?

Huynh: Sonshi.com’s mission hasn’t much changed since 1999, but what has changed is its popularity not only with countless readers but also with military, government, and business leaders who have contacted us since then.  I’m not going to drop those names because many of them want to remain anonymous but I’m convinced more than ever of Sun Tzu’s relevance to the modern world, especially in the United States.

Morris: What is the “Sonshi Strategy Course: Strategy as a Way of Life”?

Huynh: The Sonshi Strategy Course is useful for two main reasons.  One, it is a way for readers to learn each verse individually yet also holistically in the entire Art of War’s context as if they have a one-on-one session with us at Sonshi.com.  Two, the lessons are spread out for an entire year, which is simply the best method to master an important classic like The Art of War.  You are literally immersed in the work’s wisdom daily and so you can’t help but use it in your everyday life.  Needless to say, I’m very proud of us offering the Sonshi Strategy Course to those who have the commitment.

Morris: What are some of Sonshi.com’s current and recent activities?

Huynh: On August 18, 2009, I gave an hour-long presentation at Google about Sun Tzu’s Art of War and how it can help their managers compete in their competitive, cutthroat industry.  They saw why the US Marine Corps requires all their officers to read the book, implemented by former Commandant Charles Krulak (a friend of Sonshi.com) and why the current US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates twice cited The Art of War when he outlined America’s overall strategy to defend America in front of the US Congress in 2007.

We have recently revamped the entire Sonshi.com website, to make it more interactive.  Having reviewed many of the changes, I think our readers will be impressed with the improvements.  There is also an interview we are conducting with Robert Greene, a three-time New York Times best-selling author, regarding his upcoming book called The 50th Law, written with hiphop and rapper superstar 50 Cent.

Overall, those who want to be immersed in Sun Tzu’s Art of War will always find comfort at Sonshi.com.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to the Sonshi translation of Sun Tzu’s classic, The Art of War — Spirituality for Conflict: Annotated & Explained. Is this the first version that provides detailed annotations juxtaposed with the portions of the text they discuss? What else is unique about this edition?

Huynh: Our edition wasn’t the first to annotate Sun Tzu’s Art of War, but it is certainly the first English edition to annotate the text in great detail in both depth and breadth — not only explaining the verses but linking them to everyday events and corresponding examples.  Another unique feature of the edition is its accurate and relevant emphasis on resolving conflicts, not merely many past editions’ emphasis on how to fight battles and win.  Thus those were raised on Clausewitz are often confused over Sun Tzu’s minimalist philosophy on war.  Sun Tzu’s idea of the ultimate win is one that the general doesn’t have to fight.

Another idea he wanted to get across was how emotions can be disastrous; advantageous for you if the enemy is emotional but disadvantageous if you are emotional.  The reason why is emotions are only temporary but the consequences of those emotions if acted upon are frequently permanent.  I don’t know how many more ways and angles Sun Tzu could have expressed it but somehow the central message of prudence and minimalism was largely ignored.  Most readers and even scholars instead focus on the cleverness and deception aspects, which are sometimes necessary but hardly central.

Morris: What are some of the most common misconceptions about The Art of War? For example, there is a widespread belief that there is a passage in it concerning the public execution of an emperor’s concubines.

Huynh: You are correct. The concubine story isn’t in The Art of War.  It was recounted by a famous historian named Ssu-ma Ch’ien in his Shih-Chi (“Historical Records”) and from where the story of Sun Tzu’s interview with the ruler of the Wu state, Ho Lu, was told.  It is not a misconception as much as a dubious historical event.

A true misconception about Sun Tzu’s Art of War is that the book is a book that promotes ruthlessness.  I hear this a lot from people who never read the book, and if for some sort of miracle they did read the book, they apparently weren’t paying attention and thus never understood it.  How else could they have missed Sun Tzu’s quote about viewing soldiers like his own sons, treating the enemy well, urging that the general must be benevolent, and letting a retreating enemy escape home?  These are hardly ruthless concepts.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read The Art of War, there are clear indications throughout the narrative that Sun Tzu viewed combat as the last resort. In fact, to me at least, he seems to hate it so much that the primary objective of most of his proposed strategies is to avoid it. Is that a fair assessment?

Huynh: Sun Tzu simply believed that the goal is to win without fighting.  That would be any general’s focus.  It’s an ideal but it’s apparently feasible and realistic enough since he mentioned it in The Art of War.  His sense of realism is reflected in his discussions of costs, ego, and emotions.  They are all rather mundane and evident all the time in our everyday lives.  However, not every conflict can result in peaceful terms because the other side can be stubborn and fight, even if it’s a suicidal endeavor.  For these cases, Sun Tzu outlines his battle strategies found throughoutThe Art of War as well.

Also, I try not to use the word “avoid” too often when the subject relates to conflict because I’m afraid people would misunderstand me to mean avoiding problems.  Sun Tzu promoted the idea of continually addressing the conflict — observing and assessing the problem.  This is in fact the opposite of avoidance.  Perhaps a better word is “resolve.”    In other words, only when you address the problem and resolve it can you avoid a disaster.  So “avoid” in this context should be explained instead.

Morris: Nonetheless, deception is one of Sun Tzu’s core principles when formulating strategies and tactics (i.e. when far away, seem near…and vice versa). My own take on this is that Sun Tzu believes that the “war” to be won should be waged in an opponent’s mind. Win there and physical combat will be prevented or at least its damage substantially reduced. Your own thoughts about this.

Huynh: Absolutely.  The most effective and humane way is to win in the mind, not out on the battlefield.  Most people think deception is wrong.  But when you can prevent the loss of lives because you trick the enemy into not attacking, it just feels right — that deception itself isn’t necessarily bad; it depends on the situation.  Professor Victor Mair has a great analogy.  In the game of basketball you resort to deception all the time, faking your movement to draw the opponent’s reaction and then moving the other way to go to the basket untouched.  This seems like an elegant and non-aggressive way to win without hurting people except their egos.  Egos heal but lives lost are permanent.

Morris: I realize that Sitting Bull, Cochise, Geronimo, and other great Native American warriors never read The Art of War. However, they followed many of Sun Tzu’s strategies. Do you happen to know if other, more recent military leaders who waged “guerrilla warfare”, such as Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara and Vo Nguyen Giap, read the book?

Huynh: Vo Nguyen Giap (via Ho Chi Minh, who translated Sun Tzu’s Art of War to Vietnamese; see Sonshi.com’s interview with William Duiker, biographer of Ho Chi Minh) and Che Guevara have definitely read Sun Tzu’s Art of War because they have both recounted its lessons in their own works.  The business of saying who is influenced by what work is tricky because you need to have irrefutable evidence, not just circumstantial evidence.  There are a few who claim Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft read Sun Tzu.  Really?  Although that wouldn’t be a surprise but what proof do they have?  Gates might have read it privately but never mentioned the book.  People try to attach successful people to a book to try to make it better but it in fact diminishes its worth.

On the other hand, Napoleon was said to have read Sun Tzu’s Art of War.  J.J.M. Amiot’s French translation was met with critical acclaim in 1772 and became a best seller and was republished in 1782.  A veracious reader of military works, Napoleon at the time was of reading age. It is important to keep in mind that books don’t make it to bookstores and libraries as quickly as they do nowadays.  (Think how many times you have read Peter Drucker’s works written in the 1960s.)  Therefore, it is highly likely, analogous to today’s child who is interested in magic and wizards to have read Harry Potter, but in the end that’s not irrefutable proof.  Yet if I have to pick whether he did or didn’t, I would venture to guess he did.  To me, the chances that Napoleon read Sun Tzu’s Art of War are better than Bill Gates having read the book.

Morris: Sonshi.com is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary. Congratulations! What do you and your associates hope to accomplish during the next (let’s say) 3-5 years? For example, will any additional books be published?

Huynh: Thank you so much.  It’s been an adventure and continues to be every day.  Most readers don’t know that the website would have shuttered in 2000 if it wasn’t for someone important in my life who persuaded me to continue because so many people depended on me.  It is an example of why no one at any time should give up on ideas and ideals if he or she thinks it important.  When things look the darkest is when you need to increase your focus and pass through the storm; the scars will heal, and your soul will be stronger.

Regarding the next 3 to 5 years, I try not to predict that far ahead quite frankly.  If five years ago I tried to predict Sonshi.com’s progress I would have been way off and thus I won’t try today.  However I will say we’ll continue to work on our mission to promote and teach Sun Tzu’s teaching.  No matter what and whom we meet along the way, all will be blessings.

Morris: I often fantasize about hosting a dinner to which I could invite anyone I wish. Plato and William Shakespeare, for example. And probably Eleanor of Aquitaine. Let’s pretend that you are hosting a dinner in Sun Tzu’s honor and you could invite anyone you wish. Who are among those whom you select? Why?

Huynh: I would invite all of his students.  From the famous to the unknown.  It would be one BIG party! I want Sun Tzu to see what a tremendous impact he has on the world, even and perhaps especially today — and in a land that would be quite foreign to him: America.  Our job at Sonshi.com is not only to bring them all together but to collaborate with them so we all understand his teachings accurately, as Sun Tzu intended.

Huynh invites those who read this interview to check out the resources provided at this Web site:

http://www.sonshi.com/

 

9 Responses

  1. Solitary One says:

    I used to follow the discussions on Sonshi.com on a daily basis, as it was the highlight of my day, but I have noticed that the forum has become largely inactive. My favorite contributers (one an educator and another a law enforcement officer), who added true Sun Tzusian value to the forum, have moved on. What a shame. How could you let us down like this Thomas? Party? What party?

  2. bid ninja says:

    Terrific post. Thanks.

  3. David Jeffrey says:

    I’m just wondering if I’m the educator that ‘Solitary One’ mentions above. I am currently deeply involved with post-graduate research with regard to the ancient Asian classics that relate to strategy in terms of finding common strands to contemporary competitive scenarios. Loved Sonshi.com when I was there but have moved on since.

  4. David Jeffrey says:

    Haven’t checked back at Thomas Huynh’s Sonshi.com’s forum in a while (I think the last time I did was about a year ago). To my surprise, it’s gone. There was a treasure of interactive strategic insight there. But now it’s gone. That’s sad…

  5. David Jeffrey says:

    Yes, the sonshi.com website is there, but not it’s FORUM – that’s gone!

  6. David Jeffrey says:

    Just checked back at Sonshi.com a few moments ago and see that the old public forum has been replaced with a new blog that promises to be interesting and informative. Thanks Thomas and keep up the good work!

  7. David Jeffrey says:

    …and Thomas has now also opened a brand new public forum, in addition to his new blog, which is great!

  8. David Jeffrey says:

    Checked back a moment ago at sonshi.com. Blog remains, but can’t find the new public forum. It’s gone again…

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