Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” Film Shows You How to Apply “The Art of War”

The Art of War was written over 2000 years ago but has left a powerful impact on society. Military leaders have gleaned the wisdom of Sun-Tzu to strengthen their leadership skills. In modern times, people in the business world have learned to apply some of the tenets to their organizations. The concepts are effective and apply to many aspects of organizational behavior. As Jessica Hagy, author of Art of War Visualized, stated, “The Art of War has been a game plan to success for more than 800 years.”

Mark McNeilly, the author of Sun Tzu and art of Modern Warfare, made this statement to explain the impact, “Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has proved to be a classic work on strategy, applicable not only to warcraft but beyond that to statecraft.” He also pointed out that it has been “admired by leaders as diverse as Mao Zedong and General Norman Schwarzkopf.” General Schwarzkopf, in the words of the USA Today, “topped an illustrious military career by commanding the U.S.-led international coalition that drove Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait in 1991”. He became known to the public by his famous nickname “Stormin Norman.”

Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is a powerful film about Five African-American men who served in the Vietnam war. The story details how these men, known as Bloods, related to one another and how they dealt with their challenges throughout a 50-year duration. The movie opens with squad members Paul, Otis, Eddie, and Melvin meeting in a Hotel in Vietnam. Their squad leader, Norman Earl Holloway, is known to the rest of them as “Stormin Norman.” His leadership qualities and the impact of those qualities during the war serve as the backbone of the story. You will be able to understand and apply some of the concepts from Sun Tzu after reading this article and watching Da 5 Bloods.

Norman’s Leadership

Sun-Tzu describes five constant factors that govern the art of war. While he believes all five should be taken into account, two of them stand out when watching the Bloods perform their mission. The first factor is the Moral Law. “The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.”

When the men are discussing how to best allocate financial resources after achieving a key objective, the team discusses the lessons Norman taught them about wealth many years ago. In the midst of all of their good fortune, Eddie cares more about respecting Norman’s vision for society than he cares about the opportunity to address his own problems. He also makes a point to think about Norman’s well-being. This demonstrates the Moral Law, where Eddie is in accord with his squad leader. He is following him without regard for his personal gain.

Another factor, and perhaps the most important, is the story of Norman as a commander. When describing the importance of this factor, Sun-Tzu says, “The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness.” Norman exemplifies these virtues in the field of battle, where it matters most. When asked to reflect on Norman, Otis openly compliments his squad leader. He states that “Stormin earned his name,” referring to his prowess on the field of battle. Otis goes on to say, “That brother was the best damn soldier that ever lived.” He backs up that point by describing Norman’s ability to instill confidence in the other Bloods. Norman “made us believe that we would get home, alive” even though they were on the front line, and the war was “killin us off like flies.” They fought battles under Norman’s leadership. He was brave and strict when he had to be. Norman was willing to die to enforce an order that would protect his men from reckless decisions after the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He commanded them to “Stand down, that’s an order. You gonna have to kill me first. Blood on Blood.” Although they were furious, they relented and followed their leader, who explained a larger vision.

He told them that Bloods “won’t let nobody use our rage against us. We control our rage”. He cared about Black people and truly wanted to help the cause of Black Liberation. He educated the other Bloods not just on warfare but on politics and history as well. Otis and Melvin take a moment to reflect upon him right before a major battle by agreeing that the very idea of morals and ethics “sounds like Stormin Norman.”

Norman was a commander whom Sun Tzu would deem of extraordinary ability.

Teamwork

My High School had a sign on the wall that said, “A team is a family. There are no stars.”. My father taught me to “Win as a team. Lose as a team.” After a tough loss. My sister tells me, “teamwork makes the dream work” when we figure out something together. I found out this is from John C. Maxwell, but my sister gets credit from me. Da Five Bloods is a display of teamwork and sacrifice. We can see how strong they are as individuals, but they are much more potent as a unit.

The Art of War discusses how one can turn five elements into an endless energy source if appropriately blended. Sun Tzu explains, “There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combination of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard. There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination, they produce more hues than can ever be seen. There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.”

“The Clever Combatant looks to the effect of combined energy and does not require too much from individuals.” This statement was an early way of saying the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

We can see this idea in the story. Eddie decides to reveal his major personal troubles with his brothers after accomplishing their mission. He does this in response to his brothers questioning his philosophy regarding their future actions. He is willing to suffer severe humiliation to keep the team united during a heated argument. “You remember what Norm said about money?” In frustration, an exasperated Eddie walks off and yells, “I hoped we could be Bloods one more time.”. The unity of the Bloods means more to him than his privacy or social standing within the group.

Norman, the leader, shares a very private moment with Paul. Paul is troubled by what he knows happened in Vietnam and has not dealt with his pain. Paul finally faces his root problem, and Norman harbors no resentment at all. Norman reaches out to him and tells him that the ongoing situation between them “Ain’t no thing, Blood” because, as Norman puts it, “I know you, Blood.” The power of the group dynamic once again helps the individual deal with their challenges.

It was said that Paul believed Norman like a religion. Paul is in his toughest moment, and he empowers himself by reflecting on his latest conversation with Norman. When Paul’s adversaries attempt to intimidate him, he confidently responds, “See, were Bloods. We got a bond.” The psychological power derived from the Bloods outweighs the power of anyone in his way, even himself.

Melvin makes light of putting aside his selfish interests to save the Bloods. While he admits he loves them, he jokingly sets some boundaries for his friends. In Melvin’s own words, “I ain’t doin that…Like Aretha sang, ‘You better think’”. They know his character, and nobody takes it personally. Melvin finds his own way to help the Bloods team when they really need him to come through for them. He makes his purpose clear, letting his allies know he is ready for battle. When asked, he declares with a stone face, “Blood, this ain’t my first time in Nam.” and makes sure they remember the plan.

“If I gotta go out, I gotta go out like a man, Blood.” Otis expresses this sentiment to Melvin when he is bracing himself to face a challenging situation. When Otis is face to face with a dangerous opponent who has the upper hand, he shows no fear. Otis looks into the eyes of his enemy and says with a smile, “Five Bloods don’t die. We multiply.”

All of the men are strong, capable soldiers. We see how they become a unified squad and go beyond their normal limits because of their dedication to the Bloods. The five Bloods function like the notes, colors, and tastes of the world to create an inexhaustible energy supply.

There were other lessons from The Art of War. A few of those ideas are listed below.

Hold Out Baits to Entice the Enemy

Sun Tzu made a significant point in his book. He said, “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive.”

The Bloods and their allies use this principle of deception in a crucial situation. The Bloods have dealt with some terrible problems, and they need to find a way to deal with more problems. By executing “the plan”, the Bloods use this very principle to battle with a stronger force. They attempt to play on the avarice of their enemy. They use flattery and feign weakness to draw them in. They use bait and make use of the best fortress they can find.

Waging War

“Now, when your weapons are dulled, and your ardor damped, your strength exhausted, and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity.” Another critical point is “A wise general makes a point on foraging on his enemy. One cartload of the enemy’s provisions is equivalent to twenty of one’s own.”

The Bloods have moments of joy, and they also experience moments of despair. The Bloods have discovered they have enemies who want to accomplish the same mission. These people spring up during difficult times and add to their hardship. Like Sun Tzu pointed out, people will try to take advantage of your situation if they see you exhausted. The enemy also wants the Bloods to do all the work while reaping the benefits, which is a theme in this story. This idea is brought up during the film in discussing the histories of Vietnam and the United States. Sun Tzu refers to this concept as using the conquered foe to augment one’s strength.

Knowing the Enemy

The Art of War says, “If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained, you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Sun Tzu is simply laying out the importance of quality information. The absolute key to success is to know all there is to know long before the battle ever begins. You are sure to lose if you do not have quality information about your internal state of affairs or the surrounding external environment.

When the Bloods meet their new contact, DesRoches, they have an intense exchange. The Bloods, most notably Paul, take offense to his arrogant attitude and his blunt questions. When Paul calls their new contact out for his behavior, the man replies, “In my line of work, I have to be very careful, and that means knowing exactly who I am business with.” Both sides describe their concerns with managing the risks involved. Perhaps their contact read this book before their meeting.

Although Paul tells DesRoches that “We gotta trust you, and you gotta trust us,” he suspects that his squad may have trouble with him. Each of the men is working hard to understand the other party in the agreement before they ultimately decide to form a partnership.

Spike Lee did another brilliant job, yet again showing the world his greatness as a filmmaker. Da Five Bloods is a fantastic story to experience without looking at it through The Art of War’s lens. It stands alone as a beautiful display of cinema. There are leadership lessons that can be drawn from interpreting the Art of War principles and understanding the strength and determination of the characters in the story. Sun Tzu would have loved Da Five Bloods. I hope you enjoyed this spoiler-free interpretation of Spike Lee and Sun Tzu.

Preston Charles studied marketing at Morehouse College and earned his MBA in Supply Chain Management and Strategic Leadership from Penn State University.