Sun Tzu: The Art of War (I) Laying plans

I will use this easily accessible translation version
to comment on the Art of War, and I will pretend that Sun Tzu was indeed a historical person.

I. Laying Plans

1. Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the State.
The background to this was a struggle of a few large states that later led to the formation of an empire. The art of war was vital to those states (of which only one succeeded, of course) in this particular case and because they found no diplomatic way to co-exist or join. This includes them not being able to form a deterring and thus stabilising alliance.
There are many countries today - no doubt "states" - that have no need for military power or the art of war and rather suffer under their own military (via its expenses and sometimes military dictatorships). The art of war furthermore seems to have taken a backseat to a primacy of politics and also to  overwhelming resources.

2. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.
The same applies. I rather view the art of war as a skill to make efficient use of allocated resources for the purposes of deterrence and defence. Today, the only "life and death" question for almost all NATO countries is whether they will be bombarded with thermonuclear warheads. The art of war doesn't do anything about this. To the Maledives, the only "life and death" questions are how quickly the Indian Ocean sea level rises and whether there's going to be a big tsunami.

3. The art of war, then, is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one's deliberations, when seeking to determine the conditions obtaining in the field.

4. These are: (1) The Moral Law; (2) Heaven; (3) Earth; (4) The Commander; (5) Method and discipline.

5,6. 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.
We would call this 'national cohesion'. Nation states can weaken their cohesion by allowing politics of hate and division to drive wedges between citizens. Ethnic groupings and religious groupings may also drive such wedges.

7. Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.
The U.S. Army uses the "METT-TC" concept. Mission, enemy, terrain, troops available, time and civilian considerations. Formation and unit leaders are supposed to remember and take into consideration these when making tactical decisions. "terrain" and "time" encapsulate what Master Tzu wrote there. Campaigns could be year-round in the Southern Chinese Mediterranean climate, but Northern China is cool enough to allow pre-modern campaigning only during part of the year. Campaign seasons were a very important concept in ancient and medieval times. The correct timing could allow your army to sabotage the harvest of the enemy, or to make use of it for its own nourishment.

8. Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.

9. The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerely, benevolence, courage and strictness.

10. By method and discipline are to be understood the marshalling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure.
Rome and the Chinese warring states were probably the only other power this advanced at the time. The Greeks understood the concept of proper roads only once the Romans ruled them, for example.
Even as late of WW2 some generals were so tactically-minded that they did not pay enough attention to maintaining a steady and sufficient flow of supplies. Their too hasty advances often ended up stalling for want of supply rather than because of some newly-established defensive line. CvC described this with the 'cuminating point of attack'.
"[T]he control of military expenditure" is  certainly an area in which disastrous incompetence is rampant in modern armed forces, not exclusively in those pampered with lavish budgets.

11. These five heads should be familiar to every general: he who knows them will be victorious; he who knows them not will fail.
And there's a huge grey zone in between as well as cases of symmetry (both opposing generals heed the advice or fail to do so entirely), but The Art of War does not provide any specific formula for odds of victory. Such absolute statements are all figurative, more an indication of trend than really a law of war.
12. Therefore, in your deliberations, when seeking to determine the military conditions, let them be made the basis of a comparison, in this wise:--

13. (1) Which of the two sovereigns is imbued with the Moral law? (2) Which of the two generals has most ability? (3) With whom lie the advantages derived from Heaven and Earth? (4) On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced? (5) Which army is stronger? (6) On which side are officers and men more highly trained? (7) In which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment?
The modern, math-educated mind misses a weighting of these factors. "The Art of War" was not written for mathematical certainty. It was seemingly written to force a learning officer to think himself, and to think about what matters to military success.

14. By means of these seven considerations I can forecast victory or defeat.
Well, no, you cannot. For starters, guerilla wars largely elude his criteria. Only the "moral law" thing still matters to them.

15. The general that hearkens to my counsel and acts upon it, will conquer: let such a one be retained in command! The general that hearkens not to my counsel nor acts upon it, will suffer defeat:--let such a one be dismissed!
This is nowadays known as "zero defect tolerance", and a stupid concept in personnel affairs. Past performance does not indicate future performance more reliably than some other ways of judging competence. Frederick the Great lost and ran from his first battle, which was then saved by his veteran 2nd in command.
Strict adherence to a doctrine is also largely frowned upon today, and for good reasons.

16. While heading the profit of my counsel, avail yourself also of any helpful circumstances over and beyond the ordinary rules.

17. According as circumstances are favorable, one should modify one's plans.
It is widely understood that plans hardly ever become enacted 1:1. Changes get forced upon campaign and battle leaders all the time. Yet there's also patience required. Particularly early reports are unreliable and don't help much to understand the greater picture. A German field marshal once left his HQ when his operation launched and had a solo walk in the green. The reports of the first hours would be useless to his level of command anyway. His staff would have to form a situation picture over time, and he himself should not risk creating an immovable opinion early on.

18. All warfare is based on deception.
Not really, but often times it would help a bit to add deception. The real advantage behind deception is mostly the provocation of surprise. Surprise again is mostly about coming to a fight ready for combat when and where your opponent isn't. Armed forces cannot keep up high readiness for battle for long. 

19. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

20. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.
This is exceedingly risky. To feign disorder risks a rout. Moreover, you don't know what information reaches the opposing leadership and it would be advisable to rather try to (almost) blind it than to fool it. 
The steppe armies of Central Asia practised such feigned retreats and ambushes / surprise counterattacks a lot. There were rather few other examples of feigned disorder-ambushes in military history. It's simply too dangerous.

21. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him.
There is no need to evade superior strength. Many tactics have been devised that allow successful combat against a superior force, even if a superior portion of said hostile force gets involved in the action. The element of surprise is a particularly useful one, but terrain advantages and dissimilar forces were also often used to very good effect (see Agincourt). To evade a superior force without a prospect of getting more reinforcements and having less attrition than the opponent equals a surrender.

22. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.
Again, pretending to be weak may fool your own forces as well, and risk a morale collapse. Not all forms of choleric temper are susceptible to hostile irritations. Some people get choleric when their own team fails, but stay calm when the other team does well on its own account.

23. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them.
Pursuit proved to be the really devastating action compared to many if not most historical battles. It was often times possible to force an opposing army to yield the battlefield with little losses, and then to exploit its shattered order with a relentless pursuit usually by cavalry.
It's often overlooked that cavalry justified its existence in the age of blackpowder more with pursuit, scouting and security tasks than by battlefield effect. The latter was indeed usually poor since the 16th century.
To separate hostile forces or to even only keep them separated proved difficult throughout military history. Many armies were led by a single prince or general who did not want to detach much of his force. Frederick the Great and later CvC created maxims to the effect that you should have your forces concentrated for battle.

24. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
This is about readiness for battle, and also about the element of surprise. Military history has many examples of successful surprise by an unlikely choice of a route (see Hannibal's Alps crossing or the executed version of Fall Gelb, for example). There is a kind of bias in this, though. The great many failed smart ideas to surprise by going a difficult route do not get as much attention. There are actually books exclusively about military blunders, and I found them to be more interesting than books about plans that worked out well.

25. These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand.
Plain OPSEC; this should be a trivial idea.

26. Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose. 
One should remember that planning a campaign was a much less planning-intensive affair then than now. It's plain wrong to apply this advice without taking into account the context. Sun Tzu warned against planning too little, but no man of his time could have imagined the amount of planning and its details that a modern brigade, division or corps staff could do if its commanding officer demands a thorough planning preparation. Some things that were utterly self-evident then are no more today. The means of an army leader to micromanage supplies or troop movements and even fires today allow too much planning and too much micromanagement.
see also defense-and-freedom.blogspot.com/2011/07/



  1. Your comment on 5/6 the Moral Law regarding politics of hate and division and national cohesion is true and on point.

    Concur with the rest of your comments, or most of them anyway. But #20??? Yes, it is risky in modern war. But historically it wasn't just Central Asians. A feigned retreat was used by the Spartans at Thermopylae. Carthaginians used it at Agrigentum, Bagradas (1), & Trebia. Numidians used it at Bagradas (2). Han Chinese used it as did Koreans and Japanese (The Shimazu Clan of Kyushu was famous for using that tactic most notably at Kizake against 10 to 1 odds). Picts, Bretons, Moors, Lithuanians, & the Spanish in the New World used it. Charles Martel! William the Conqueror at Hastings. Morgan at Cowpens & Greene at Guilford Courthouse & Inman at Musgrove Mill during the American Revolution. The British at Delhi. Napoleon at Austerlitz & Mont Medolano. Red Cloud at Fort Kearny. I'm sure there are many more.

    1. There's a difference between feigning disorder and feigning retreat.
      For example, Hannibal's tactic at Lake Trasimene was built on the Romans believing he was marching away from them. He did not feign disorder.

    2. How would an army feign disorder other than by retreating? What examples are there of that in historical battles?

    3. One method was to disinform with fake deserters or double agents. Sun Tzu mentioned this venue for deception in the chapter on the use of spies (Ch. XIII). Frederick the Great also mentioned such methods IIRC.

    4. Or perhaps to disinform via deceptive radio traffic. But none of those seem risky IMHO.

    5. Look, an anecdote from Patton: He preferred to move to the front by car, and fly back by light STOL aircraft.
      He didn't want his troops to see him moving away from the front because of fragile morale reasons.

      Whatever disorder you feign, it's risky if your own troops might notice the signs. This absolutely includes radio traffic.

    6. A wise decision by Patton. I had not heard that before. Thanks for the anecdote, I appreciate it. Although I have to wonder if Patton ever feigned disorder or feigned a retreat in any of his campaigns. That does not seem like his style.

    7. SO:

      mike did not mentioned the battle of trasimeno lake. This is so primitive straw man that it is wide under your niveau.

      Lets stay with the normans as one example. The feigned disorder definitly in several battles. And as mike stated correctly it was not so risky that it is perhaps today. That leads to the general question if it possible to compare the circumstances then and now so easily, as they were extremly different in many important points.

    8. I was offering a particularly clear example of a retreat without feigned disorder. I think most of his examples were about feigning retreats as well.

      Care to offer one very clear and well-documented case of feigned disorder that led to victory?

  2. The Greeks had resupply by sea which was 20-25 times cheaper than land transport.
    China had a wheelbarrow network which allowed paved road transport at a fraction of the costs of Roman roads, thus through more roads with less cogestion, but wheelbarrow roads were less suitable for marching armies.
    I would say that for Chinese history the riverine transport played more of a role than for Rome. For Rome rivers were borders, for China they were internal routes.
    Riverine transport is about 4-5 times cheaper than land transport. The Roman paved roads were primarily built for marching armies in straight lines with economics playing no role in the planning and design. The economic effects were despite the often steep gradients.

  3. It is refreshing to see someone reviewing Sun Tzu's "Art of War" critically in its historical context, rather than simply repeating it as if it was an absolute truth, just because he said it- as it is done with so many quotes from historical figures.

  4. Do you have a couple of book examples for military blunders? I agree that they tend to be very informative

    1. The only one ion the shelf (rather than in basement storage) is "How to lose a battle" by Bill Fawcett. I don't remember how good it is.
      Most books of this sort can be found easily by searching for 'military blunders'. You can find 14 or more such books with an amazon search with that term alone.