Sun Tzu: the Art of War (III): Attack by Stratagam

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. 
Sun Tzu artist's impression from Qīnggōngdiàn Cánghuàběn
清宮殿藏畫本 / 清宫殿藏画本

III. Attack by Stratagem

1. Sun Tzu said: In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.

Capturing (conquering) hostile lands is not really how modern wars get waged, save for by Russians and (kind of) the Israelis. The paragraph applies to only one particular form of war, a war of conquest.
One might interpret the paragraph differently, though: It might be about the period of campaigning only, rather than about the post-war period.

There's a thing that Sun Tzu cannot possibly have thought of: Modern military battle exercises tend to lead to exaggerated (simulated) casualties and they are usually about combat troops vs. combat troops contacts. Actual conventional warfare would see brigades and divisions fighting that have much less than 1/3 infantry and armoured combat vehicle troops each. Historically, even sturdy formations retreated after suffering 20...30% casualties. A translation to the smaller share of combat troops in modern army brigades allows for how this would play out these days: A brigade would likely withdraw after around 10% casualties (of total brigade) in a combat troops vs. combat troops clash. The hostile forces then have the opportunity to pursue and possibly capture almost all of the rest of the brigade with little munitions expenditure, little losses and also less bloodshed than in the original contact.
Meanwhile, modern land battle exercises may go up to total annihilation of opposing combat forces because nobody fears for his life for real and thus the troops don't surrender en masse.
A bit more focus on taking (and then controlling, caring for) prisoners of war and pursuit in general would benefit our army wartime effectiveness.

2. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.

There were periods in which this was tried, and in an exaggerated and actually ineffective way. Especially the captains of mercenary forces of the 16th and 17th centuries often attempted to create more theatre of war and do looting than doing actual battle. The expensive standing armies of the 18th century were also often (before the 1790's) used very cautiously with much manoeuvring with supply depot (fortress) locations in mind, unless Frederick II was in a hurry or Suvorov got involved.
On the other hand, the gigantic Soviet tank force of 1941 was in large part destroyed by enticing the Soviets to move their tank forces around till the poorly maintained tanks broke down and became largely useless for want of spare parts.

3. Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy's plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy's forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy's army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.

I dealt with the 'walled cities' topic before.

4. The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. The preparation of mantlets, movable shelters, and various implements of war, will take up three whole months; and the piling up of mounds over against the walls will take three months more.

I dealt with the 'walled cities' topic before.

5. The general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege.

I dealt with the 'walled cities' topic before.

6. Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy's troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.

Subduing enemy forces quickly, but without battle, usually only worked when the enemy was extremely fragile in some way or utterly inferior to begin with. This sentence seems to be wishful thinking on part of Sun Tzu. It's more of an unrealistic ideal than a practical guidance and thus likely meant figuratively. He may have conveyed distaste here rather than advice or guidance.

7. With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is the method of attacking by stratagem.

8. It is the rule in war, if our forces are ten to the enemy's one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him; if twice as numerous, to divide our army into two.

The advice about surrounding does not square with the nearly contemporary Battle of Cannae (216 BC), where a numerically weaker force surrounded and almost completely destroyed an enemy army. Encirclement battles of annihilation were frequently done with armies only a little bigger or smaller (see also Battle of Tannenberg (1914)).
The modern rule of thumb for attacking by superior force is that the attacker should be 3:1 superior locally. This rule of thumb was often mentioned in writing, but it doesn't do justice to the complexity of the situations and I saw no evidence that army leaders really ever stuck to it in actual land warfare.
There was a military history study years ago that looked at historical battles and what determined victory. Numerical superiority proved to be no strong predictor of battle victory at all.
I interpret Sun Tzu's 'twice' part as being about a converging attack (or hammer and anvil movement) from different directions rather than about really separating the force.

9. If equally matched, we can offer battle; if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy; if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him.

10. Hence, though an obstinate fight may be made by a small force, in the end it must be captured by the larger force.

This is the "Last Stand" problem. Such actions are frequently recalled as heroic, but rarely of much use. The events of 1942-1945 turned the "Last Stand" idea into a farce.
Sun Tzu clearly thought only of conventional state vs. state conflict or overtly fighting rebel armies here. Guerilla conflicts follow different rules. Guerilla wars aren't so much about destroying forces as about undermining the morale and cohesion and (for the government forces) about bolstering the same.

11. Now the general is the bulwark of the State; if the bulwark is complete at all points; the State will be strong; if the bulwark is defective, the State will be weak.

The importance of generals is not as prominent any more. The quality of generalship was probably for the last time of such prominent importance back in 1870 and even then the pre-war preparation of the officer corps was the really decisive factor.

12. There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army:--

13. (1) By commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey. This is called hobbling the army.

14. (2) By attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army. This causes restlessness in the soldier's minds.

He'd be rolling in his grave if he knew about the bureaucracy and red tape in a modern army.

15. (3) By employing the officers of his army without discrimination, through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to circumstances. This shakes the confidence of the soldiers.

16. But when the army is restless and distrustful, trouble is sure to come from the other feudal princes. This is simply bringing anarchy into the army, and flinging victory away.

We haven't seen much of this post-1945 because the civilian leadership is almost always aware of its incompetence in regard to generalship. Princes of the time of Sun Tzu were probably raised from early years to become army leaders, and largely educated for it by the age of 15 when they were considered adults.

17. Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory: (1) He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight. (2) He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces. (3) He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks. (4) He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared. (5) He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.

18. Hence the saying: If you know the 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.

The nature of all warfare is adversary. Sun Tzu neglects this by exaggerating the importance of the general he seeks to educate here. It is trivial that these two paragraphs are incorrect when the opposing general is just as competent or just as incompetent.



  1. "The modern rule of thumb for attacking by superior force is that the attacker should be 3:1 superior locally. This rule of thumb was often mentioned in writing, but it doesn't do justice to the complexity of the situations and I saw no evidence that army leaders really ever stuck to it in actual land warfare."

    It is not even clear why it exists. The Depuy Institute can't find any data that support it....


    1. What's also puzzling about the rule of thumb for 3:1 superiority in the attack is that there's also a rule of thumb that the defense should be capable of defeating an attacker that is superior in combat power by a ratio of about 3:1.