Sun Tzu: The Art of War (VIII): Variation in Tactics

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. 
This source website offers its own commentary (focused on ancient China) and is still freely available - unlike the previously-used source website.
My parts are in cursive as always.
Sun Tzu artist's impression from Qīnggōngdiàn Cánghuàběn
清宮殿藏畫本 / 清宫殿藏画本


Sun Tzu said: In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign, collects his army and concentrates his forces.


When in difficult country, do not encamp. In country where high roads intersect, join hands with your allies. Do not linger in dangerously isolated positions.

In hemmed-in situations, you must resort to stratagem. In desperate position, you must fight.


There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must be not attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.

This is still relevant, and much needless expense and suffering has been inflicted by unnecessary actions. Thousands of Germans died in 1871 because some a-hole general absolutely wanted to capture a besieged and neutralized fort long after the war was de facto won. The American Pacific War was extended and 15,000 men died needlessly in the stupid Battle of Peleliu. German cities were bombed long after WW2 had been decided - and the destruction actually impeded the ground forces' advances.

also, see /2011/03/elegance-in-warfare.html

The other part of this sentence is about the need for the forward commander to think by himself. Preferably, the commander should do what's necessary and use his remaining freedom of action to suit what he understands is his superior's intent. This intent is not necessarily the same as the last order given by him. The knowledge about the situation is changing often times, and the forward commander has to act accordingly - not stick to obsolete orders given with a very different set of information in mind. There are anecdotes about this, notably by Frederick II the Great and and Royal Navy (Fisher after Battle of the Dogger Bank). Basically, senior troops-leading officers were told for centuries that they were made officers because it was believed that they'd know when it's the time to not follow orders.


The general who thoroughly understands the advantages that accompany variation of tactics knows how to handle his troops.

The polar opposite was quite often seen on the Eastern Front. A Soviet assault failed, the Soviet commander was pressured to succeed, a 2nd assault failed, 3rd, 4th, 5th, ...


The general who does not understand these, may be well acquainted with the configuration of the country, yet he will not be able to turn his knowledge to practical account.


So, the student of war who is unversed in the art of war of varying his plans, even though he be acquainted with the Five Advantages, will fail to make the best use of his men.


Hence in the wise leader's plans, considerations of advantage and of disadvantage will be blended together.


If our expectation of advantage be tempered in this way, we may succeed in accomplishing the essential part of our schemes.


If, on the other hand, in the midst of difficulties we are always ready to seize an advantage, we may extricate ourselves from misfortune.

A.k.a. "recon pull"; first see, then devise your action to suit the situation (and possibly exploit an opportunity). To be honest, my personal experience is that I'm unable to do so when I'm unprepared for the situation.


Reduce the hostile chiefs by inflicting damage on them; and make trouble for them, and keep them constantly engaged; hold out specious allurements, and make them rush to any given point.


The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy's not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.
Back in the old days an army usually didn't need to do more than set up camp and position on a hill to deter attack because uphill melee fights were losing melee fights. Few armies were able to supply themselves with water on a hill (the Romans did dig wells in such situations), so opponents could usually simply wait till the hilltop army had to move.


There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general: (1) Recklessness, which leads to destruction; (2) cowardice, which leads to capture; (3) a hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults; (4) a delicacy of honor which is sensitive to shame; (5) over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble.

"cowardice" is rather meant as timidity according to the source website. 

Temper and honour superficially don't seem to be of much relevance in modern warfare any more, but timidity sure has. Then again, temper and honour provocation are exactly what UBL exploited to make the Americans -and to a lesser degree the Europeans - go batshit crazy and hurt themselves in a myriad of ways.


These are the five besetting sins of a general, ruinous to the conduct of war. 
It's weird that he doesn't mention lack of loyalty as a general's possible sin. That caused unfathomable harm both to the Western Roman and the Chinese empires and still plagues the developing world.


When an army is overthrown and its leader slain, the cause will surely be found among these five dangerous faults. Let them be a subject of meditation.

So this chapter is overall not yielding so many opportunities for me to comment. Much of it seems to be quite obvious to the modern reader.



1 comment:

  1. On a more positive note, the uncommented sections are uncritized, because they're still good standard.