The Art of War

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Among the earliest strategy treatises was The Art of War, by Sun-tzu. Sun-tzu ("Master Sun") was an ancient Chinese general and royal military advisor -- and that’s pretty much all that is known about him; most of the details of when, where -- or even if -- he lived are the subjects of scholarly debates. Sun-tzu is generally accepted to have lived from 544-496 BCE, making him contemporaneous with Confucius, Pythagoras, and Leonidas I.

Sun-tzu reduced the discussion of warfare into its most abstract and generalized form, and in doing so, ceased to discuss warfare, per se. Instead, it became a discussion about the nature of conflict itself. This level of abstraction gives The Art of War its enduring power, and it is why it has only gained popularity over the past 2,500 years, when countless other books have been forever lost to us due to time and obscurity. At first, The Art of War sounds like a mere list of military maxims for officer candidates in the service academies and university ROTC departments. In reality, The Art of War provides general guidelines for anyone who experiences any sort of conflict in their lives -- which is to say, everyone. The Art of War contains simple, but timeless, wisdom that can apply to running a small business, winning a high school football game, and dealing with cliques of mean girls just as easily as it applies to fistfights, resistance cells, or world wars.

The teachings presented in The Art of War mesh so well with everyday life in a modern world because, ironically, Sun-tzu advocates non-violence. (Case and point, the chapter on scorched earth tactics is mostly spent trying to talk the reader out of using scorched earth tactics.) According to Sun-tzu, the ideal strategy is to cultivate a position which is so secure that the enemy has no choice but to surrender. Barring that, you are to physically and spiritually wear your enemies out, to coax them into quitting. Conflict is presented as being expensive and unproductive. The real goal is to win, not to fight. Enemies are to be assimilated, not destroyed, so you can take their strength and grow stronger and stronger. If conflict is unavoidable, then attacks should be limited to surgical strikes directed at the enemy’s weakest spots.

The Art of War consists of a series of brief, expository statements, which were expanded upon by various commentators throughout history While profound, Sun-tzu can be difficult to fully understand; Sun-tzu's statements are often vague, obtuse, and mysterious. This makes sense, as much of his book is devoted to the benefits of being formless and mysterious. However, this also makes Sun-tzu difficult to learn from. This is why we have not posted the full text of his work; instead, we provide a “Cliff’s Notes” for this ancient text; a “Schaum’s Outlines” for dealing with conflict. The distilled essence of the principles Sun-tzu was trying to teach rendered in a standard English prose can be found below.

Strategic Assessment

The study of conflict can literally be of life-and-death importance for an individual or organization. Conflict is just the application of advantages and disadvantages, which is critical for determining which paths in life will inevitably lead to your survival, or to your destruction.

A successful leader starts out by assessing five criteria, and uses this assesment to compares themselves to their enemy, to determine the conditions of the conflict. To ignore this initial assessment is to invite defeat. The criteria to be assessed are:

  1. The Way. To follow the Way is to win the hearts of the people through virtue. When subordinates buy into their leader’s plans and intentions, they are willing to endure danger and sacrifice, since their goals coincide with the leader’s goals, and vice-versa. If you treat your subordinates with humanity and justice, you will never have to give an order; you only need to ask for favors.
  2. Timing. Timing is critical to conflict. Entering into a conflict at the wrong moment will invariably result in ruin.
  3. Terrain. Terrain is a function of distance, the ease or difficulty of traveling through a region, the geometry of the battleground, and the relative safety of the area. Terrain dictates which routes and options are available, the number and type of units that should be deployed, and whether to fight or flee.
  4. Leadership. This is a function of the five virtues of a leader:
    1. Intelligence -- Above all, a leader needs the cleverness to create plans, and the wisdom to know when and how to alter that plan to compensate for changing circumstances.
    2. Trustworthiness -- A leader treat his subordinates (and the rest of the population) consistently. Consistent treatment is the key to maintaining any system of punishments and rewards.
    3. Humanity -- Leaders must show love and compassion for their subordinates, while being mindful of the toil the must endure.
    4. Courage -- Leaders must seize opportunities and make a stand without delay to ensure victory.
    5. Sternness -- Leaders must use strict punishments to establish discipline. Rules and commands must be clear and easily understood to be followed efficiently. All must be equal under the law.
  5. Discipline. Discipline is a function of three tasks:
    1. Organization -- Subordinates perform the most efficiently when placed in small, pre-defined groups (This will be elaborated upon in later sections.)
    2. Chain-of-Command -- Officers and managers are needed to maintain group cohesion and focus.
    3. Logistics -- Supplies and resources must be efficiently distributed to the subordinates who need them.

Based on the assessments of these five criteria, asking the following seven questions will allow you to compare your forces with the enemy’s forces, and reveal your comparative strengths and weaknesses:

  1. Which leader follows the Way more closely?
  2. Which leader has the best leadership traits?
  3. Which leader has the most advantageous timing and terrain?
  4. Which leader maintains the most rigorous discipline?
  5. Which leader has the strongest subordinates?
  6. Which leader has the best-trained officers and subordinates?
  7. Which leader maintains the clearest system of rewards and punishments?

Once the initial assessments and comparisons are complete, you can create a strategy, and use this strategy to deploy your subordinates in the most efficient way. Bear in mind, that all conflict has no standardized form, and conflict is driven by deception. If your enemy discerns your strategy, they can counter it. Therefore, strategies must be secrets. If you are strong, appear weak. If you are skilled, appear incompetent. If you are brave, appear timid. Use humility to make your enemies arrogant. Lull your opponents into writing you off, so that they drop their guard. (Many people commented over the years about how the wooden, awkward, and bumbling Clark Kent looked just like Superman -- but no one believed it could be true, “knowing” what they “knew” about Clark. Though they could see through his horn-rimmed glasses, they could not see through their perception of him; they could not see through his obvious deceit.)

There is no perfect or universal strategy or tactic -- nor can there ever be. Weaknesses exist within every system. If conflicts were reduced to a step-by-step procedure, then interrupting any step would halt and hang up the entire strategy, like a crashing computer program. The strength of a strategy lies in the strategist’s ability to adjust their plans to account for changing situations. Conflict is a chaotic system; the end results can vary greatly due to small changes of the initial conditions. Although a generalized conflict resolution algorithm cannot not exist, there are several partial strategies that have consistently proven themselves to be successful. In the end, the situation itself must dictate your plans, but the following approaches should be strongly considered:

  • Confuse your opponents prior to attacking them. When you want to attack something far off, act as though you were about to attack something nearby, and vice-versa.
  • Avoid direct confrontation. Instead, fortify your position, set up traps, and make the enemy come you.
  • If your enemy has a strong leader, expect action.
  • If your enemy has strong subordinates, avoid them. Closely watch the enemy for any weaknesses or defensive gaps to present themselves.
  • The weak can control the strong in moments of transition or change. For example, a well-timed joke or prank can embarrass your enemies, making them angry enough to carelessly attack without forming a strategy.
  • Bigger is not always better. Rather than making one large attack, constantly attack your enemy in different places, and in different ways. Wear your opponents out by forcing them to constantly respond to emergencies. Find ways to force the enemy to waste their strength and energy, instead of putting it to use to defeat you.
  • Cause division within the enemy’s organization. Sabotage the enemy’s relationships, friendships, and alliances. Bribe subordinates. Have infiltrators join the enemy’s organization; have them commit sabotage and spread rumors to divide a powerful enemy into smaller, weaker enemies who fight among themselves.
  • Prepare for all contingencies. Your subordinates must be motivated to train daily, lest they become fearful and hesitant when confronted. Likewise, leaders must constantly develop strategies for different contingencies. The end goal of this constant plotting is not to create an exhaustive encyclopedia of strategies, or to make a master decision tree or flowchart to reduce conflict to a series of automated responses to enemy action. Such a system is impossible, because a clever opponent can find and exploit hidden weaknesses. Cleverness conquers all, and leaders who are constantly making plans will become excellent at planning. Thus, they will be able to quickly adapt their plans to account for an enemy’s trickery, or to exploit their mistakes.
  • Stack the deck. Whoever has the most strategic advantages on their side will win, period. Victory during any conflict can be (and is) predetermined well-ahead of the conflict itself. Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.

Waging Battles

Conflict is expensive, both in terms of material and human costs. Like blades, people will dull with constant use. The longer a conflict is permitted to last, the more it will grind your forces down, until they burnout. When you or your forces are burned out, your enemies can attack in your moment of weakness.

While quick and clumsy conflicts have a chance of success, prolonged conflicts (e.g., the Crusades, the Vietnam War, and the Global War on Terror) always yield a poor cost-benefit ratio. One must fully understand all of the costs and consequences associated with a conflict before one can begin to understand the benefits. Only pursue actions which can improve your overall benefit-cost ratio.

Ongoing conscription and taxation makes citizens bitter, so determine if you can win before raising an army. Likewise, constantly resupplying that army will be a financial drain. Feeding off of the enemy’s resources and lands will mitigate this expense, because there would be no shipping costs. However, feeding off of the locals will consume large amounts of their finite resources, causing the local prices to soar. This artificial inflation will ruin the local economy, impoverishing their population, and collapse the local government’s tax base. These conquered lands then become liabilities, not assets; the spoils of war will have spoiled. Likewise, your army will similarly drain your own people, from the cost of their wages, equipment, etc.

Roused and angered troops have natural killer instincts, but motivating men to capture, subdue, or incapacitate requires using incentive programs. People will willingly fight if they can share in the benefits of the outcome. While reward programs can be expensive, incentive programs based on a single, large prize motivates the most subordinates at a minimum cost. One large prize is more cost-effective than buying many smaller prizes. Prestige and notoriety will be bestowed upon the grand-prize winner of a great contest. While prestige and notoriety are considered valuable, they cost nothing, providing a greater overall benefit-cost ratio for your reward program. Additionally, this notoriety will still encourage those who value glory over greed.

Seized equipment can be turned against the enemy as soon as you’ve repainted it in your team’s colors. Prisoners must be treated well, so they will work with you, not against you. The goal of conflict is to assimilate the enemy, not to destroy them. Destruction of the enemy is an expensive, weakening endeavor. Assimilating the enemy is a profitable, enriching endeavor, because you can overcome the enemy and add their strength to your own.

The goal of conflict is not to fight, but to win. Conflict will burn you out if you let it; so hostilities must be brought to an end as quickly as possible, while maximizing the benefit-cost ratio.

Attack by Stratagem

In general, it is better to keep a nation, army, group, etc. intact than it is to destroy it. The ideal strategy involves no fighting; it is to coax the enemy into surrendering by a combination of intimidation, influence, and leverage. The ideal leader conquers their enemies by calculation, and not by force. Strategies are not reactive gameplans to win fights -- they are proactive plans that render your enemies unable to fight.

The best time to attack is when your enemy is still making plans, because in that moment, they have no strategy.

Strategies must remain secret. If the enemy learns your strategy, they will devise plans and defenses to counter it.

Offensive action against the enemy takes on several different forms, with varying benefit-cost ratios. Your offensive options are, in order of desirability:

  1. Stacking the Deck. Through planning and preparation, rig the situation until it is so wildly biased in your favor that your opponents simply have no means or opportunity to ever cause trouble.
  2. Preemptive Strikes. Discern enemy plots when they are still in their planning phases (spies can help with this), and make proactive surprise attacks or other maneuvers to stop the enemy before they can start.
  3. Diplomatic Sabotage. Prevent your enemy from drawing upon the strength of others by sabotaging their alliances, friendships, or interpersonal relations. Enemy alliances are the most vulnerable in their earliest stages, when they are still getting to know each other. Also, when alliances are strained, the enemy must work to preserve their relations, and they will be distracted by the negotiation's extra workload. Diplomatic sabotage can be a proactive measure; by befriending powerful people first, you become more intimidating, and the enemy is left with fewer options.
  4. Direct Confrontation. If you enter a situation where you must fight, you have failed. Even if you are victorious at battle, you will be a failure as a planner. However, if you do find yourself in a fighting situation, your options will be a function of your numerical superiority:
    • Severely outnumbered opponents should be encircled. Encircling prevents escape, but it requires troops to be spread over a large area, which runs the risk of spreading them too thin. As such, encircling maneuvers should only be used when you have a >10:1 advantage.
    • Moderately outnumbered opponents (5:1) should be attacked with pincer movements. Devote 60% of your forces to direct confrontation, and use the remaining 40% to attack from another angle.
    • Slightly outnumbered opponents (2:1) should be attacked with a divide-and-conquer approach. Half of your forces should directly engage the enemy, and the other half should be entirely devoted to hit-and-run surgical strikes on your enemy’s weak spots as they appear. These surgical strikes should pick the enemy apart, isolating and destroying small pieces of the opponent’s army.
    • Equally-matched opponents (1:1) should be surprised or ambushed. Since you have no advantage against an equal, you must rely on deception and surprise in order to gain leverage.
    • When you are outnumbered, avoid conflict. Only fight if you are certain you can win. Avoid the enemy, devise plans, forge alliances, and amass power and resources for future use. While the enemy may humiliate you for your weakness, they will only grow arrogant, and this can be exploited later.
    • When you are severely outnumbered by the enemy, flee. Don’t stand your ground; take what you can, and get the hell out of there. Regroup somewhere safe, pick up the pieces, and devise a new plan. Those who stubbornly fight against a superior enemy are doomed.
  5. Siege on a Fortified Position. A well-positioned, well-armed, well-defended, and well-supplied fortified enemy should not be directly confronted for any reason. The deck is stacked against you, and any small amount of progress will come at an enormous cost. Besieging such a position usually requires expensive, custom equipment, which requires long lead times to build. Such situations are explicitly designed to rile your anger, to cause you to make foolish decisions that waste your resources and manpower. Fortified opponents must be fought indirectly, by:
    • Threatening something the enemy cares about. The enemy will be lured out of their secure position to perform a rescue.
    • Maintaining a secure perimeter around the stronghold, to prevent it from being resupplied. When the enemy eventually consumes all of their supplies, material needs will coax them into leaving their stronghold.

There are five factors which bring victory:

  1. Knowing when and when not to fight.
  2. Knowing how to optimize resource allocation.
  3. Leaders, managers, and subordinates who all share mutual goals and vision.
  4. Depth preparation.
  5. The absence of bureaucratic red tape.

Organizations are only as strong as their leaders, and the ideal leader is one who can quickly undermine his enemies without resorting fighting or sieges. Killing the enemy and destroying their citadels will render them unable to be assimilated into your own forces. However, even ideal leaders can be hindered and made ineffective by interference from their overseers (e.g.m senior management, top brass, elected officials, etc.). This occurs in three ways:

  1. By tying up manpower and resources with fool’s errands and other unnecessary maneuvers.
  2. By managing military forces as though they were civilian forces (e.g., voting instead of ordering). Civilian governments rule by humanity and justice, neither of which belong in the thick of a fight.
  3. By making decisions without any real understanding of the local conditions.

These three effects will render your forces confused and hesitant -- and both of these are exploitable weaknesses. A clearly-defined chain-of-command is needed to rectify these three issues.

To be a successful leader mean more than being able to discern the strengths and weakness of your opponent's leaders, logistics, positions, etc.; you must be fully aware of your own strengths and shortcomings as well.

If you know thy enemy and know thyself, then you shall never know defeat.

If you either know thy enemy or know thyself, you can win -- but only if you are lucky.

If you know neither thy enemy nor thyself, you are always damned to fail. 


Skillful leaders do not try to outright defeat their opponents. Instead, they devote their time and energy into making themselves invincible, then prey on their opponent’s weaknesses. Invincibility is just having a defense without any gaps. Strength is merely the absence of weakness. However, some weakness will always exist; no person, army, or organization is ever truly invincible. The more you concentrate on resolving your flaws and weaknesses, the closer you will become to approaching this invincibility asymptote. The crux of strategic thinking is discerning and exploiting defensive gaps. You must make yourself strong, because that is all you can do; you cannot force others to be weak, or to make mistakes. You can only create opportunities for your enemies to make mistakes. Victories are discerned, not manufactured.

To become invincible, you must conceal your form -- when the enemy doesn't know what you are capable of, how can they defend against it? Likewise, the secret to vulnerability is attacking. Attacks require commitment, or else they cannot cause harm. To attack, an enemy must focus on offense, and in doing so, they take their mind away from their own defense. This inattention amplifies any vulnerabilities there attack maneuvers may have exposed. Likewise, whenever someone commits to an attack, their intentions become clear; there are no more secrets.

Attacking enemies should only be considered when you are in a state of surplus or abundance, since it consumes great amounts of resources. If you find yourself wanting or lacking, then focus on improving your defenses until better conditions present themselves.

Determining who is winning in the middle of a battle isn’t much of a skill -- it’s just stating the obvious, just like saying "the sun is bright." Predicting the outcome of a fight before hand is a skill, since anyone can see the ends, but not the means. Determining causes is much harder than determining effects.

The warriors of ancient legends won their great battles because they only fought when it was easy to win; they only attacked their enemies in their weakest places. The truly great warriors were never praised for being brave, clever, or even lucky. The greatest warriors positioned themselves in secure situations which they controlled -- where they had stacked the deck to the point that victory was all but guaranteed. As such, they had no need to be brave, clever, or lucky. By being proactive and preparing, they did not have to do anything, since the enemy was all but defeated in advance. They won not through valor, but by rendering themselves unable to lose. The victorious wins, then fights; the vanquished fights to win.

To win battles against your enemies, one must first win the hearts of your own populous, subordinates, and allies. Hearts can only be won through virtue; they must admire you. One must live in a virtuous manner -- that is, by following the Way and by avoiding atrocities (e.g., poisoning wells, raping and pillaging, executing prisoners, and fighting wars of aggression). Virtuous living severely demoralize enemies, since they will have no real reason to hate you. By ruling with dignity, enemies cannot rally for action and liberation against your moral outrages, since they wont exist.

Although conflict has no standardized form per se, this course-of-action has been empirically determined to be successful:

  1. Evaluation of the terrain and other initial conditions.
  2. Assessment of both the enemy’s forces and your own.
  3. Calculating each side’s strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Comparing each side’s strengths and weaknesses.
  5. Victory.

With all conflict, victory is paramount. As we shall discuss in the next chapter, a small, successful group has more momentum and power than a large, demoralized, and fleeing enemy. Success adds fuel to the fire in people’s hearts, amplifying their motivation and confidence, which only leads to more victory -- creating a virtuous circle for yourself, and locking your enemies into a vicious circle of defeat.

Force and Momentum

Sun-tzu speaks of force, momentum, and energy as general qualities, as was normal before Newton printed his Principia. Expressing Sun-tzu’s ancient terms in their more familiar, modern, scientific parallels will make the rest of the chapter more clear:

  • The momentum of an army is its mass multiplied by its velocity.
  • The force of an army is the mass multiplied by its acceleration. A force can also be expressed as the rate which momentum changes over a given interval of time.
  • Energy is not just a buzzword that is thrown around by spiritualists, pseudo-scientists, and soft drink companies. Energy has a rigorous definition; it is the ability to perform useful work.
  • Work is the amount of energy extracted from, or added to, a system by some operation. This is defined to be product of a force and the distance which it acts over.
  • Power is also rigorously defined by physics; it is the amount of work performed over a given interval of time.

Getting a large group moving requires a large force. One way to avoid this problem is to avoid dealing with large groups. Instead, lead a small group, which in turn, leads small groups of its own, and so on. A hierarchal system of nested groups efficiently functions as one unit, provided that you are able to maintain clear communications between each group.

Just as stones rolling downhill gain more speed, a successful army will gains momentum, and requiring more force to stop. Massive groups require large forces to stop or redirect; smaller groups require less force to achieve the same goal. However, a small group with lots of momentum, from victory or rapid acceleration, will be just as hard to stop as a large army. A group’s momentum is dictated by the situation -- in a similar way, a stone’s momentum has as much to do with the angle of the hill and the planet’s gravity as the composition of the rock itself. This is why leaders allow their organizations to follow their own momentum, rather than waste energy on constantly course adjustments. A leader directs the group, not individuals, and lets the momentum carry the aggregate to victory. No one raindrop causes the flood; no one snowflake causes the avalanche; no one grain of sand stops the locomotive -- each of these great forces is just the sum of small forces acting in a common, unified direction.

Unity in direction is attained by assigning subordinates to jobs which suit their temperaments (e.g., the brash and brave can serve in the vanguard, while the timid can guard the warehouses, and the intelligent be in charge of communications). This way, no one is useless; everyone contributes in their own way towards the common goal.

Courage and cowardice are not dispositions; they are indicaters of the direction of momentum. Being on the winning side even makes the timid feel brave. There are no absolutes -- everything can adapt and change in battle -- even people’s demeanors! While a gentle trickle of water can be stopped by anything, rushing floodwaters will toss boulders aside, through momentum alone. A good leader can control and manipulate tension (a form of force), and either remove tension gently to diffuse a situation, or release it all at once like a bowstring, or a catapult rope.

Strength and weakness are just the combination of organization and appearance. Your opponents will follow and pursue you whenever you appear weak, exhausted, or in any other way that makes them feel as though they have an advantage. Likewise, looking strong and tough repels would-be attackers. Using these two principles, you can bait or intimidate your enemies into advancing or fleeing, and use this to setup an ambush.

Every successful strategy is some combination of standard and unorthodox approaches. The end result is always, in some essence, a variation of a flanking maneuver. The initial confrontation is direct frontal attack; but victory is gained from a surprise attack from the side which divides and confuses the opponent. The question of exactly what is to be considered standard, and what is considered unorthodox varies from situation to situation. Everything is a blend of something old and something new, and what may be clever to you may be obvious to your enemy, and vice-versa. The best way to determine what your enemy regards as standard and unorthodox can be summarized by a modern martial arts proverb: “don’t box a boxer.”

Don’t box a boxer. Boxers want you to fistfight them, because they’re fistfighting experts, and thus guaranteed to win.To box a boxer is to play their game; to cater to their strengths. Instead, find their weakness. If you tried to wrestle a boxer -- even if you don’t know much about wrestling -- you’d stand half a chance, because the boxer also doesn’t know much about wrestling. Every action has an opposite or a complement that should guide your response. If the enemy comes in hard, try to redirect their momentum and manipulate them. If someone tries to manipulate you, immediately crush them like an egg against a stone. Hard defeats soft, soft controls hard.

It is easy to deceive your opponents, and lull them into a false sense of security. If you are organized, appear disorderly; if you are courageous, act cowardly; if you are strong, act weak. (Think of Superman, disguising himself as Clark Kent.) However, if you are going to fake disorder, cowardice, and weakness, then you must have complete order, courage, and strength -- otherwise, you are not faking, and you have legitimate problems. (If Clark Kent was merely a reporter, all those comics would’ve had tragic endings.)

The English language has twenty-six letters, which can make infinite stories. There are only two approaches, conventional and unorthodox, each feeding upon the other to create infinite strategies. So, if you are skilled at combining conventional and unorthodox attacks, then you will have seemingly infinite options -- and even if you were to try them all once, it would take so long that the old tricks would seem new again. Your enemies will be exhausted before your options are.

Strengths and Weaknesses

To win any conflict, attack where there is no defense, and defend where there is no attack. Don’t try to stopping the enemy from attacking; it’s bound to happen somehow. Instead, worry about preparing to deal with the consequences of any possible attacks. When you can attack anywhere and defend everywhere, then your strategy is complete. Until then, keep improving it.

A skilled attack is one that the enemy does not know how to defend against; a skilled defense leaves the enemy unable to know how to attack. Attacks should always be directed at exploitable weaknesses. Here are a few common weaknesses which you should strive to avoid, and should look for in your enemy:

  • Incompetent leadership.
  • Poorly-trained subordinates.
  • Weak fortifications.
  • Failure to adhere to plans.
  • Inability to conduct effective rescue operations.
  • Breakdowns in the supply chain.

If your enemy doesn’t know what they ought to defend against, then they will waste their time, energy, and money building defensive structures that may never be used. This is the advantage of formlessness; and the key to formlessness is to be extremely subtle and mysterious. Don’t give the enemy any hints to pick up on, so they won’t notice you, or figure out what you are up too. Viciously attack the gaps in their defense, then return to your stronghold just as quickly. Strike and retreat before the enemy can ever strike back.

Do not let the enemy know where you will strike, because they will reinforce that point. If the enemy makes strengthening their vanguard the priority, then their rear guard will be weak, and vice-versa. If the enemy focuses on their right side, then they are paying no attention to their left side. If the enemy makes total preparation everywhere their top priority, then they will be completely unprepared -- because if everything is your top priority, then you have no priorities (that’s what the word “priority” means.) Besides, if the enemy is constantly scrambling to come up with new defenses, then they cannot concentrate their time and effort on attacking.

It is essential that you fight on your own terms; to know exactly where and when your battles will take place. Otherwise, it is impossible to coordinate your forces. Even if you had superior armies, how will they know where and when the battle is? If your forces are late, or somewhere else at a crucial moment, then it is the same as no having no forces at all.

When you do not wish to fight an attacking enemy, change your strategy, and make this change as obvious as possible. The enemy will hesitate as they re-evaluate the situation. When your defense seems formless, the enemy will be unsure how to deal with you. Rather than launching an all-out attack, they will scatter into smaller observational and guard units, spreading out to cover as many points as possible from your unknown attack. Occasionally, one of these guard units will attack, just to test the waters and gauge your reaction, in an attempt to trick you into revealing your strategy without sacrificing their whole army. Since your entire formless army is still consolidated, you will greatly outnumber and defeat each of these smaller units. By striking at diminished power with whole power, one can always win.

The first to arrive at the battleground will have the advantage, because they can claim and fortify the best positions. Leaders should not seek out their enemies; they should lure the enemy into coming to them. Enemies can only be lured out if they think it is profitable to do so; traps only work with valuable bait. Conversely, the prospect of harm repels enemies. These two concepts can be used to force enemies -- especially entrenched or fortified foes -- to move when and where you want them to, instead of when they chose to go. This can be done by:

  • Causing a problem that they have to deal with, to distract them.
  • Cutting off the enemy’s supply lines.
  • Attacking something the enemy regards as important. Then they must plan a rescue, which preferably occurs in some hard-to-reach place.
  • Presenting an opening in your defense, to goad the enemy into attacking.

You should constantly attack targets of opportunity, to pick at your enemies, stirring them up to see how they react. From this, you can discern their standard responses and portions of their overall strategy. These tests can gauge the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, so you can compare them to your own. Unlike the test raids of the cautious, spread-out enemy we duscussed earlier, these attacks of opportunity must able to cause real harm, since a diminished force is a senseless sacrifice. Besides, trivial attacks may not receive serious responses, so their sacrifice will be in vain.

If you are truly formless, you will leave no traces to follow, leave no secrets for spies to dig up, and display no obvious weaknesses -- then the enemy can’t develop counter-strategies. Victory is apparent to all, but you must conceal the means which achieve it. A strategy that succeded once may not work again in the future, since any surviving enemies will have learned your tricks the hard way, and they won't fall for them again. Victory cannot be repetitious; it must alter its form endlessly. Ideal military formations flow, like water -- from high ground to lower ground, flowing around the hard and strong, and seeking out and penetrating the gaps and cracks. Water has no constant form or shape, nor does it need one because of its ability to adapt to the situation.

Engaging the Enemy

Ideally, armed struggle must be authorized by the civilian leadership, who then raises an army. Nothing is harder than conflict, because it can only be solved through cleverness, such as finding ways to make long distances shorter, or how to turn problems into advantages.

While no one can physically make a long distance short, wise leaders can do this temporally. Creating a time delay for your enemy has the same net effect as making distances longer. One way to do this is to fool your opponents into taking it easy, while you make haste. Another way to simulate distance is to delay and weaken your enemies, by waering them out with a fool’s errands. For example, by subtly shifting your position, your enemy may anticipate an attack, and waste their energy on elaborate (and unnecessary) counter-maneuvers.

When your enemies come to fight you, always find ways to delay them. Your enemy is angry. They have to be angry, otherwise, they wouldn’t have started a conflict in the first place -- this is always a decision made in anger. As time marches on, their initial anger and enthusiasm will fade, being replaced with boredom and fatigue. Once the enemy loses their anger, they lose their will to fight -- and that is the perfect time to counterattack. Good leaders do not act out of anger; they should be an exemplar of order and courage. Rather than becoming angry at their enemies, they should seek to find ways to cultivate disorder, confusion, fear, self-doubt, and surprise in their enemies. Don’t break your enemy’s bones; break their hearts.

In general, it is better to slow your enemy down than it is to push your forces to move faster. Speed comes at a cost of equipment availability; the quick responders will have no time to pack, and the fast movers must pack lightly. Also, moving quickly will spread out your forces out, making them vulnerable. Since some people are faster than others, the whole force will not travel as one unit; they will not all arrive at any one moment, but in a slow, gradual trickle. There will be no group, only a string of individuals, and this will result in devastating losses. It is always an advantage to force your enemy come to you, as they must deal with the additional hardship of travel expenses.

You do not need to directly attack your enemies to defeat them. Instead, a skilled leader will syphon their enemy’s resources away, adding to their own strength while weakening their opponent. An enemy army is an engine which burns money, food, and equipment; stopping or restricting the flow of any of those three things will stop or slow the enemy. All power is external, and rerouting the sources of their power to your own organization will wither even the most powerful foes. Conflict is only profitable for the skilled. To efficiently plunder an enemy, you must divide your subordinates into small groups. Small regions cannot support armies, but they can handle squads. A cow can only give milk to a few people; when pushed further, it only gives blood. Likewise, the best way to expand your territory is to divide the spoils of war; then your subordinates will then conquer as much as they possible, to maximize their individual share.

The enemy is also a profit-seeking machine; they will only move if they feel it is to their advantage. Do not expect an enemy to cooperate -- and if they do, it is a trap. (For example, if the enemy suddenly decides to abandon their food supplies, it was because they poisoned it.)

All conflict goes by means of deception, because you must conceal your plans to establish supremacy. Likewise, plans cannot be created without prior knowledge of the enemy and their capability. If you cannot discern your enemy’s strategy, you cannot form alliances, because you won't know who to befriend. Scouts and reconnaissance teams can only reveal so much; to exploit all of a region's advantages, you must hire local guides. Your forces must continually divide and recombine to confuse your opponents, and to test their reactions, so you can adapt and win.

You must employ multiple, redundant communication systems, so your commands can reach your subordinates through the confusion of battle. By expressing the same message over different media at once, one of those messages is bound to get through. Additionally, the redundant messages will seem like separate commands to an untrained enemy, and this will confuse them.

Bear in mind that there exist certain cases where the enemy simply should not be messed with:

  • Do not pursue troops who suddenly run before their energy has faded; they are obviously leading you into an ambush. Only pursue enemies once you have seen them totally crumble.
  • Do not fight the desperate; there’s no telling what someone who is pushed to their limits might do. Cornered mice will bite cats, so surrounded enemies must be given a chance to escape.
  • Never fight against an army who is returning home; they’ll fight to the death, since they are willing to do anything to return home.

Strong leaders do not rush into battle, fearlessly attacking great formations of orderly ranks -- that is a suicidal Hollywood fantasy. Strong leaders are calm and stable, and free of delusions of grandeur. There is always a better way around such orderly forces; the strong leaders are ones who are adaptable enough to find this new way. The strongest leaders are the ones who can convince weary, hungry enemies to travel to fight them, while they eat large meals in their comfortable, highly-defended bases.

Variations and Adaptations

Adaptation is the ability to exploit and capitalize upon opportunity. When opportunity knocks, you must get up from your chair to answer the door, or it will leave. Successful leaders do not cling to standard procedures; they make appropriate changes, as needed, based on changing circumstances. Failing to adapt to changing circumstances not only significantly reduces your chances of success, it will endanger your subordinates, and then no one will want to work for you. To determine the most advantageous adaptation, a leader must place every option through the scrutiny of benefit-cost analysis to see if they are “getting their money’s worth”, or if their investments are really liabilities.

Once again, the goal is to place your enemies in such a vulnerable position that surrender is their only option. Barring that, the best way to overcome an organized enemy is to stir up internal drama within the enemy’s organization, so that the people supporting your enemy quit on their own.

Adaptation is a learned skill, which can be trained and cultivated by constantly coming up with emergency plans for future chaos, even when times are going well. Likewise, one must impose order on chaos, to proactively stop problems while they are still forming. Rather than avoiding conflict, prepare for it. The best way to stave off an attack is to amass strength until your enemies consider you un-attackable. To accomplish this, a leader must diligently work on correcting their individual personality flaws. There are five personality traits that will cause a leader to invite disaster into their organization:

  1. Brave, heedless, and headstrong leaders can easily be coaxed into entering an ambush.
  2. Timid, weak, and cowardly leaders who intend to escape can be intercepted and captured.
  3. Leaders who are quick to anger can be shamed and humiliated. Then, when they wrathfully lash out at their tormentors, they will attack without a well-crafted strategy.
  4. Puritanical leaders can be easily disgraced.
  5. Leaders with a great public love for something (e.g., family members, holy relics, expensive items, etc.) can have that person or item captured or stolen; the resulting rescue mission will distract the leader, leaving them open to attack.

Although adaptability and variation is the critical element of an invincible strategy, keep the following actions plans in mind; history has shown that these deliver desirable results:

  • Any use of force must have prior authorization from the legitimate civilian leaders.
  • Do not encamp on difficult terrain.
  • Establish diplomatic relations on your borders.
  • Do not remain in barren or isolated territory; quickly move elsewhere.
  • When surrounded by the enemy, start plotting.
  • When in a deadly position, fight for your life. (Don’t worry though; “fight or flight” will come naturally.)
  • Avoid bottlenecks and other obvious places for ambushes.
  • Avoid fighting elite, desperate, cornered, or homeward-bound forces.
  • Do not attack unless you have an advantage.
  • If you have a strong position, do not instantly crush the enemy vanguard. The enemy will realize that they are outmatched, and they will flee, and return later with a newer, better approach.
  • Avoid sieges.
  • Don’t fight over positions that cannot be maintained. Anything which can be easily lost is not worth gaining.
  • If bureaucratic red tape is the only thing holding you back, then break the rules.


The ability to maneuver one’s forces is greatly affected by the terrain. This happens in four different ways:

  1. High Ground. High positions offer a strategic advantage by allowing you to see enemies from far away, giving you an early warning of their attack. Additionally, the enemy must wear themselves out by climbing up to your level before fighting. These advantages come at a cost however, because these hard-to-reach places are difficult to resupply. Capturing the high ground is an imperative because armies perform best in high, dry, well-lit places. Operating in dark, damp lowlands hinders performance; these are strategically undesirable, miserable living conditions that are conducive to the spread of disease.
  2. Rivers. Rivers are boundaries that are difficult to cross. Do not cross rivers to engage the enemy; let them come to you. Only attack once half of the enemy troops have crossed the river; this sets up a divide-and-conquer situation. Rivers are deceptive; although they appear flat, their currents will impede your motion. Being upriver has all the advantages of being uphill on land. Likewise, just as you should fight going downhill, and not uphill, you should fight with -- and not against -- the current. It doesn’t take a strong current to take a man off his feet and sweep him away. If you must ford a river, find a quiet spot, or wait for the surges to quit frothing, or you will lose lots of men. For this reason, one should not fight near water. Additionally, rivers can be dammed and then flooded, or their waters can be poisoned upstream. If you are near the water, you have failed to position yourself on secure high ground.
  3. Marshes. If you are in a marsh, bog, or other awful position, get out quickly -- and if you are attacked, face the enemy, and walk backwards towards the direction offering the greatest security until you are out of the quagmire and onto more stable, passable, and defensible ground.
  4. Level Ground. Dry, level ground (especially plateaus) are nice because they allow for easy maneuvering. However, your enemy will also share this advantage. A level playing field offers no exploitable terrain features, causing any battle to become a “fair fight.” Don't try to fight fair; use some trick or stratagem to stack the deck in your favor. Think back to the playground scuffles out childhood -- who was it that always cried about how others didn’t “fight fair.” It was always a sore loser, wasn’t it?

Sun-tzu devoted the rest of the chapter to a potpourri of military tactics, woodsmanship, psychological tells, and managerial advice. Unlike the rest of The Art of War, there is no deeper context at play here, and these should not be interpreted metaphorically. Each of these tricks is meant to be taken at face value:

  • Certain terrain features act as natural, impassable boundaries (e.g., deep ravines, enclosures, caves, bottlenecks, pits, and clefts). It is imperative to stay from these -- not only to avoid their disadvantages -- but by moving far away from them, your enemy then becomes closer to them, by default. You should maneuver towards, not away from such barriers; the idea is to pin your enemy’s back against the wall, and not yours.
  • Whenever you are not engaged the enemy, remain where resources are abundant, and make every effort to maintain the health and physical conditioning of your subordinates. A sick subordinate is an ineffective subordinate. By definition, the invincible do not get sick.
  • Overgrown places (e.g., forests, the tall grasses by streams) are the perfect place for an ambush. However, if there are many concealed blinds in the underbrush, it is just a scare tactic to misdirect you. A real ambush will have few blinds, to make it seem less obvious.
  • If the enemy is near a natural stronghold, but not positioned on that advantageous spot, then make no attempt to take that position. If the enemy willingly passes up a good thing, then it can’t be a good thing. Either it is a trap, or there is something wrong with that spot.
  • If birds fly away, or if animals are startled, there are ambushes waiting.
  • If dust clouds are high and sharp, vehicles are coming
  • Foot soldiers make low, wide dust clouds.
  • Small amounts of dust means the enemy is setting up a camp.
  • Lightly-equipped fast moving troops will produce little to no dust cloud.
  • Those who use humble words and increase war preparations are going to advance; this is your cue to dispatch your spies.
  • Those who use strong words and advance aggressively are just trying to intimidate you; they will retreat if challenged.
  • A few light vehicles being sent forth indicate a battle will soon start. They are establishing boundaries.
  • Those who seek peace without a treaty are plotting. A sudden push for friendship indicates a loss of momentum, probably brought on by some internal crisis. A temporary peace is needed to buy the time needed to work out their problem, and to lull you into not preparing for their sudden, but inevitable, betrayal.
  • Those who humbly seek peace before being subdued do not seek peace; they have merely lost their momentum, and they just want a chance to rest.
  • If the enemy is rushing around, then they are expecting reinforcements. Typically, people do not clear space unless they are trying to make room for something.
  • If the enemy half-advances and half-retreats, they are trying to lure you; it’s an attempt to feign confusion.
  • People who brace themselves against things when they stand are tired and hungry, and those who are sent to gather water for others are thirsty if they stop to drink before gathering the water.
  • When the enemy fails to capitalize on some advantage, they are weary. When confronted, they won’t fight back, because they've just demonstrated their inability to take advantage of situations.
  • If birds gather around a fearsome-looking fortification, then it is really vacant.
  • If there are arguments, scuffles, fistfights, and other displays of drama or breaks in discipline, then the enemy doesn't take their leaders seriously.
  • Random or inconsistent signaling indicates confusion.
  • In general, irritable people are either tired or burned out.
  • When the enemy kills their horses, then they are completely without food.
  • If the enemy completely abandons their camp -- kitchen and all -- then they've completely snapped. They have come to accept and now embrace their inevitable mortality, and they will fight nonstop until they die.
  • Morale is low and your subordinates are burned out whenever there are murmurings (people quietly expressing their inner feelings), dereliction of duty, and extended conversations about your campaigns (because why would the strong fear alienation?).
  • When rewards are distributed, it means their group has lost momentum, and its leaders fear there will be a mutiny.
  • Dealing out punishments means the group members are worn out, and they need to re-establish discipline.
  • When forces angrily confront you, but delay engagement and do not leave, watch them carefully. They are preparing a surprise attack, like a suckerpunch.
  • If you have no ulterior scheme or plan, rely only on individual bravery, take your opponents lightly, or fail to contemplate your situation, you will invariably be taken prisoner.
  • Remember, the winner isn’t always the strongest; it could be the one who acts in a non-aggressive manner, so others can be asked for assistance. One does not need to be strong to be powerful; one only needs to be able to grow and consolidate power.
  • People will only respond positively to what they are already used too. People will embrace bad policies and broken systems simply because they fear change. Any haphazard or inconsistent attempt to educate or improve the populace will always be rejected, unless they continue for so long that they become regarded as the new normal. Consistency is the key for creating satisfaction and harmony between leaders and their subordinates -- but like all things, this will lead to folly if taken to extremes.
  • Subordinates must be motivated using a carrot-and-stick approach; using rewards to guide them, and punishment the keep them from falling out of line. If subordinates are punished prior to forming a personal connection with you, they will never accept you as an authority figure, making them difficult to rule. Being violent to your subordinates places your life in jeopardy, as this is an invitation for mutiny. If people do not trust you from the onset, then they never will. However, if subordinates are never punished after you establish a connection, they will see you as a pushover, and they will become arrogant; they will be impossible to manage. Bravery requires firmness.


Terrain refers to the physical, geometric features of the battleground itself. Understanding the contour of the land can only aid an army; accounting for terrain is one part of sizing-up opponents and risk assessment that ultimately determines who wins and who loses. If your enemy can strike, but is unsure of your weak spots, you have half a chance of surviving. If you can strike the enemy’s weak spots, but the lay of the land impedes this -- then you have half a chance of defeating them. Overlooking the effect of terrain is equally as bad as either not knowing thyself or thy enemy.

There are six types of terrain:

  1. Easily Passable Terrain. Both you and the enemy can freely come and go, because maneuvering is easy. If you find such terrain, secure the most elevated position that still has convenient access to supply routes. Then hang on to this place forever; this is as good as it gets.
  2. Hung-up Terrain. Entering is easy, but leaving is difficult. Only enter hung-up terrain if the enemy is unprepared; this creates a "backs-to-the-wall" situation that can help defeat the enemy. If the enemy is prepared, then stay away -- it’s a trap.
  3. Standoff Terrain. These are stalemate situations, such as the trenches of World War I, or where a plurality of enemies creates a “Mexican Standoff”-type of situation. Standoffs are always bad for everyone involved. If the enemy offers an advantage, ignore it; it’s a trap to suck you in further. Instead, you should partially withdraw from standoffs, to lure the enemy out.
  4. Narrow Terrain. Narrow terrain consists of bottlenecks (e.g, bridges, tunnels or narrow mountain passes). These are often strategically important places that force armies to spread out, and thus make good places to stage an ambush. ONly claim narrow terrain if you would be the first to do so; otherwise narrow terrain should be avoided, as it is likely a trap.
  5. Steep Terrain. Steep terrain (sheer cliffs, mesas, etc.) offers a superior high ground advantage, but this will also make any base or encampment extremely difficult to resupply. Much like narrow terrain, one should only travel through steep terrain if you are the first to claim it. Any attack directed at steep terrain automatically becomes a siege. Therefore, if a steep terrain is already claimed, do not attack it, because sieges are counter-productive. Instead, secure a blockade around the perimeter of the steep terrain, to prevent the enemy from resupplying the base.
  6. Wide-open Terrain. Wide-open terrain is defined by its complete lack of features. Although you have complete freedom of movement here, so does the enemy. Wide-open spaces are surprisingly disadvantageous to fight upon, since they literally place everyone on equal footing. It is difficult to find ways to gain any sort of advantage on wide-open terrain, simply because there is nothing to work with.

There is nothing magical or super-powered about martial artists; they just understand the most efficient ways to move. Their great endurance is just the result of treaining themsellves not to wander around or take many small stutter-steps as they move. Likewise, once you understand the best ways through all the different forms of terrain, you will not waste energy. When you know the terrain, you also understand what advantages both you and your enemy may have, so you will not reach an impasse, having foreseen and prepared for such a contingency. Good planning will allow you to win before you ever take action, because you won’t wear yourself out scrambling to put out fires. No natural disaster or horrible twist of fate can take a good leader by surprise -- because planning for such things is what defines a good leader. This is why the greatest (and only) possible threat to any organization is poor leadership. There are six ways that poor leadership causes defeat:

  1. Rushing. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” such as those who despite having equal momentum and footing, would attack the enemy when the odds are stacked 10:1 against them. Rushing is a caused by a leader who lacks the ability to assess situations.
  2. Holding Back. Strong men are led by weak, timid, or overly-cautious officers will miss opportunities, since their leader lacks the requisite courage to seize them. Holding back is caused by a leader who failed to establish an effective system of punishments and rewards.
  3. Inadequate Training. Competent officers wwith bumbling, weak, and ignorant subordinates will lack the means to accomplish their objectives. As Archilochus noted, when pressed, people will never rise to the occasion; they will merely fall to their level of training. Poor subordinates are then the results (and victims) of a poor training system.
  4. Undermining Authority. When officers become angry and insubordinate, they will go rogue. These rogue officers will fight purely out of spite for the enemy, ignoring the existing battle plans in favor of their own. Once officers can go rogue, the chain-of-command crumbles, and the whole organization crumbles with it. This can be prevented with through screening and evaluatation of officer candidates, to detect any signs of irrational over-excitement before assigning them to a command post.
  5. Rioting. When leaders lack authority or make unclear orders, their men will act inconsistently, doing whatever they think is necessary, rather than what was asked of them. This is a result of ineffective law and order.
  6. Following the Path of the Intrinsically Beaten. Leaders who fail to assess their opponents, battle more powerful or numerically superior enemies, or who fail to recognize the different degrees of skill among their subordinates, will have the deck stacked against them to a degree that they are more-or-less automatically beaten. This is caused by selecting a poor leaders, which can be fixed by operating a truly merit-based organization.

For optimum efficiency, group members must synergize with one another. Leaders, officers, and subordinates must be of one mind, with a common focus or goal to foster cooperation. If subordinates are treated well, then they will want to work for you, and they will follow and help you in all endeavors. However, if you are so nice to your subordinates that you cannot give them orders, or if their rewards greatly exceeds their regular salary, then they have no need for employment, and they will be useless, like spoiled children.

Remember that the only goal of any conflict is to win. Any counterproductive orders which stand between you and total victory must be disobeyed; processes exist to serve people, and not the other way around. The best leaders are those who display this sort of insubordination, because it shows that they act in the organization’s best interests, and not for personal reasons.

The Nine Situations

Sun-tzu speaks of nine “grounds,” and while each of these are discussed in terms of places, they are characterized by the general feeling of the place, and not by the physical geometry of the battlefield (these were discussed previously as "terrain"). The discussion of grounds are to be taken more figuratively. The nine situations or “grounds” are:

  1. Ground of Dissolution. These are places where enemies fight among themselves, upon their own ground (e.g., civil wars, internal disputes, etc.). Do not fight on a ground of dissolution; this just causes belligerent parties to retreat, regroup, unify, and plot against you. If your enemies are fighting against one another, let them. Encourage this behavior; it makes your work that much easier. This can be done with a variable reward schedule -- by giving special, unannounced, and uncodified rewards to whoever sabotages the enemy. This will encourage different, or previously uninvolved, groups to become saboteurs, because any act of sabotage could potentially be rewarded.
    Since there is no real danger here, take the time to work out any unresolved issues you may have, rather than face them during some critical moment. Leaders should use this opportunity to build morale, and unite their views with those of their own officers and subordinates.
  2. Light (or Isolated) Ground. These are invaded enemy territories close to your borders. Retreating from light ground is easy. However, this can be a disadvantage -- your subordinates won't be motivated to fight when they can easily escape and take refuge. To prevent this, maintain close contact with your subordinates when on light ground, and do not stop on light ground.
  3. Ground of Contention. These are strategic positions which both you and your enemy desire (e.g., a bottleneck, bridge, or a good spot to build a base.) Do not attack a ground of contention. There is no advantage to fighting here; the only advantage is to be the first to claim it.
  4. Trafficked Ground. These are places where people can freely come and go. Do not let anyone cut off your access to trafficked ground for any reason; such places are critical, as they serve as supply lines and message relays. Control of trafficked ground is a tremendous asset; it provides a leader with leverage during negotiations, and it entices outside forces into forging alliances.
  5. Intersecting Ground. These are crossroads; places which are connected to other places. Controlling intersecting ground is advantageous, since you will then also control the access to those other places. You will be secure when intersecting ground is held, and imperiled if it is lost. Intersecting ground is the easiest place to communicate from, so establish your alliances here.
    Forging alliances is critical for victory. If you do not compete for alliances, your enemies will make them, and they will grow stronger. Without helpers, you are helpless. If you do not assert your authority, you will not be regarded as an authority.
  6. Heavy Ground. This describes when you have deeply penetrated into enemy territory, and escape is difficult. Heavy ground should be plundered, since everything you take will make your enemy weaker. Besides, any forces situated in heavy ground will need to be continuously resupplied, and its distance from your territory makes this difficult and expensive. While plundering is encouraged on heavy ground, one must also be aware that your invaders will become more intense as they travel deeper into heavy situations, until they no longer take orders from their civilian rulers. Invaders tend to unite in heavy ground and dissolve on light ground.
    To follow The Way, leaders must establish goals which become unified in their subordinates. Upon sailing into heavy (but not deadly) ground, a leader should burn their boats to keep their subordinates looking forward, not backward. This may seem brash, but a leader’s entire reason for being is to organize people; to introduce them to challenging situations; and to make the necessary adaptations to adjust for different terrain features, psychology, and the need for expansion or contraction, etc.
  7. Bad Ground. These are undesirable places, like mountain forests, steep embankments, swamps, or anywhere that travel is difficult and the terrain is too unstable to build fortifications. Since you can't maneuver or fortify, defense is all but impossible in a bad situation; bad grounds are to be avoided or quickly escaped.
  8. Surrounded Ground. These are bottlenecks, mountain passes, bridges, tunnels, or anywhere with a single, narrow entrance and exit. It is advantageous to control surrounded ground, because only the supremely flexible and crafty can risk traveling through them once they are held. On surrounded ground, you must seal any gaps in your defense, and you must immediately start plotting and scheming -- because you will need it! Since the deck is severely stacked against you here, you must think of a clever surprise attack to balance the odds.
  9. Deadly Ground. These are life-or-death situations, where you will, with certainty, die without taking immediate action. Shipwrecks, house fires, and direct confrontation with an enemy without the possibility of escape are examples of deadly ground. When you are on deadly ground, you must let go of all your restraints and fight for your life -- or you will die. Fortunately, these extreme measures will occur spontaneously and reflexively.

    When people are given no way out, they will become utterly fearless and will fight to the death -- they will be alert without drills, enlist without a draft, be friendly without treaties, and orderly without commands -- not because they become ideal soldiers, but simply because they lack options. This is why you must always give your enemies a chance to escape; by offering the chance of escape, you can spare yourself this ferocity. Do not deliberately send anyone into deadly ground just to amplify their strength and ferocity. Besides being reckless endangerment, to fight for your life means you've assumed a distinct and definite form, which means you've lost the flexibility needed to adapt to a changing world.

In short, resist when surrounded, fight when it can’t be avoided, and obey in extremes.

In addition to the nine situations above, Sun-tzu recognizes that conflict itself is a situation which requires some special considerations:

A large, well-organized opponent coming after you can be dealt with by taking something that they like or rely upon, to force them to negotiate. Alternately, you must a seek a position of advantage, and use it to cut off their supply lines.

In general, attacking the enemy is only permissible in the following conditions:

  1. When you can take advantage of an opponent’s lack of foresight, preparation, or caution. (This must be done slowly, or else the enemy will catch on, and make the necessary corrections.)
  2. When you can take advantage of the enemy’s inability to catch up to a changing situation.
  3. Whenever you are able to take an unexpected route to achieve your goal.
  4. Whenever the enemy has dropped their guard.

Targeting the enemy’s communication systems is the key to an easy victory. Without a reliable communication system, even the strongest organization will be immediately crippled, because:

  • Without open lines of communications, there can be no orders given or received, and no way to implement a strategy or to respond to crises.
  • On a local scale, the vanguard cannot coordinate their maneuvers with the rear guard.
  • On a larger scale, the enemy organization loses its coherence; it can only function as many small groups, instead of one large group.
  • A lack of communication can only create a growing lack of concern between social classes.
  • A lack of communication will inevitably lead to a loss of respect between the rulers and the ruled. This leads to an organizational breakdown as frustrated subordinates abandon their leaders as a result.

It is important that your subordinates are well-fed, healthy, and in good spirits. Your subordinates are the ones who must carry out your plan; you need them more than they need you. Do not waste your people’s energy on fool’s errands or fruitless attacks. Keep your intentions hidden, and only attack the enemy when an opening presents itself. A leader must ban superstitions and tales of omens to purge their subordinates of the fear that self-doubt can create. Watch for any signs of burnout and fatigue in your subordinates; once when they quit caring, they will transition from an asset to a liability. For organizations to work effectively, the entire organization should be treated as though it were an individual, and not a collective. Delegate tasks to your subordinates, but do not make conversation with them. Subordinates should be motivated with a system of rewards and punishments, but to optimize morale, the benefits should receive more attention than the punishments.

If your subordinates are confronted with total annihilation, they will likely survive, because deadly ground always brings out the best in people (as there is no alternative). The bitterest enemies quickly become best friends when they both need to bail out their sinking boat. Your subordinates will survive in dire combat because they will protect one another, simply because they need other people to protect them. The end result is an organization that fights just like a snake: the lashing tail protects the head, the head protects the tail, and the head and tail work in tandem to protect the middle. This is why subordinates should be arranged in groups; when each individual is tied to the group, the brash cannot run ahead, and the timid cannot fall behind. As a result, groups of subordinates will act as a single individual of statistically average bravery who will follows orders simply because they lack other options.

Subordinates should be kept in the dark about your master plan -- not just to keep strategic secrets from leaking out -- but because it is easier to lead people when they don’t know what is going on. This may come across as Machiavellian, but it's actually pragmatic -- plans must be flexible to deal with changing situations, and this prevents your subordinates from becoming confused about which plan to follow. It is best to only give subordinates the tasks that need to be completed immediately. This is why, for security’s sake, the few people who know the complete big-picture plan should be constantly moved by various means and routes from one place to another, in order to keep the enemy from locating and capturing them.

Spies are a necessary part of conflict. Spies are needed to determine the initial conditions of the enemy’s organization. Without knowledge of what the enemy has at their disposal, no strategy can be formed to counteract these things. You must understand the enemy’s relationships before you can make your own alliances. You must know the lay of the land in order to maneuver, and only the locals know how to fully exploit a given area's terrain. With proper planning, based on accumulated, validated knowledge, a leader can stop opponents of any size or power -- and no defense or alliance can stop this, as they would have been taken into account and compensated for. (The use and deployment of spies will is discussed in greater detail here.)

Conflict is overcome by blending your deceptions with the enemy’s intentions, to trick your enemies into doing your bidding. With total concentration and an understanding the enemy's goals, finding ways to twist and subvert their actions into working for you eliminates the need for fighting or killing enemies who are nestled in strongholds thousands of kilometers away. However, to achieve this sort of grand subversion, you must ensure that it isn't happening to you -- you must ensure that no information is being passed to the enemy. Once hostilities are declared, close the borders, tear up passports, and bar diplomats from entering. Strategic matters can never be discussed outside of headquarters.

In conclusion, immediately penetrate any openings in the enemy’s defenses as soon as they present themselves. Subtlety anticipate the enemy’s needs and desires, and obtain those things first, denying them strength, and giving yourself leverage. With diligence and discipline, you can adapt to your enemy, and counter them. Trick your enemy into inviting you into his house, and then wreck the place, like a wild animal.

Special Commentary on the Use of Fire Attacks

Setting the enemy’s base on fire is a quick and easy way to indiscriminately destroy the enemy's people, weapons, equipment, supplies, and other goods. As such, using fire attacks must require a strong justification (along with some specialized equipment and dry, windy weather.) Recall, that the goal is not to fight, but to win, and the enemy is not to be destroyed, but assimilated. As such, the use of fire attacks is strongly discouraged. However, leaders must study fire attacks to learn how to defend against them.

If you burn the enemy's base down, there will be nothing to loot. To achieve a victory without rewarding the merit of the subordinates who supplied that victory is both stingy and insulting; this will foster a sense of ill-will and damage morale.

Do not attack whenever there is no clear strategic advantage, material benefit, or apparent danger. Attacks should be a calculated moves, and not the products of anger or wrath. Situation knowledge is essential to any attack (e.g., you must know how the daytime winds that carry your flames will stop at after dark, and vice-versa). Additionally, you must be able to grasp the wisdom of the Chinese proverbs “one can cheer up the angry, or delight the wrathful -- but the dead will remain forever lost” and “cities cannot be unburned.” As such, fighting should be a rational, non-emotional act. If your emotions are constantly in flux, then you will lose your dignity, and no one will trust you.

Fire attacks will do more than merely burn; fire attacks are meant to cause a crisis. The enemy will become distracted as they scramble to contain the flames, giving your forces a window of opportunity to attack while the enemy is imperiled, confused, and unprepared. Since the enemy must devote some troops to firefighting, fire attacks will automatically set up a successful divide-and-conquer strategy. Timing is extremely critical with these attacks; once the fire has been brought under control, everything will be back in order; the window of opportunity will have closed, and it makes no sense to attack.

Always attack with the momentum of a fire, and never against it. Follow up in the wake of destruction, and fight the haggard survivors in the aftermath. If you try to intercept the enemy as they flee, they will just be placed in a desperate situation, amplifying their ferocity.

You do not need to be inside the enemy’s camp or base in order to burn it down. Burning the field surrounding will have the same effect, if your timing is right.

Special Commentary on the Use and Deployment of Spies

Planning and calculation requires knowing the initial state of a system; one must see in order to perceive. Exploiting someone’s talents, temperament, or character flaws requires prior knowledge about that person. This foreknowledge cannot be obtained by analogies, calculations, or by slumber partying teenagers with a Ouija board -- these initial conditions can only be obtained from people who already know them. These people are spies.

Spies are useful everywhere, in every situation. Problems must be understood before they can be solved, so every matter requires some prior knowledge. Major operations are a severe financial drain that can last years, so you must know you are preparing for the correct contingencies. Spies must lay the foundation for your entire plan; they are the most valuable people in your organization. Rewarding those who can gather exploitable information about the enemy is a hallmark of a good leader. The only time spies should ever be treated poorly is if a piece of military intelligence is heard before a spy reports it. In this case, you must immediately kill both the spy and the person who heard it -- this indicates there is an information leak, and such leaks must be sealed immediately to maintain secrecy.

There are five, non-exclusive types of spies:

  1. Local Spy. These are the local people, who can use their social connections and knowledge of the area to provide you with information. The familiar native guides in Westerns, as well as the street-level snitches in detective stories are examples of local spies.
  2. Inside Spy. This is a spy that is also a legitimate member of your enemy’s organization. Inside spies are usually disgruntled employees who betray their employer out of greed or for personal reasons (e.g., retaliation for a perceived wrong, a change of heart, a thirst for power, etc.). Inside spies can directly uncover and relay information about the enemy. Additionally, the resulting “witch hunt” to discover the spy's identity will destroy the enemy’s morale. By making accusations against one another, they will become distracted from fighting you.
  3. Reverse Spy. This “double agent” is a spy who is simultaneously an enemy spy. (Reverse Spies are then a special case of an inside spy.) A captured enemy spy must always be bribed in an attempt to create a reverse spy. If they decline the offer, use them as a dead spy. If the enemy spy accepts, then you can now exploit the special privileges the enemy has granted him. Reverse spies can provide the information needed to recruit and deploy other spies, making them the most important and most prized of all your subordinates. Reverse spies are uniquely able to perform the following tasks:
    • Since they are members of the enemy’s intelligence network, you now have access to what the enemy knows -- thus enabling you to see the weaknesses in your defenses which the enemy has discerned, but you have yet to perceive.
    • Reverse spies can use their contacts within their own spy ring, and within the larger enemy organization, to help locate potential local and inside spy candidates.
    • Your reverse spy can tell you how the enemy is likely to be deceived, and how your dead spies can exploit this.
    • The conditions and information provided by reverse spies will direct and assist living spies with their missions.
  4. Dead Spy. If you uncover a spy who has infiltrated your organization (and they cannot be bribed into becoming a reverse spy), do not harm them. Known enemy spies are useful, since they can be provided with false information to report back. The enemy will accept this false information as being true, since it came from an allegedly reliable source, and they will base their strategy upon these lies. This results in the enemy wasting their time, energy, and resources as they concentrate their efforts on where they are needed the least. When the enemy eventually learns that their plans were sabotaged by their own spy, it typically ends badly for the spy. Thus the name, “dead spy.”
  5. Living Spy. These are extremely loyal spies who infiltrate, observe, and report information about the enemy. Leaders must respect and treasure their living spies, because they have an intrinsically dangerous job that few people are qualified to perform. Living spies must be smart people (since they need to know what to look for), but they must appear inconspicuous and stupid (so no one suspects them of being a spy). Living spies must be strong-willed (to resist interrogations) and resistant to seduction, since those are the two most common ways to coax people into divulging secrets. Since their job may require taking extreme measures to avoid being captured, living spies must be fast; powerful; brave; and resistant to cold, hunger, and dishonor.

Spies deserve the most special treatment and privileges of all of your subordinates -- because in the end, it is the spies who do the most for your organization. Nothing is more secret than espionage, and spies lead difficult lives -- if they are discovered, it could mean death. Poorly-treated spies could always secretly accept enemy bribes or counter-offers, become reverse spies, and completely undermine you -- so you must give them an incentive not too.