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Category: The Thirteen Chapters

Initial Estimations

Within this chapter Sun-tzu discusses basic principles; being so general in nature the chapter requires little in the way of further explanation or commentary.

Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life and death, the Way to survival or extinction. It must be thoroughly pondered and analysed.

By "warfare" Sun-tzu does not necessarily mean actual military conflict but uses the term in a more general sense to indicate an international struggle for national advantage by either political or military means. Compare with the much later, von Clausewitz, "War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means"

Therefore, structure it according to five factors, evaluate it comparatively through estimations, and seek out its true nature. The first factor is termed the "Way", the second Heaven, the third Earth, the fourth generals, and the fifth the military laws.

"The "Way" causes the people to be fully in accord with the ruler. They will die with him; they will live with him and not fear danger.

Note, the ruler is not the same as the general. This made clearer in later chapters, however its interesting to note at this stage that despite the obvious differences in governmental types between the ancient and modern, Sun-tzu recognises the need for the military to be under the control of the civil administration. Arguing that military action is not an end in itself but as stated above it is an adjunct to civil (political) policy.

It is also interesting to note that ruler, general, army and people must be of the same mind - that is they share the same Way or philosophy. Not discussed at this point is the need for propaganda but this is very much a key part of Sun-Tze's way.

Sun-Tze also argues ...

Here he demonstrates the limitations of the times he lived in. In discussing "Haven encompasses ..." he is considering the imponderables, factors over which he has no control and only a limited understanding. What is interesting to note is that the concept of balance exists "far and near", "benevolence and strictness" and so forth. Granted it's an obvious point to make but it is one that needs reinforcing success needs a balance - and as pointed out with his last remark - an understanding that leadership is not management and that both are needed.

The meanings of the next two precepts are obvious, before making war or during the waging of a war consider the nature of the terrain and the conditions of the season. The final two though are interesting as they touch on the nature of the commander and the imposition of command. Whilst the meanings are again obvious its interesting to note that even during this period of history the imposition of a consistent set of rules (or laws) to govern the management of troops and military affairs is considered essential.

"There are no generals who have not heard of these five. Those who understand them will be victorious; those who do not understand them will not be victorious.

"Thus when making a comparative evaluation [of forthcoming conflict] through estimations, seeking out its true nature, ask:

From these I will know victory and defeat!

"If a general follows my estimation and you employ him, he will certainly be victorious and should be retained. If a general does not follow my estimation and you employ him, he will certainly be defeated, so dismiss him.

"After estimating the advantages in accord with what you have heard, put it into effect with strategic power supplemented by field tactics that respond to external factors. As for strategic power, [it is] controlling the tactical imbalance of power in accord with the gains to be realised.

Note that Sun-tzu recognises and emphasises the differences between the strategic and the tactical. In doing so he points out to the budding general that he must be able to see beyond the battlefield, indeed as can be seen from later chapters, he establishes that events on the battlefield itself are of less importance than the strategic factors that cause the battle to be fought in he first place.

"Warfare is the "Way" of deception. Thus although capable, display incapability to them. When committed to employing your forces, feign inactivity. When [your objective] is nearby, make it appear as if distant; when far away, create the illusion of being nearby.

Unstated but obvious by implication; any opposing general following the teachings of Sun-tzu will also be employing deception to deceive you. The unspoken lesson here is that you must not allow yourself to unquestioningly accept the apparent strategy of an opposing general no matter how obvious.

"These are the ways military strategists are victorious. They cannot be spoken of in advance.

"Before the engagement, one who determines in the ancestral temple that he will be victorious has found that the majority of factors are in his favour. Before the engagement one who determines in the ancestral temple that he will not be victorious has found few factors that are in his favour.

Sun-tzu does not mean that guidance comes from actual ancestral spirits. In a historical sense he is referring to the "ancestral temple" as being a place for meditative thought, that is a place where he general can go to ponder a proposed course of action. In a more modern sense, Sun-tzu might easily have used the example of a general sitting alone in his tent, or an admiral standing alone on the bridge wing of his flagship. The key point is that after all advice has been given and taken, after all experience and education has been taken into account it is the general alone who makes the final decisions and that he must make that final decisions alone after careful thought.

"If one who finds that the majority of factors favour him [then he] will be victorious while one who has found few factors favour him [then he] will be defeated, what about someone who finds no factors in his favour?

The question is rhetorical.

"If I observe it [the behaviour of opposing generals] from this perspective, victory and defeat will be apparent."

In the next chapter Sun-tzu offers some basic guidance on the waging of war itself.