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Category: The Thirteen Chapters

Planning Offensives

In this chapter Sun-tzu begins to expand on the basic principles illustrated in the earlier chapters and begins to set them into a practical context.

“In general, the method for employing the military is this: Preserving the [enemy‘s] state capital is best, destroying their state capital second-best. Preserving their army is best, destroying their army second-best. Preserving their battalions is best, destroying their battalions second-best. Preserving their companies is best, destroying their companies second- best. Preserving their squads is best, destroying their squads second-best. For this reason attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the pinnacle of excellence. Subjugating the enemy's army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”

Sun-tzu makes the point here that actual fighting is the last recourse and that it is better to defeat the enemy without resorting to military action. As a general rule this is as true today as its ever been. There are many reasons for this, some objective some subjective, here are just a few of the more obvious ones that have presented themselves to us:

“Thus the highest realisation of warfare is to attack the enemy‘s plans; next is to attack their alliances; next to attack their army; and the lowest is to attack their fortified cities.”

Again, Sun-tzu expands on the main tenant of his theories - defeat the enemy without having to resort to actual war.

“This tactic of attacking fortified cities is adopted only when unavoidable. Preparing large movable protective shields, armoured assault wagons, and other equipment and devices will require three months. Building earthworks will require another three months to complete. If the general cannot overcome his impatience but instead launches an assault wherein his men swarm over the walls like ants, he will kill one-third of his officers and troops, and the city will still not be taken. This is the disaster that results from attacking [fortified cities].”

Whilst in an absolute or modern sense the actual figures quoted are of little significance it is the principle we have to consider. What Sun-tzu is illustrating is the expensive and desperate nature of assaulting well held fortified positions.

“Thus one who excels at employing the military subjugates other peoples armies without engaging in battle, captures other people‘s fortified cities without attacking them, and destroys others people‘s states without prolonged fighting. He must fight under Heaven with the paramount aim of preservation. Thus his weapons will not become dull, and the gains can be preserved. This is the strategy for planning offensives.”

A recap of an earlier point, actual military action is often an action of last resort, or if it isn't then it should be. As illustrated earlier military action is expensive in terms of men material and finances, the greater or more intense the conflict the greater the expense. By winning a campaign a campaign without recourse to prolong conflict not only are your men and material preserved but so are the enemies. This is an important point for if the enemies resources are preserved then you as the victor can exploit them to recoup your losses. If nothing is preserved it can be argued that in many cases there is no reason to fight for there is nothing to gain from the conflict.

“In general, the strategy for employing the military is this: If your strength is ten times theirs, surround them; if five, then attack them; if double, then divide your forces. If you are equal in strength to the enemy, you can engage him. If fewer, you can circumvent him. If outmatched, you can avoid him. Thus a small enemy that acts inflexibly will become the captives of a large enemy.”

The most important point made here is one that never loses its importance through repetition. That is, if you can't win then don't fight!

“The general is the supporting pillar of state. If his talents are all-encompassing, the state will invariably be strong. If the supporting pillar is marked by fissures, the state will invariably grow weak.”

The issue raised here is that a general with "all-encompassing talents" also considers the non military aspects of his command, in doing so he considers the civil aspect of his nation and acts to preserve it. If necessary he preserves it by not fighting.

“Thus there are three ways by which an army is put into difficulty by a ruler:

“When the Three Armies are already confused and doubtful, the danger of the feudal lords arises. This is referred to as ‘a disordered army drawing another on to victory.”

All self explanatory.

“Thus there are five factors from which victory can be known

“These five are the Way to know victory.”

Remembering that deception is also the (a) way to victory it thus follows that victory can also be achieved into deceiving the enemy into making the mistakes above that are enjoined against.

“Thus it is said that one who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements. One who does not know the enemy but knows himself will sometimes be victorious, sometimes meet with defeat. One who knows neither the enemy nor himself will invariably be defeated in every engagement.”