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Category: The Thirteen Chapters

Strategic Military Power

This chapter mainly reiterates the theme of the preceding ones and goes on to illustrate some of the presented ideas in just a little more depth. Most of the diktats presented in this chapter are self explanatory and require little in the way of further comment. The first short paragraph though is deceptive in its apparent simplicity. In a few short words words Sun-tzu describes the mechanism for organising an army, illustrates the difference between and army and an armed mob and presents a formula for consistent military success.

“In general, commanding a large number is like commanding a few. It is a question of dividing up the numbers. Fighting with a large number is like fighting with a few. It is a question of configuration and designation.

In other words an intelligent commander will organise his troops but note, this is not just a matter of arranging them into easily manageable numbers. They must all know their place in the line of battle — their configuration. They must also be aware/trained/equipped for their task, a task that is not necessarily the same as that of the troops next to them. In effect, troops must not just be trained, equipped and employed as “plane soldiers” they must be “specialists”. Thus in ancient times Sun-tzu would have had his troops divided into swordsmen, spearmen, chariotmen, chariot runners, archers and so on — each body of troops with its own place in the line, its own task and (importantly) dependant on its neighbours for support.

This is important as specialisation, whilst bringing advantages in efficiency and effect also (generally) causes corresponding weaknesses. An archer may be able to strike an enemy 100 yards away but is nevertheless vulnerable to an enemy at short range. Chariots at full speed cause a great shock to an opposing force but once stopped they become entirely ineffective. Thus the specialist becomes dependant on his neighbours for support, the archer retires behind a wall of bills, the charioteer is protected by his runners the flanks of the unwieldy pikemen are protected by cavalry and so on. Taken together this helps to cement the internal bonds of an army and makes it more susceptible to effective control by its commanders.

With each body of troops dependant for its survival on others over whom it has no direct control it must rely on its overall commander to direct it actions. Thus the army made up of many small bodies of specialist troops whilst appearing on the surface to be a complex and unwieldy organisation is (with proper leadership) a highly effective easily managed force.

Obvious examples of this include the division of Roman armies. When the Romans first encountered the Celts/Gauls their forces were deployed largely according to the old phalanx Greecian system. They were roundly defeated and Rome was sacked. Defeats at the hand of the gladiator Sparticus and a series of early defeats at the hand of Hannibal caused obvious alarm with the Roman military organisation. A period of reorganisation followed whereby the legions were split into smaller more manageable units — cohorts, auxiliaries — archers and light cavalry were introduced and the Roman war machine became undefeatable. In the early 17th century western armies were largely organised along the line of the Spanish system whereby large bodies were hurled against each other with little thought to tactical thought. With the advent of the Swedish brigade system whereby the regiments of an army were split into mutably supporting companies of pikemen and musketeers tactical flexibility was restored to the army. Not just tactical flexibility though, each weapon type could now be employed at its maximum effectiveness and the army as a whole became more cohesive.

“What enable the masses of the Three Armies invariably to withstand the enemy without being defeated are the unorthodox and orthodox.

“If wherever the army attacks it is like a whetstone thrown against an egg, it is due to the vacuous and substantial.

“In general, in battle one engages with the orthodox and gains victory through the unorthodox. Thus one who excels at sending forth the unorthodox is as inexhaustible as Heaven, as unlimited as the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. What reach an end and begin again are the sun and moon. What die and are reborn are the four seasons.

The unorthodox is are those strategies and tactics that cannot be planned against, that is they cannot be countered in advance. For example the defence against blitzkrieg is defence in depth, when the tanks hammer at the door you destroy those you can and then you withdraw and you continue to withdraw by doing so the armoured head for the advancing blitzkrieg is soon over extended, unsupported at the end of its reach with fuel and ammunition running low it is vulnerable to absolute defeat. This is the conventional, it can be measured and judged in advance and can thus be countered. The unorthodox cannot be measured in advance and is thus much harder to counter. Thus if the attacker continues to attack with the unorthodox the defender, no matter his skill or even, dare we say his luck, is more likely to suffer eventual defeat providing of course that the attacks are made in a competent manner.

A striking modern example could come from the desert during World War 2. As a matter of necessity rather than deliberate policy the British deployed significant numbers of unconventional forces, SAS and the like. Their actions behind the German lines helped to deny supplies and air-support to the Germans. Taken with the air and sea campaign against the Axis supply routes the ability of the Axis to fight was seriously affected, staring defeat in the face they launched an all or nothing attack at Alamain (see chapter 4 - a vanquished army fights to prevent further failure rather than to achieve victory,). This attack was roundly defeated by means that were conventional for the period and from that point onwards the Axis were to all intents and purposes defeated.

“The notes do not exceed five, but the changes of the five notes can never be fully heard. The colours do not exceed five, but the changes of the five colours can never be completely seen. The favours do not exceed five, but the changes of the five favours can never be completely tasted. In warfare the strategic configurations of power do not exceed the unorthodox and orthodox, but the changes of the unorthodox and orthodox can never be completely exhausted. The unorthodox and orthodox mutually produce each other, just like an endless cycle. Who can exhaust them?

This is important, it is the mastery of both the orthodox and unorthodox and their employment in unison that makes an army/general powerful.

“The strategic configuration of power [is visible in] the onrush of pent-up water tumbling stones along. The [effect of] constraints [is visible in] the onrush of a bird of prey breaking the bones of its [target]. Thus the strategic configuration of power of those that excel in warfare is sharply focused, their constraints are precise. Their strategic configuration of power is like a fully drawn crossbow, their constraints like the release of the trigger.

“Intermixed and turbulent, the fighting appears chaotic, but they cannot be made disordered. In turmoil and confusion, their deployment is circular, and they cannot be defeated.

This echoes the initial and most important point made in this chapter. The proper employment and deployment of an army appears complex and chaotic but it is in fact this complexity that provides order, with order comes control, with control comes effectiveness and with effectiveness comes victory.

“[Simulated] chaos is given birth from control; [the illusion of] fear is given birth from courage; [feigned] weakness is given birth from strength. Order and disorder are a question of numbers; courage and fear are a question of the strategic configuration of power; strength and weakness are a question of the deployment [of forces].

“Thus one who excels at warfare seeks [victory] through the strategic configuration of power, not from reliance on men. Thus he is able to select men and employ strategic power.

See chapters 1, 2 and 3 eventual and complete victory is reliant on events away from the battlefield, the general first arranges circumstances so that victory is assured, the enemy is already defeated and then and only then does he commit his army(ies) to battle. In doing so he is able to choose when and where to fight so that his men can fight in the most effective way possible — at all times the tactical employment of the troops is secondary to the strategic aims and objectives.

“One who employs strategic power commands men in battle as if he were rolling logs and stones. The nature of wood and stone is to be quiet when stable but to move when on precipitous ground. If they are square they stop, if round they tend to move. Thus the strategic power of one who excels at employing men in warfare is comparable to rolling round boulders down a thousand-fathom mountain. Such is the strategic configuration of power.