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Sun Tzu on the Art of War by Sun Tzu

8 - Variation in Tactics
Terrain - 10

The Army on the March[1]

Sun Tzu said: We come now to the question of encamping the army, and observing signs of the enemy. Pass quickly over mountains, and keep in the neighborhood of valleys. [2]

Camp in high places, [3] facing the sun. [4] Do not climb heights in order to fight. So much for mountain warfare.

After crossing a river, you should get far away from it. [5]

When an invading force crosses a river in its onward march, do not advance to meet it in mid-stream. It will be best to let half the army get across, and then deliver your attack. [6]

If you are anxious to fight, you should not go to meet the invader near a river which he has to cross. [7]

Moor your craft higher up than the enemy, and facing the sun. [8] Do not move up-stream to meet the enemy. [9] So much for river warfare.

In crossing salt-marshes, your sole concern should be to get over them quickly, without any delay. [10]

If forced to fight in a salt-marsh, you should have water and grass near you, and get your back to a clump of trees. [11] So much for operations in salt-marches.

In dry, level country, take up an easily accessible position with rising ground to your right and on your rear, [12] so that the danger may be in front, and safety lie behind. So much for campaigning in flat country.

These are the four useful branches of military knowledge [13] which enabled the Yellow Emperor to vanquish four several sovereigns. [14]

All armies prefer high ground to low. [15] and sunny places to dark.

If you are careful of your men, [16] and camp on hard ground, the army will be free from disease of every kind, [17] and this will spell victory.

When you come to a hill or a bank, occupy the sunny side, with the slope on your right rear. Thus you will at once act for the benefit of your soldiers and utilize the natural advantages of the ground.

When, in consequence of heavy rains up-country, a river which you wish to ford is swollen and flecked with foam, you must wait until it subsides.

Country in which there are precipitous cliffs with torrents running between, deep natural hollows, [18] confined places, [19] tangled thickets, [20] quagmires [21] and crevasses, [22] should be left with all possible speed and not approached.

While we keep away from such places, we should get the enemy to approach them; while we face them, we should let the enemy have them on his rear.

If in the neighborhood of your camp there should be any hilly country, ponds surrounded by aquatic grass, hollow basins filled with reeds, or woods with thick undergrowth, they must be carefully routed out and searched; for these are places where men in ambush or insidious spies are likely to be lurking. [23]

When the enemy is close at hand and remains quiet, he is relying on the natural strength of his position. [24]

When he keeps aloof and tries to provoke a battle, he is anxious for the other side to advance. [25]

If his place of encampment is easy of access, he is tendering a bait.

Movement amongst the trees of a forest shows that the enemy is advancing. [26] The appearance of a number of screens in the midst of thick grass means that the enemy wants to make us suspicious. [27]

The rising of birds in their flight is the sign of an ambuscade. [28] Startled beasts indicate that a sudden attack is coming.

When there is dust rising in a high column, it is the sign of chariots advancing; when the dust is low, but spread over a wide area, it betokens the approach of infantry. [29] When it branches out in different directions, it shows that parties have been sent to collect firewood. A few clouds of dust moving to and fro signify that the army is encamping. [30]

Humble words and increased preparations are signs that the enemy is about to advance. [31] Violent language and driving forward as if to the attack are signs that he will retreat.

When the light chariots come out first and take up a position on the wings, it is a sign that the enemy is forming for battle.

Peace proposals unaccompanied by a sworn covenant indicate a plot. [32]

When there is much running about [33] and the soldiers fall into rank, it means that the critical moment has come.

When some are seen advancing and some retreating, it is a lure.

When the soldiers stand leaning on their spears, they are faint from want of food.

If those who are sent to draw water begin by drinking themselves, the army is suffering from thirst. [34]

If the enemy sees an advantage to be gained and makes no effort to secure it, the soldiers are exhausted.

If birds gather on any spot, it is unoccupied. [35] Clamor by night betokens nervousness.

If there is disturbance in the camp, the general's authority is weak. If the banners and flags are shifted about, sedition is afoot. If the officers are angry, it means that the men are weary. [36]

When an army feeds its horses with grain and kills its cattle for food, [37] and when the men do not hang their cooking-pots over the camp- fires, showing that they will not return to their tents, you may know that they are determined to fight to the death. [38]

The sight of men whispering together in small knots or speaking in subdued tones points to disaffection amongst the rank and file.

Too frequent rewards signify that the enemy is at the end of his resources; [39] too many punishments betray a condition of dire distress. [40]

To begin by bluster, but afterwards to take fright at the enemy's numbers, shows a supreme lack of intelligence. [41]

When envoys are sent with compliments in their mouths, it is a sign that the enemy wishes for a truce. [42]

If the enemy's troops march up angrily and remain facing ours for a long time without either joining battle or taking themselves off again, the situation is one that demands great vigilance and circumspection. [43]

If our troops are no more in number than the enemy, that is amply sufficient; it only means that no direct attack can be made. [44] What we can do is simply to concentrate all our available strength, keep a close watch on the enemy, and obtain reinforcements. [45]

He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them. [46]

If soldiers are punished before they have grown attached to you, they will not prove submissive; and, unless submissive, then will be practically useless. If, when the soldiers have become attached to you, punishments are not enforced, they will still be unless.

Therefore soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline. [47] This is a certain road to victory.

If in training soldiers commands are habitually enforced, the army will be well-disciplined; if not, its discipline will be bad.

If a general shows confidence in his men but always insists on his orders being obeyed, [48] the gain will be mutual. [49]

[1] The contents of this interesting chapter are better indicated in ss. 1 than by this heading.
[2]

The idea is, not to linger among barren uplands, but to keep close to supplies of water and grass. Cf. Wu Tzu, ch. 3: "Abide not in natural ovens," i.e. "the openings of valleys." Chang Yu tells the following anecdote: Wu-tu Ch`iang was a robber captain in the time of the Later Han, and Ma Yuan was sent to exterminate his gang. Ch`iang having found a refuge in the hills, Ma Yuan made no attempt to force a battle, but seized all the favorable positions commanding supplies of water and forage. Ch`iang was soon in such a desperate plight for want of provisions that he was forced to make a total surrender. He did not know the advantage of keeping in the neighborhood of valleys."

[3]

Not on high hills, but on knolls or hillocks elevated above the surrounding country.

[4]

Tu Mu takes this to mean "facing south," and Ch`en Hao "facing east." Cf. infra, SS. 11, 13.

[5]

"In order to tempt the enemy to cross after you," according to Ts`ao Kung, and also, says Chang Yu, "in order not to be impeded in your evolutions." The T`UNG TIEN reads, "If THE ENEMY crosses a river," etc. But in view of the next sentence, this is almost certainly an interpolation.

[6]

Li Ch`uan alludes to the great victory won by Han Hsin over Lung Chu at the Wei River. Turning to the CH`IEN HAN SHU, ch. 34, fol. 6 verso, we find the battle described as follows: "The two armies were drawn up on opposite sides of the river. In the night, Han Hsin ordered his men to take some ten thousand sacks filled with sand and construct a dam higher up. Then, leading half his army across, he attacked Lung Chu; but after a time, pretending to have failed in his attempt, he hastily withdrew to the other bank. Lung Chu was much elated by this unlooked-for success, and exclaiming: "I felt sure that Han Hsin was really a coward!" he pursued him and began crossing the river in his turn. Han Hsin now sent a party to cut open the sandbags, thus releasing a great volume of water, which swept down and prevented the greater portion of Lung Chu's army from getting across. He then turned upon the force which had been cut off, and annihilated it, Lung Chu himself being amongst the slain. The rest of the army, on the further bank, also scattered and fled in all directions.

[7]

For fear of preventing his crossing.

[8]

See supra, ss. 2. The repetition of these words in connection with water is very awkward. Chang Yu has the note: "Said either of troops marshaled on the river-bank, or of boats anchored in the stream itself; in either case it is essential to be higher than the enemy and facing the sun." The other commentators are not at all explicit.

[9]

Tu Mu says: "As water flows downwards, we must not pitch our camp on the lower reaches of a river, for fear the enemy should open the sluices and sweep us away in a flood. Chu-ko Wu- hou has remarked that 'in river warfare we must not advance against the stream,' which is as much as to say that our fleet must not be anchored below that of the enemy, for then they would be able to take advantage of the current and make short work of us." There is also the danger, noted by other commentators, that the enemy may throw poison on the water to be carried down to us.

[10]

Because of the lack of fresh water, the poor quality of the herbage, and last but not least, because they are low, flat, and exposed to attack.

[11]

Li Ch`uan remarks that the ground is less likely to be treacherous where there are trees, while Tu Mu says that they will serve to protect the rear.

[12]

Tu Mu quotes T`ai Kung as saying: "An army should have a stream or a marsh on its left, and a hill or tumulus on its right."

[13]

Those, namely, concerned with (1) mountains, (2) rivers, (3) marshes, and (4) plains. Compare Napoleon's "Military Maxims," no. 1.

[14]

Regarding the "Yellow Emperor": Mei Yao-ch`en asks, with some plausibility, whether there is an error in the text as nothing is known of Huang Ti having conquered four other Emperors. The SHIH CHI (ch. 1 ad init.) speaks only of his victories over Yen Ti and Ch`ih Yu. In the LIU T`AO it is mentioned that he "fought seventy battles and pacified the Empire." Ts`ao Kung's explanation is, that the Yellow Emperor was the first to institute the feudal system of vassals princes, each of whom (to the number of four) originally bore the title of Emperor. Li Ch`uan tells us that the art of war originated under Huang Ti, who received it from his Minister Feng Hou.

[15]

"High Ground," says Mei Yao-ch`en, "is not only more agreement and salubrious, but more convenient from a military point of view; low ground is not only damp and unhealthy, but also disadvantageous for fighting."

[16]

Ts`ao Kung says: "Make for fresh water and pasture, where you can turn out your animals to graze."

[17]

Chang Yu says: "The dryness of the climate will prevent the outbreak of illness."

[18]

The latter defined as "places enclosed on every side by steep banks, with pools of water at the bottom.

[19]

Defined as "natural pens or prisons" or "places surrounded by precipices on three sides—easy to get into, but hard to get out of."

[20]

Defined as "places covered with such dense undergrowth that spears cannot be used."

[21]

Defined as "low-lying places, so heavy with mud as to be impassable for chariots and horsemen."

[22]

Defined by Mei Yao-ch`en as "a narrow difficult way between beetling cliffs." Tu Mu's note is "ground covered with trees and rocks, and intersected by numerous ravines and pitfalls." This is very vague, but Chia Lin explains it clearly enough as a defile or narrow pass, and Chang Yu takes much the same view. On the whole, the weight of the commentators certainly inclines to the rendering "defile." But the ordinary meaning of the Chinese in one place is "a crack or fissure" and the fact that the meaning of the Chinese elsewhere in the sentence indicates something in the nature of a defile, make me think that Sun Tzu is here speaking of crevasses.

[23]

Chang Yu has the note: "We must also be on our guard against traitors who may lie in close covert, secretly spying out our weaknesses and overhearing our instructions."

[24]

Here begin Sun Tzu's remarks on the reading of signs, much of which is so good that it could almost be included in a modern manual like Gen. Baden-Powell's "Aids to Scouting."

[25]

Probably because we are in a strong position from which he wishes to dislodge us. "If he came close up to us, says Tu Mu, "and tried to force a battle, he would seem to despise us, and there would be less probability of our responding to the challenge."

[26]

Ts`ao Kung explains this as "felling trees to clear a passage," and Chang Yu says: "Every man sends out scouts to climb high places and observe the enemy. If a scout sees that the trees of a forest are moving and shaking, he may know that they are being cut down to clear a passage for the enemy's march."

[27]

Tu Yu's explanation, borrowed from Ts`ao Kung's, is as follows: "The presence of a number of screens or sheds in the midst of thick vegetation is a sure sign that the enemy has fled and, fearing pursuit, has constructed these hiding-places in order to make us suspect an ambush." It appears that these "screens" were hastily knotted together out of any long grass which the retreating enemy happened to come across.

[28]

Chang Yu's explanation is doubtless right: "When birds that are flying along in a straight line suddenly shoot upwards, it means that soldiers are in ambush at the spot beneath."

[29]

"High and sharp," or rising to a peak, is of course somewhat exaggerated as applied to dust. The commentators explain the phenomenon by saying that horses and chariots, being heavier than men, raise more dust, and also follow one another in the same wheel-track, whereas foot-soldiers would be marching in ranks, many abreast. According to Chang Yu, "every army on the march must have scouts some way in advance, who on sighting dust raised by the enemy, will gallop back and report it to the commander-in-chief." Cf. Gen. Baden-Powell: "As you move along, say, in a hostile country, your eyes should be looking afar for the enemy or any signs of him: figures, dust rising, birds getting up, glitter of arms, etc." ["Aids to Scouting," p. 26.]

[30]

Chang Yu says: "In apportioning the defenses for a cantonment, light horse will be sent out to survey the position and ascertain the weak and strong points all along its circumference. Hence the small quantity of dust and its motion."

[31]

"As though they stood in great fear of us," says Tu Mu. "Their object is to make us contemptuous and careless, after which they will attack us." Chang Yu alludes to the story of T`ien Tan of the Ch`i-mo against the Yen forces, led by Ch`i Chieh. In ch. 82 of the SHIH CHI we read: "T`ien Tan openly said: 'My only fear is that the Yen army may cut off the noses of their Ch`i prisoners and place them in the front rank to fight against us; that would be the undoing of our city.' The other side being informed of this speech, at once acted on the suggestion; but those within the city were enraged at seeing their fellow-countrymen thus mutilated, and fearing only lest they should fall into the enemy's hands, were nerved to defend themselves more obstinately than ever. Once again T`ien Tan sent back converted spies who reported these words to the enemy: "What I dread most is that the men of Yen may dig up the ancestral tombs outside the town, and by inflicting this indignity on our forefathers cause us to become faint-hearted.' Forthwith the besiegers dug up all the graves and burned the corpses lying in them. And the inhabitants of Chi-mo, witnessing the outrage from the city-walls, wept passionately and were all impatient to go out and fight, their fury being increased tenfold. T`ien Tan knew then that his soldiers were ready for any enterprise. But instead of a sword, he himself too a mattock in his hands, and ordered others to be distributed amongst his best warriors, while the ranks were filled up with their wives and concubines. He then served out all the remaining rations and bade his men eat their fill. The regular soldiers were told to keep out of sight, and the walls were manned with the old and weaker men and with women. This done, envoys were dispatched to the enemy's camp to arrange terms of surrender, whereupon the Yen army began shouting for joy. T`ien Tan also collected 20,000 ounces of silver from the people, and got the wealthy citizens of Chi-mo to send it to the Yen general with the prayer that, when the town capitulated, he would allow their homes to be plundered or their women to be maltreated. Ch`i Chieh, in high good humor, granted their prayer; but his army now became increasingly slack and careless. Meanwhile, T`ien Tan got together a thousand oxen, decked them with pieces of red silk, painted their bodies, dragon-like, with colored stripes, and fastened sharp blades on their horns and well-greased rushes on their tails. When night came on, he lighted the ends of the rushes, and drove the oxen through a number of holes which he had pierced in the walls, backing them up with a force of 5000 picked warriors. The animals, maddened with pain, dashed furiously into the enemy's camp where they caused the utmost confusion and dismay; for their tails acted as torches, showing up the hideous pattern on their bodies, and the weapons on their horns killed or wounded any with whom they came into contact. In the meantime, the band of 5000 had crept up with gags in their mouths, and now threw themselves on the enemy. At the same moment a frightful din arose in the city itself, all those that remained behind making as much noise as possible by banging drums and hammering on bronze vessels, until heaven and earth were convulsed by the uproar. Terror-stricken, the Yen army fled in disorder, hotly pursued by the men of Ch`i, who succeeded in slaying their general Ch`i Chien.... The result of the battle was the ultimate recovery of some seventy cities which had belonged to the Ch`i State."

[32]

The reading here is uncertain. Li Ch`uan indicates "a treaty confirmed by oaths and hostages." Wang Hsi and Chang Yu, on the other hand, simply say "without reason," "on a frivolous pretext."

[33]

Every man hastening to his proper place under his own regimental banner.

[34]

As Tu Mu remarks: "One may know the condition of a whole army from the behavior of a single man."

[35]

A useful fact to bear in mind when, for instance, as Ch`en Hao says, the enemy has secretly abandoned his camp.

[36]

Tu Mu understands the sentence differently: "If all the officers of an army are angry with their general, it means that they are broken with fatigue" owing to the exertions which he has demanded from them.

[37]

In the ordinary course of things, the men would be fed on grain and the horses chiefly on grass.

[38]

I may quote here the illustrative passage from the HOU HAN SHU, ch. 71, given in abbreviated form by the P`EI WEN YUN FU: "The rebel Wang Kuo of Liang was besieging the town of Ch`en- ts`ang, and Huang-fu Sung, who was in supreme command, and Tung Cho were sent out against him. The latter pressed for hasty measures, but Sung turned a deaf ear to his counsel. At last the rebels were utterly worn out, and began to throw down their weapons of their own accord. Sung was not advancing to the attack, but Cho said: 'It is a principle of war not to pursue desperate men and not to press a retreating host.' Sung answered: 'That does not apply here. What I am about to attack is a jaded army, not a retreating host; with disciplined troops I am falling on a disorganized multitude, not a band of desperate men.' Thereupon he advances to the attack unsupported by his colleague, and routed the enemy, Wang Kuo being slain."

[39]

Because, when an army is hard pressed, as Tu Mu says, there is always a fear of mutiny, and lavish rewards are given to keep the men in good temper.

[40]

Because in such case discipline becomes relaxed, and unwonted severity is necessary to keep the men to their duty.

[41]

I follow the interpretation of Ts`ao Kung, also adopted by Li Ch`uan, Tu Mu, and Chang Yu. Another possible meaning set forth by Tu Yu, Chia Lin, Mei Tao-ch`en and Wang Hsi, is: "The general who is first tyrannical towards his men, and then in terror lest they should mutiny, etc." This would connect the sentence with what went before about rewards and punishments.

[42]

Tu Mu says: "If the enemy open friendly relations be sending hostages, it is a sign that they are anxious for an armistice, either because their strength is exhausted or for some other reason." But it hardly needs a Sun Tzu to draw such an obvious inference.

[43]

Ts`ao Kung says a maneuver of this sort may be only a ruse to gain time for an unexpected flank attack or the laying of an ambush.

[44]

Literally, "no martial advance." That is to say, CHENG tactics and frontal attacks must be eschewed, and stratagem resorted to instead.

[45]

This is an obscure sentence, and none of the commentators succeed in squeezing very good sense out of it. I follow Li Ch`uan, who appears to offer the simplest explanation: "Only the side that gets more men will win." Fortunately we have Chang Yu to expound its meaning to us in language which is lucidity itself: "When the numbers are even, and no favorable opening presents itself, although we may not be strong enough to deliver a sustained attack, we can find additional recruits amongst our sutlers and camp-followers, and then, concentrating our forces and keeping a close watch on the enemy, contrive to snatch the victory. But we must avoid borrowing foreign soldiers to help us." He then quotes from Wei Liao Tzu, ch. 3: "The nominal strength of mercenary troops may be 100,000, but their real value will be not more than half that figure."

[46]

Ch`en Hao, quoting from the TSO CHUAN, says: "If bees and scorpions carry poison, how much more will a hostile state! Even a puny opponent, then, should not be treated with contempt."

[47]

Yen Tzu [B.C. 493] said of Ssu-ma Jang-chu: "His civil virtues endeared him to the people; his martial prowess kept his enemies in awe." Cf. Wu Tzu, ch. 4 init.: "The ideal commander unites culture with a warlike temper; the profession of arms requires a combination of hardness and tenderness."

[48]

Tu Mu says: "A general ought in time of peace to show kindly confidence in his men and also make his authority respected, so that when they come to face the enemy, orders may be executed and discipline maintained, because they all trust and look up to him." What Sun Tzu has said in ss. 44, however, would lead one rather to expect something like this: "If a general is always confident that his orders will be carried out," etc."

[49]

Chang Yu says: "The general has confidence in the men under his command, and the men are docile, having confidence in him. Thus the gain is mutual" He quotes a pregnant sentence from Wei Liao Tzu, ch. 4: "The art of giving orders is not to try to rectify minor blunders and not to be swayed by petty doubts." Vacillation and fussiness are the surest means of sapping the confidence of an army.

Contents
8 - Variation in Tactics
Terrain - 10

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