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The Art of War - Chapter 3. Attack By Stratagem

1. Introduction

2. The Text of Sun Tzu

3. The Commentators

4. Appreciations of Sun Tzu

5. Apologies for War

6. Bibliography

7. Footnotes

8. Chapter 1. Laying Plans

9. Chapter 2. Waging War

10. Chapter 3. Attack By Stratagem

11. Chapter 4. Tactical Disposition

12. Chapter 5. Energy

13. Chapter 6. Weak Points and Strong

14. Chapter 7. Manuevering

15. Chapter 8. Variations in Tactics

16. Chapter 9. The Army on the March

17. Chapter 10. Terrain

18. Chapter 11. The Nine Situations

19. Chapter 12. The Attack by Fire

20. Chapter 13. The Use of Spies


1. Sun Tzu said: In the practical art of war, the best
thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to
shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to
recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a
regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.

[The equivalent to an army corps, according to Ssu-ma Fa,
consisted nominally of 12500 men; according to Ts`ao Kung, the
equivalent of a regiment contained 500 men, the equivalent to a
detachment consists from any number between 100 and 500, and the
equivalent of a company contains from 5 to 100 men. For the last
two, however, Chang Yu gives the exact figures of 100 and 5

2. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not
supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the
enemy's resistance without fighting.

[Here again, no modern strategist but will approve the words
of the old Chinese general. Moltke's greatest triumph, the
capitulation of the huge French army at Sedan, was won
practically without bloodshed.]

3. Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the
enemy's plans;

[Perhaps the word "balk" falls short of expressing the full
force of the Chinese word, which implies not an attitude of
defense, whereby one might be content to foil the enemy's
stratagems one after another, but an active policy of counter-
attack. Ho Shih puts this very clearly in his note: "When the
enemy has made a plan of attack against us, we must anticipate
him by delivering our own attack first."]

the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy's forces;

[Isolating him from his allies. We must not forget that Sun
Tzu, in speaking of hostilities, always has in mind the numerous
states or principalities into which the China of his day was
split up.]

the next in order is to attack the enemy's army in the field;

[When he is already at full strength.]

and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.

4. The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can
possibly be avoided.

[Another sound piece of military theory. Had the Boers
acted upon it in 1899, and refrained from dissipating their
strength before Kimberley, Mafeking, or even Ladysmith, it is
more than probable that they would have been masters of the
situation before the British were ready seriously to oppose

The preparation of mantlets, movable shelters, and various
implements of war, will take up three whole months;

[It is not quite clear what the Chinese word, here
translated as "mantlets", described. Ts`ao Kung simply defines
them as "large shields," but we get a better idea of them from Li
Ch`uan, who says they were to protect the heads of those who were
assaulting the city walls at close quarters. This seems to
suggest a sort of Roman TESTUDO, ready made. Tu Mu says they
were wheeled vehicles used in repelling attacks, but this is
denied by Ch`en Hao. See supra II. 14. The name is also applied
to turrets on city walls. Of the "movable shelters" we get a
fairly clear description from several commentators. They were
wooden missile-proof structures on four wheels, propelled from
within, covered over with raw hides, and used in sieges to convey
parties of men to and from the walls, for the purpose of filling
up the encircling moat with earth. Tu Mu adds that they are now
called "wooden donkeys."]

and the piling up of mounds over against the walls will take
three months more.

[These were great mounds or ramparts of earth heaped up to
the level of the enemy's walls in order to discover the weak
points in the defense, and also to destroy the fortified turrets
mentioned in the preceding note.]

5. The general, unable to control his irritation, will
launch his men to the assault like swarming ants,

[This vivid simile of Ts`ao Kung is taken from the spectacle
of an army of ants climbing a wall. The meaning is that the
general, losing patience at the long delay, may make a premature
attempt to storm the place before his engines of war are ready.]

with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the
town still remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a

[We are reminded of the terrible losses of the Japanese
before Port Arthur, in the most recent siege which history has to

6. Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy's troops
without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying
siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy
operations in the field.

[Chia Lin notes that he only overthrows the Government, but
does no harm to individuals. The classical instance is Wu Wang,
who after having put an end to the Yin dynasty was acclaimed
"Father and mother of the people."]

7. With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of
the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be

[Owing to the double meanings in the Chinese text, the
latter part of the sentence is susceptible of quite a different
meaning: "And thus, the weapon not being blunted by use, its
keenness remains perfect."]

This is the method of attacking by stratagem.
8. It is the rule in war, if our forces are ten to the
enemy's one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him;

[Straightway, without waiting for any further advantage.]

if twice as numerous, to divide our army into two.

[Tu Mu takes exception to the saying; and at first sight,
indeed, it appears to violate a fundamental principle of war.
Ts'ao Kung, however, gives a clue to Sun Tzu's meaning: "Being
two to the enemy's one, we may use one part of our army in the
regular way, and the other for some special diversion." Chang Yu
thus further elucidates the point: "If our force is twice as
numerous as that of the enemy, it should be split up into two
divisions, one to meet the enemy in front, and one to fall upon
his rear; if he replies to the frontal attack, he may be crushed
from behind; if to the rearward attack, he may be crushed in
front." This is what is meant by saying that 'one part may be
used in the regular way, and the other for some special
diversion.' Tu Mu does not understand that dividing one's army
is simply an irregular, just as concentrating it is the regular,
strategical method, and he is too hasty in calling this a

9. If equally matched, we can offer battle;

[Li Ch`uan, followed by Ho Shih, gives the following
paraphrase: "If attackers and attacked are equally matched in
strength, only the able general will fight."]

if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy;

[The meaning, "we can WATCH the enemy," is certainly a great
improvement on the above; but unfortunately there appears to be
no very good authority for the variant. Chang Yu reminds us that
the saying only applies if the other factors are equal; a small
difference in numbers is often more than counterbalanced by
superior energy and discipline.]

if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him.
10. Hence, though an obstinate fight may be made by a small
force, in the end it must be captured by the larger force.
11. Now the general is the bulwark of the State; if the
bulwark is complete at all points; the State will be strong; if
the bulwark is defective, the State will be weak.

[As Li Ch`uan tersely puts it: "Gap indicates deficiency;
if the general's ability is not perfect (i.e. if he is not
thoroughly versed in his profession), his army will lack

12. There are three ways in which a ruler can bring
misfortune upon his army:--
13. (1) By commanding the army to advance or to retreat,
being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey. This is called
hobbling the army.

[Li Ch`uan adds the comment: "It is like tying together the
legs of a thoroughbred, so that it is unable to gallop." One
would naturally think of "the ruler" in this passage as being at
home, and trying to direct the movements of his army from a
distance. But the commentators understand just the reverse, and
quote the saying of T`ai Kung: "A kingdom should not be
governed from without, and army should not be directed from
within." Of course it is true that, during an engagement, or
when in close touch with the enemy, the general should not be in
the thick of his own troops, but a little distance apart.
Otherwise, he will be liable to misjudge the position as a whole,
and give wrong orders.]

14. (2) By attempting to govern an army in the same way as
he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which
obtain in an army. This causes restlessness in the soldier's

[Ts`ao Kung's note is, freely translated: "The military
sphere and the civil sphere are wholly distinct; you can't handle
an army in kid gloves." And Chang Yu says: "Humanity and
justice are the principles on which to govern a state, but not an
army; opportunism and flexibility, on the other hand, are
military rather than civil virtues to assimilate the governing of
an army"--to that of a State, understood.]

15. (3) By employing the officers of his army without

[That is, he is not careful to use the right man in the
right place.]

through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to
circumstances. This shakes the confidence of the soldiers.

[I follow Mei Yao-ch`en here. The other commentators refer
not to the ruler, as in SS. 13, 14, but to the officers he
employs. Thus Tu Yu says: "If a general is ignorant of the
principle of adaptability, he must not be entrusted with a
position of authority." Tu Mu quotes: "The skillful employer of
men will employ the wise man, the brave man, the covetous man,
and the stupid man. For the wise man delights in establishing
his merit, the brave man likes to show his courage in action, the
covetous man is quick at seizing advantages, and the stupid man
has no fear of death."]

16. But when the army is restless and distrustful, trouble
is sure to come from the other feudal princes. This is simply
bringing anarchy into the army, and flinging victory away.
17. Thus we may know that there are five essentials for
victory: (1) He will win who knows when to fight and when not to

[Chang Yu says: If he can fight, he advances and takes the
offensive; if he cannot fight, he retreats and remains on the
defensive. He will invariably conquer who knows whether it is
right to take the offensive or the defensive.]

(2) He will win who knows how to handle both superior and
inferior forces.

[This is not merely the general's ability to estimate
numbers correctly, as Li Ch`uan and others make out. Chang Yu
expounds the saying more satisfactorily: "By applying the art of
war, it is possible with a lesser force to defeat a greater, and
vice versa. The secret lies in an eye for locality, and in not
letting the right moment slip. Thus Wu Tzu says: 'With a
superior force, make for easy ground; with an inferior one, make
for difficult ground.'"]

(3) He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit
throughout all its ranks.
(4) He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the
enemy unprepared.
(5) He will win who has military capacity and is not
interfered with by the sovereign.

[Tu Yu quotes Wang Tzu as saying: "It is the sovereign's
function to give broad instructions, but to decide on battle it
is the function of the general." It is needless to dilate on the
military disasters which have been caused by undue interference
with operations in the field on the part of the home government.
Napoleon undoubtedly owed much of his extraordinary success to
the fact that he was not hampered by central authority.]

18. Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know
yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If
you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you
will also suffer a defeat.

[Li Ch`uan cites the case of Fu Chien, prince of Ch`in, who
in 383 A.D. marched with a vast army against the Chin Emperor.
When warned not to despise an enemy who could command the
services of such men as Hsieh An and Huan Ch`ung, he boastfully
replied: "I have the population of eight provinces at my back,
infantry and horsemen to the number of one million; why, they
could dam up the Yangtsze River itself by merely throwing their
whips into the stream. What danger have I to fear?"
Nevertheless, his forces were soon after disastrously routed at
the Fei River, and he was obliged to beat a hasty retreat.]

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in
every battle.

[Chang Yu said: "Knowing the enemy enables you to take the
offensive, knowing yourself enables you to stand on the
defensive." He adds: "Attack is the secret of defense; defense
is the planning of an attack." It would be hard to find a better
epitome of the root-principle of war.]

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