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The Art of War | Chapter 1 : Estimates | Summary



Sun Tzu begins his instruction on the topic of estimates in this first chapter with a brief introduction. He states it is of utmost importance that war be "thoroughly studied," because its outcome means the difference between survival or ruin of the state. He discusses five fundamental factors: moral influence, weather, terrain, command, and doctrine, along with seven elements to be elaborated on later. Sun Tzu then explains what he means by each of these five factors. Commentators then follow with examples and elaborations.

Chang Yu adds that these five fundamental factors combined serve to develop a preconflict plan of action—or strategy—in dealing with rebels. This step-by-step strategy begins with an examination of the relationship of the people to their governance, or what Sun Tzu calls "moral assessment." The issue is whether or not the people are confident in their ruler, which would determine their ability and willingness to support the stresses of waging a war. Once this estimation has been made, next up are the two related conditions of anticipated weather and the characteristics of the ground over which troops must march to meet and engage the enemy. Distances, and the difficulty or ease of marching over the terrain, must be estimated so that troops arrive in the best condition possible before engaging the enemy. Commentator Mei Yao-ch'en briefly accounts for terrain by stating that an accurate estimate of the conditions surrounding a proposed campaign is important in determining "the advantages of using infantry or cavalry." (Infantry units fought on foot, while cavalry units were on horseback.)

The last two of the five fundamental factors are command and doctrine. Command estimates have to do with the qualities of the commander that qualify him to order the troops and be certain those orders will be followed. The reputation of the commander must be supported in action, to exhibit the virtues of command as having "wisdom, sincerity, humanity, courage, and strictness." Closely related to command, the doctrine has to do with "organization, control, assignment of appropriate ranks of officers, regulation of supply routes, and the provision of principle items used by the army." Sun Tzu makes it clear that this kind of pre-engagement planning offers a greater chance of success than having a large army. He sums up his explanation by saying, "Those who master them win; those who do not are defeated."

The last part of the chapter explains Sun Tzu's statement, "All warfare is based on deception." The more prepared a commander is, the more he should appear to his opponent to be unprepared and disorganized. Tu Mu here offers the example of the Chao general Li Mu who released herds of cattle and gave the appearance of retreat, when in fact his forces were hidden on each side. The opposing Huns fell for the trap, went toward the cattle, and were crushed between the two sides of Li Mu's troops. The chapter concludes with Sun Tzu's recommendation that a commander should frequently change tactics by accurately assessing changing conditions.


It is in this initial chapter that Sun Tzu lays out the principles of preconflict preparation as the first key element of strategy. While battles in the previous period were haphazard and more or less casual, the disintegration of central governance into multiple feudal territories called for a drastic change in war-making. War became essential to the survival of the state.

Samuel B. Griffith notes that the phrase "moral influence" is represented with the character of Tao, or "The Way." This means if the sovereign is virtuous and just, then he is following the "right path." And if the sovereign exerts a superior moral influence, then his people will have the confidence and loyalty to follow his appointed commander into battle. The character for doctrine is, according to Griffith, fa, meaning "law or method." The ability to accurately assess the combined strengths and weaknesses of both moral influence and doctrine is an important first step in estimating the likelihood of success in battle.

The implementation of deception before, during, and after battle is one to which Sun Tzu returns frequently throughout his instruction. If the commander can keep his opponent in the dark as to his true intentions, he has the advantage. Correspondingly, the more accurately the commander understands the motives and plans of the enemy, the more completely he can take control of the situation and make appropriate adjustments based on changing conditions. The art of deception makes it impossible for the enemy to make his own plans, because he is kept too busy trying to adjust to the opponent's tactics that don't seem to make any sense.

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