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The Art of War | Chapter 11 : The Nine Varieties of Ground | Summary



Sun Tzu and his commentators quickly run through descriptions of nine different varieties of ground on which a battle may take place, ranging from the easiest to the most desperate, with tactics on how to handle each. The first three are "dispersive" (within one's own territory), "frontier" (making a shallow penetration into enemy land), and "key" (neutral, or mutually advantageous). Sun Tzu recommends not engaging the enemy on these varieties of ground because little can be gained by doing so. However, on "communicating" ground (which is expanded and level to accommodate fortifications), a worthwhile engagement with the enemy can be conducted only if the general sees to it his formations remain together.

"Focal" ground—that which is surrounded by three other states—offers an opportunity to gain allies. Sun Tzu warns that this approach requires careful preparation ahead of time and involves a risk that allies may be undependable. The "serious" type of ground is one in which deep incursion is made into enemy territory. While this type of ground offers opportunity for plunder, it is also "ground difficult to return from." When in difficult ground, it is best not to linger because this is a terrain of mountains, cliffs, swamps, and fast-running rivers that slow down and expose troops to ambush and traps. An "encircled" ground is one in which troops are pressed both by opposing forces and rough terrain, and the best way out of it is to "devise stratagems." The ninth classification of ground is "death," meaning the army may survive only by fighting out of desperation.

Following this identification and description of the nine varieties of ground, Sun Tzu and his commentators weigh in on specific elements that must be taken into account. For example, when in serious ground, a wise general "ensures a continuous flow of provisions." The example of being in death ground is, by implication, the most severe test of an army's internal discipline and order, something that must be solidly forged ahead of time. A general must be sure his troops will "fight to the death when there is no alternative, and when desperate to follow commands implicitly."

Sun Tzu and his commentators turn their attention to various means by which deception and division can be made to frustrate the enemy's preparations. It is worthwhile to split strong sections of the enemy off from its weaker ones, or to be "seen in the west and march out of the east." Sun Tzu says a general must take care of his troops. He must see to it that they are well fed, rested, and disciplined (by both action and the example of staunch self-discipline), and that they trust the general's "unfathomable plans" invariably support the greater good. It is only with this kind of strength in a fatherly type of relationship that troops will give their all in battle, even in a "death ground" situation.

Sun Tzu then states that the "Hegemonic King"—one who "snatches the position of authority"—doesn't forge alliances with other states. Instead, he inhibits the ability of the enemy to do so, while keeping would-be allies at arm's length. The reason for this is that a general who aims to dominate must demonstrate from the start that he is the only authority, and will not compromise this position by sharing authority with anyone else. For one thing, the risk of the enemy obtaining intelligence from an unreliable ally are minimized. Such plans are to be shared with no one else, thereby ensuring the enemy is unaware of when an action is a deceptive illusion or the real thing.


Samuel B. Griffith adds in his notes on the use of the word "plunder" in serious ground that commentator Li Ch'uan objects to it, because the goal is to win the affection and support of the people, if possible. It is certainly preferable for people to offer food and supplies willingly than to build resentment when things are forcefully taken from them. This tactic was vigorously employed by Mao Zedong in his campaigns for "liberation" of the people of China. History shows it worked very well. It is in the description of the "Hegemonic King" that a distinction can be made between Chairman Mao and his opponent, nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang Kai-shek relied on foreign support, while Mao built his army literally from groups of peasants who were, at the beginning, "ill-assorted groups armed with bows and arrows, spears, antique fowling pieces, several hundred rifles, and half a dozen machine guns." Chairman Mao may not have credited Sun Tzu directly, but he did apply important principles of changing tactics—cementing the loyalty of his forces—and the use of deception.

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