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The Art of War | Chapter 12 : Attack by Fire | Summary

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Summary

This very short chapter is one in which Sun Tzu and his commentators briefly describe "five methods of attacking with fire." These methods depend on weather conditions, humidity, and the direction and strength of winds. They advise that all sorts of equipment for this kind of attack should be carefully planned out and arranged well ahead of time, so that adjustments can be made to accommodate fluctuating conditions. If, for example, fire-lit missiles strike the enemy encampment, it is recommended to observe their response before following up with an attack. If the fire throws the enemy into confusion, an attack is encouraged. However, if the enemy remains calm, the wisest course of action is to wait.

Analysis

From his discussion of fire as a means of throwing enemy ranks into confusion, Sun Tzu turns—as is often the case in these chapters—from the use of fire as a physical weapon, to "fire" in the emotions of a weak or impetuous general. An enraged, resentful opponent is going to act wastefully and foolishly, a state in which the wise general can take advantage of. But, as Sun Tzu warns, "If you cannot succeed, do not use troops. If you are not in danger, do not fight." By implication, then, if a general can inflame the perception of his enemy to the point where the enemy will respond to it, the general holds the advantage to strike with focused precision.

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