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The Art of War | Chapter 3 : Offensive Strategy | Summary



In this chapter Sun Tzu states, "To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill." Sun Tzu and his commentators return to the goal of subduing and subsuming the enemy—rather than complete destruction—and it is one achieved only through careful planning. Tu Mu quotes the Grand Duke as saying, "He who excels at resolving difficulties does so before they arise." Sun Tzu then specifies the use of tactics in order of preference, beginning with attacking the enemy's strategy or plans, then separating the enemy from its allies, followed by attacking the army. The least effective tactic is to lay siege to a city, an act that may be done "only when there is no alternative."

Control of impatient actions in a siege situation is as critical as it is difficult. As Tu Mu points out in a specific example of a siege gone wrong, Emperor T'ai Wu at the command of 100,000 troops besieged Yu T'ai, which was under the command of the Sung General Tsang Chih. According to custom, the emperor asked Tsang Chih for some wine, but was sent a pot of urine instead. This so enraged the emperor that he attacked the city at once. After 30 days of fighting, over half of the emperor's army was decimated. Commentator Li Ch'uan adds to this the account of another battle during which rebel forces were entrenched at the city of Yuan Wu, but the attacking army could not take it, even after months of fighting. The attackers fell ill, whereupon their commander was advised to allow the rebels a narrow escape route. That way, when the defenders fled instead of "fighting to the death," the attackers weakened by illness were able to take the city without a fight, and the rebels disbursed such that "any village constable will be able to capture them." In every instance, the commander should keep control of both himself and his troops, to prevent them from being needlessly killed.

Sun Tzu also outlines "five circumstances in which victory may be predicted." These circumstances depend on the commanding general's knowledge of several things: (1) knowing as much about himself and his own troops as about those of the opposition, so that he will know when to advance and when to retreat; (2) knowing the correct use of both small and large forces; (3) knowing how to forge ranks unified in purpose; (4) knowing how to exercise patience when the opposition does not; and (5) knowing that his sovereign does not interfere with his decisions. The last point is particularly important, as a sovereign's appointed general is trusted to act with immediate and decisive action under changing conditions on a battlefield. It is therefore up to the sovereign to choose a general in whom he can place his complete trust, while it is the general's corresponding duty to fulfill the trust placed in him.


Sun Tzu and his commentators consider such things as the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two armies before they engage in battle. A pragmatic and unemotional approach—as opposed to a superstitious, angry, or gracious one—underlies this idea. Sun Tzu, along with his commentators, makes a point of this by emphasizing how war has changed between the Spring and Autumn Annals period and the Warring States period.

The rules of engagement during the Spring and Autumn period dictated that the head of each army exchanged gifts prior to battle. But in the description of a siege given by Tu Mu, the gift offered was so offensive that the attacking general flew into a rage and rashly attacked, with the result that "after thirty days of this the dead exceeded half his force."

Almost immediately, Li Ch'uan brings up the example of another siege, and here Samuel B. Griffith notes the use of the Chinese character Yao, or a "supernatural" belief. The implication is that the attackers had a difficult time taking the city, in part because those behind the city walls believed in some sort of spell that protected them. In the end, however, they proved vulnerable to their attackers. In the Spring and Autumn Annals period preceding Sun Tzu's time, two armies would sit across a field from one another, while fortune-tellers and seers cast divinations to determine the likely outcome of the battle. Sun Tzu seems to be acknowledging this as having been common practice in the past but one that can't be depended upon in the present.

In his discussion of the relationship between a sovereign and his commanding general, Sun Tzu states there must be complete trust. Although not explicitly stated in this chapter, the implication is that the same must also be true of the troops placed under the general's command, because they will only be confused and ineffective if the general's authority is compromised in any way.

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