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The Art of War | Chapter 5 : Energy | Summary

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Summary

Sun Tzu turns his attention to the forging of troops into well-organized units that can be skillfully managed to act as a single, irresistible force against a more loosely managed opponent. To support this, commentator Chang Yu describes how a pyramid of command is built from the base at the bottom (individual soldiers) up through each level: pair, trio, squad, section, platoon, company, battalion, regiment, group, brigade, and finally, army. At each level, a commander is appointed to obey his superiors and control his inferiors, with the commanding general at the top.

Proper training and assignment of responsibility at every level is required for consistent functioning, so that control of the battlefield can be immediately established and maintained. This means that, as Chang Yu points out, even though troops may be spread out in the fighting, they and their officers never lose track of when to advance or retreat. These orders are delivered both by sight ("observing flags and banners") and by sound ("signals of bells and drums") so that no single individual is ever left alone to either advance or flee.

At this point, Sun Tzu turns to the concept of how to employ both normal forces (requiring less energy) and extraordinary ones (requiring more energy) in a way that will make the enemy uncertain as to which is which. Consistent with his assertion that a quick and decisive blow is preferable to one that extends over a long period of time (Chapters 2 and 3), Sun Tzu advises that the successful general is able to make the enemy believe that the "normal" energy of his army is "extraordinary." And, given an offensive advantage, the energy of the army opposing them in an extraordinary fashion is really that army's "normal" mode.

This means, according to Sun Tzu, that a victorious army displays an energy that is "cyclical, as are the movements of the sun and moon." Thus, the same energy will be applied to any future confrontations as a matter of course. He claims that handling an extraordinary force can be achieved by realizing that its components—like the well-organized and systematic structure of an army—are few, but the possible combinations are limitless. In this respect, Sun Tzu gives the examples of five notes of music and five primary colors that can be arranged in limitless arrangements.

As he did in Chapter 4, Sun Tzu sees forces of nature—such as the momentum of water streaming down a hill, or a hawk striking its prey—as inevitable and irresistible, because given the same situation repeatedly, the same result occurs. The impression that an army cannot be defeated works for the general who can create this impression in his enemies, even when it is not actually the case. When the enemy can be enticed or lured into a risky attack, an advantage can be gained. In this way, a skilled general controls the movements of his enemy instead of being controlled by the enemy.

This chapter concludes with the commentators giving examples of successful deception because the commanding officers obeyed the instructions of their superiors. As Chang Yu concludes, every type of man must be used according to his nature and abilities, including "the avaricious and the stupid." In this way, a general finds victory in handling both talents and situations, rather than demanding it of his officers.

Analysis

The structure of an army is illustrated using a pyramid in this chapter. Samuel B. Griffith notes that the numbers of each section supporting those above and supported by those below is described in arbitrarily English terms, but represents a multiplication at each level, adding up to 3,200 troops. Each level has a commanding officer who is accountable to his superior officer. This type of organized structuring is a working example of "modular construction," a method of combining many basic components into an infinite variety of configurations. Such modules are highly flexible because they can quickly be made to act as a single unified force. They are also capable of quickly breaking into different units as the situation dictates.

Sun Tzu uses music and color to reiterate the notion of creating limitless auditory (bells and drums) and visual (flags and banners) combinations on the battlefield. In the same way that five musical notes are the building blocks of countless melodies, and five primary colors go into the making of images "so infinite that one cannot visualize them all," so, too, can an army be used in a variety of ways to ensure victory.

Mao Zedong employed Sun Tzu's strategies to become a capable leader. In keeping with Sun Tzu's description of the ideal general, Mao made himself accountable only to the creation of the state, and not to any sovereign.

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