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The Art of War | Chapter 6 : Weaknesses and Strengths | Summary

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Summary

Sun Tzu judges a successful general according to his ability to create a situation in which the enemy is forced to engage. This is accomplished by a carrot-and-stick approach in which the enemy is enticed by the illusion of easy success, or pushed into a position from which it can neither adequately defend itself nor completely escape. If forcing the enemy into a trap, Sun Tzu emphasizes that the best way to do this is to leave open what looks like an escape route but is actually a controlled route by which prisoners (and provisions) can be captured.

Most significantly, as Sun Tzu points out, the first army to arrive at the field of battle has the advantage of time to rest, and to fully assess the best positions for their battalions. A general who keeps his opponent in the dark about the details of his plans can cause the opponent to attempt to strengthen one area at the cost of leaving another vulnerable. One way to guarantee success is to have the enemy attempt to fortify in every direction because in so doing, its resources will be spread so thin that no single position would be strong enough to withstand an attack.

Commentator Tu Mu gives an example of how commander Chu-ko Liang left a small force to defend a city, but the attacking general Ssu-ma I was given misleading signs that the defenders were planning an ambush. Assuming the defenders were stronger than he had believed at first, the attacking general fled with his troops into the mountains, only to learn later he had been tricked into calling off a potentially successful attack on the city.

According to Tu Yu, a wise general places separate units of his army at varying distances from the appointed battlefield and orders them to march at different times so they will all arrive together "like people coming to a city market." So, as Sun Tzu has said in the previous chapter, while signs and signals to one's own forces must be clear and well understood, those which the enemy is able to read and interpret must lead to false conclusions so that the enemy will act on them, thus compromising its own forces. A general can capitalize on his opponent's weaknesses, while correspondingly making the best use of his own strengths by constantly changing tactics to fit the conditions of the battle. Sun Tzu concludes the chapter by stating that change is inevitable and that no condition in nature is "always predominant."

Analysis

This chapter offers many examples of situations and considerations, each of which contains a grain of its opposing factor. This invokes the philosophy of Taoism, which rules that each quality contains within it a bit of its own opposite. Sun Tzu and his commentators discuss how good management of weaknesses and strengths demonstrates this understanding. The commanding general should know a good deal more about himself and his forces than his enemy is able to find out. Also, it isn't enough just to gather such information—it must also be effectively applied.

This would enable a commander to, as Sun Tzu says, arrange his army to "appear at places to which he [the enemy] must hasten; move swiftly where he does not expect you." Phrases in this chapter, such as "come like the wind, go like the lighting," not only continue the many references to the forces of nature but are also very close to those posted by Mao Zedong in the mid-1970s.

Tu Mu gives an example of how an adept general created an effective ruse to defend his city against a superior force. The subject of a traditional Chinese opera, "The Ruse of the Empty City," is the story of how Chu-ko Liang tricked Ssu-ma I into believing he was capable of carrying out an ambush of his enemy's larger forces. Perhaps due to the long-term popularity of this folk opera, the story provides an example of military deception well known in China, even into modern times.

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