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The Art of War | Chapter 7 : Maneuver | Summary



The second statement Sun Tzu makes at the beginning of this chapter is, "Nothing is more difficult than the art of maneuver." He expands on this by saying the trick is to make what looks like a convoluted and aimless course into one that is actually direct and focused. He draws a distinction between "direct" and "indirect" approaches designed to simultaneously confuse the enemy and demonstrate the ability in the lower ranks to obey complex and changing commands. Sun Tzu does caution, however, that there are "both advantage[s] and danger" in using this tactic, so it is one only the experienced and seasoned general should attempt.

Tu Mu addresses the art of maneuvering, claiming an army should only split up when absolutely necessary. It is better to make sure all the troops arrive at the battlefield more or less in good condition and at the same time, well ahead of the arrival of the opposing army. This works better if the enemy must rush, which exhausts the troops and supplies along the way. If an army has a long march, those who are strongest and most lightly equipped will arrive first, while the weaker soldiers carrying heavier baggage will straggle behind, leaving themselves open to ambush. Tu Mu cautions that this should be done only "when there is no alternative and you must contend for an advantageous position."

The entire army gathered together well before the enemy arrives is considered an "advantageous position." Setting off on an extended forced march with all troops—both strong and weak—and all the equipment, could mean that critical sections of the army are not prepared to face the enemy when they arrive on the battlefield. The longer an army encamps to wait for the arrival of the enemy, the longer the enemy has to strategically size up and evaluate the assembled opposing forces.

Sun Tzu cites The Book of Military Administration to explain the use of banners, gongs, flags, and drums to signal troop movements on the field based on the time of day or night. Tu Mu's commentary describes how effective castrametation—how a military encampment is laid out in orderly sections—provides protection from nightly attacks. Tu Mu adds that a cluster of smaller encampments surrounding the commander's headquarters can signal an approaching enemy incursion using torches. This is not just for signaling but also to illuminate the entire camp so the defenders know the location of the enemy.

The discussion then turns to control of the factors introduced in Chapter 1, as they pertain to the relationship between a commanding general and his army. The successful strategy is one that can divide the host of an enemy army from its "head" by controlling the factors of moral, mental, physical, and changing circumstances. The questions Ho Yen-hsi poses point out that all the things that weaken an opposing commander's confidence and ability to plan must be avoided. The chapter ends with an explanation of how to "bait" a surrounded enemy with a carefully controlled escape route. In one example, Tu Yu describes how the enemy simply ran down the escape route without looking, and offered no resistance. Had they been forced to fight "to the death," many in the surrounding army would have also been killed or wounded. By treating the enemy like a cornered wild animal, a wise commander positions it for control rather than destruction.


Sun Tzu's statement about the troops' state of mind at different times of the day are, according to Samuel B. Griffith, a way of referring to periods in an extended campaign. So, while spirits are strong in the morning (or at the start of a war), as the "day" wears on those spirits begin to weaken. In the evening, everybody just wants to get home. By implication, the commander should be aware of this progression in morale, not only among his own troops but in evaluating the state of mind of enemy troops as well. For this reason, Sun Tzu advises that the time to attack is not at the start of a campaign but toward the "evening," when enemy troops are low on energy and have little will to continue fighting. The reverse is true when it comes to his own troops. They will be more willing to make an attack in the "morning" of their campaign than they will be in the "evening." The point drives home Sun Tzu's assertion in Chapter 2 that a prolonged war does no one any good.

Griffith notes that The Book of Military Administration referred to in this chapter was written after Sun Tzu's time, in which case he could not have known anything about it. Griffith does not precisely cite this work, but it is possible it refers to one of the Seven Military Classics written by military scientist Wu Qi (440 BCE–381 BCE). The reason is that this text includes sections on military administration, laws, and government policies.

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