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The Art of War | Main Ideas

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Deceit as Strategy

Sun Tzu and his commentators give many examples throughout The Art of War of how to use deceit in order to gain an advantage in war. A number of these may be used before the first battle. For example, the deployment of reliable secret agents (as described in Chapter 13) can plant false information in the minds of the enemy general and his officers.

This can be used to ascertain the strength and organization of the opposing forces, or to convince the enemy their opponent is so strong and ruthless that it would be wiser to avoid battle. Marches can be made to look as if they are going in one direction when, in fact, they are going in another: "When near, make it appear that you are far away; when far away, that you are near."

Predecided Outcomes

The outcome of a battle often depends on conditions that have been established long before the troops even pick up their weapons. There are three main parts to this approach, all of which require analyzing conditions, not only within the state and army of the general but also within those of his opponent.

The first is to make an accurate assessment of the resources that will be involved, as outlined in Chapter 2. Obviously, a campaign conducted over a long period of time and far from home is going to be more costly than one that is quick, decisive, and closer to home. Morale, preparedness, and organization of the troops well ahead of time is also essential to ensure the greatest chances of success once the enemy has been engaged. The flip side of this tactic is to correspondingly throw the opposing general into confusion, or into believing deceptive information, and to play upon the general's personal weaknesses to undermine his authority in the eyes of his officers. As Sun Tzu directly states in Chapter 3, "What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy," and "those skilled in war subdue the enemy's army without battle. They capture his cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without protracted operations."

Changing Tactics

Sun Tzu and his commentators state that once a general has been appointed to lead the sovereign's forces into battle, the sovereign must step aside and trust in his appointment rather than interfere. This, Tzu claims in Chapter 3, will ensure victory: "He whose generals are able and not interfered with by the sovereign will be victorious." Furthermore, if a general keeps his own counsel to himself, he is able to put into place the most effective tactic that will answer to the needs of specific conditions as they may arise: "He who knows the art of the direct and the indirect approach will be victorious." The effective commander must be able to "read" the enemy's signs moment by moment, so he can determine the best way to take advantage of weaknesses and evade opposing strengths that would incur severe losses.

While some changes are cyclical and certain (as outlined in Chapter 5), others are entirely defined in the moment. Sun Tzu alludes to this by saying, "And as water has no constant form, there are in war no constant conditions." And in Chapter 6, Sun Tzu states, "Of the five elements, none is always predominant; of the four seasons, none lasts forever; of the days, some are long and some short."

Strengths and Weaknesses

From the initial planning of a military campaign to its completion, Sun Tzu urges that at every opportunity, a wise general will attempt to fully assess the condition, state of mind, and plans of the enemy. Only by thoroughly knowing these factors can a commander decide on the best course of action that is both direct (an offensive or defensive tactic) and indirect (tempting the enemy with bait, or harassing an arrogant opponent). Sun Tzu states in Chapter 9: "It is sufficient to estimate the enemy situation correctly and to concentrate your strength to capture him."

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