Master Sun says there are nine kinds of ground. Enemies fighting on the home turf is scattering ground. Entering enemy land but not deeply is light. Strategic is when either side could gain advantage. Open ground is where both sides can come and go freely. Crossroad ground is where there is an opportunity to defeat multiple states. Heavy ground is where the army is in enemy territory and holds multiple towns. Intractable ground is tough natural terrain. Enclosed ground is narrow and twisting terrain. Death ground is where one must struggle for survival.
The ground in this chapter is not exactly the same idea as the terrain that Sun talks about earlier in the treatise. Here, he discusses the dynamics of the situations in which the army finds itself, rather than the shape of the land itself. For the most part, the types of ground reflect how deeply the general’s army has penetrated the enemy’s territory. The relevance is not only physical—for example in terms of logistics—but also psychological. The general must consider all of these aspects when deciding when and how to attack.
Don’t fight on scattering ground, don’t halt on light ground, don’t attack on strategic ground, and don’t block open ground. Form alliances on crossroads. Plunder when on heavy ground. Keeping moving on intractable ground. Focus on strategy on enclosed ground. Fight on death ground.
Sun offers precise advice for generals on each of these kinds of ground. For example, on crossroad ground, where any one state could take over many others at the same time, diplomacy is the most important factor. Making key alliances is more important than having more men, and so the matter might never even come to all-out battle.
The skillful general divides the enemy army, and stops their men from supporting each other. When they are separated, it is hard to regroup. Move when there is gain, halt when there is none. How should you confront a well-assembled enemy? Take something dear to him and he will do as you command. Speed is key in war. Catch the enemy unaware and unprepared, take a route he doesn’t expect you to.
The general must think tactically. For instance, he can manipulate the enemy’s forces for his own advantage. He must always focus on victory—every move should bring him closer to his goal, or at least not take him further away from it. Even if he finds himself pitted against a tougher enemy, there is always a strategy he can employ to undermine their position. He can attack an undefended position, or capture a hostage. He can outmaneuver the enemy to a better position, or come from an angle the enemy would never have imagined. In all these things, it is the general’s wisdom and ingenuity that will pull him through.
When invading, penetrate deeply to bring cohesion among the men, and the enemy will lose. Plunder to feed the men. Conserve your energy. Do not reveal your plans, but put the men in places where they must fight for their lives, and they will die before they flee. Men facing death can do anything—both officers and men will give their all.
When far from the home territory, the men in the invading army will draw closer together for protection and support. So if the general plans to invade, he should advance quickly, so the men do not dream of home close to the border and run back to their families. The best course of action in such times is to take food from the enemy’s territory—the army can move quicker when it doesn’t have to carry so much from back home. The general shouldn’t give the men prior warning of a tough battle, in case they lose heart and run away. Instead, he should keep such plans private and throw the men into a life-or-death struggle, because in immediate fear of death, they will fight for their lives.
When men are desperate, they know no fear. They stand their ground when they cannot escape. They keep going when they’re in deep. If there is no hope, they will fight. They will be alert without being made to be. They will act without needing instruction. They don’t need to be rewarded. Their loyalty doesn’t require orders.
It is human nature to want to survive. If the men fear death and can flee, they will flee. If they must fight through the enemy to survive, they will. In the latter scenario, they will follow the general’s every command with no hesitation, they will work harder with no need for coercion, because their only concern is to survive this fight. That Sun recommends treating the men in this way shows the strength of his trust in the general’s leadership. The general has the men’s lives under his command—a terrible responsibility.
Do not allow the men to consult omens. Remove all doubts and they will follow you to their deaths. They have no abundance, but prize wealth. They expect to die, but cling to life. When battle orders are given, they lie down and weep, wetting their clothes and cheeks. But put them where they cannot escape and they will fight with historic valor.
Underlining this approach to leadership, Sun asserts that the men should have no distractions from the general’s orders. Yet if those orders are given too early—for example, if the men learn in the morning they will fight a tough battle in the evening—the men’s morale will crumble under the weight of their terror. It is better to keep such things from them, and put them in the very heart of the battle, where their courage will naturally rise in the heat of battle.
The skillful general sends out his men like the shuairan snake that defends each part of its body with another, thrashing about. Armies can be like that. Even enemy forces, if stuck together on a boat in a storm, will help each other to survive. Tether horses and bury chariot wheels, but there must also be united courage. This is the best way to manage an army.
The type of snake Sun refers to will aggressively defend itself against any attack. He focuses on the image of the different parts of the snake’s long body defending other parts that are attacked. By equating this to an army, he argues that when under attack, men will naturally draw together, even if they are from opposing factions yet find themselves in common peril. So, placing the army in such a position can create unity.
Both strong and weak can serve based on the principle of ground. The skillful general leads an army like it is one man. There is no choice but to obey. The general must be morally outstanding. He must keep his plans from his men. He must also change his methods so the enemy cannot know him. He moves around to confuse them.
By knowing the principles of warfare, in this case the dynamic of different battle scenarios, the general can lead many men with no difficulty. His leadership is unquestioned, but this is only possible because his ability and integrity are untarnished. To get the best from his men, he keeps his plans from them. To ensure victory over his enemy, he keeps his plans from him too, actively confusing the opponent to stay ahead of the game.
The general leads the men into battle, taking away any escape routes before releasing the trigger. He is like a shepherd and no one knows where he is taking his sheep. He amasses an army and throws the men into peril. It is his business. The general must study the types of ground, maneuvering, and the principles of human nature.
Sun adds to the list of leader/lead, father/son metaphors with shepherd/sheep. The men follow the general willingly yet blindly, with no understanding of his plans. The shepherd is responsible for his flock, who could never lead as he does as they do not have his deep understanding of warfare.
The men draw together when invading deep into enemy territory, but they scatter in shallow territory. It is dire terrain across the enemy border. When you have lines of communication on all sides, that is crossroad terrain. Heavy terrain is deeply penetrating enemy territory, and light terrain is a shallow invasion. Forts ahead and hard passes behind makes for enclosed ground. It is death ground when there is no escape.
Sun returns to depicting each type of ground and the relating advantages and disadvantages. Offering insights on how to act in each situation, the master strategist repeatedly emphasizes the importance of understanding the nature of landscapes, people and relationships in war. A solid strategy relies on insight into all these matters, and taking the appropriate actions to find the best route to victory.
On scattering ground, unite the men. On light ground, connect them. Bring up the rear on strategic ground. Man the defenses on open ground. Strengthen alliances on open ground. Ensure supplies will keep coming on heavy ground. Keep moving on intractable ground. Block the passes on enclosed ground. Death ground is for desperation. When surrounded, soldiers resist. They persist and listen to orders when in danger.
Sun shows how there are a multitude of aspects to keep in mind during war: supply logistics, the men’s morale, the state’s relationship with its neighbors, military strategy when it comes to choosing positions, and the chain of command. The skilled general must consider all these at the same time while taking into account the dynamic of the situation when confronting the army. His knowledge must be exhaustive on all these matters.
You can’t make alliances if you do not know the enemy’s plans. If you do not know the terrain you cannot move. With no local guides you cannot know the terrain. Ignorance on any of these does not befit a general of a strong ruler. When such an army attacks an enemy, he overwhelms them and destroys their alliances. The general does not seek alliances but follows his own secret plans. In this way he can overwhelm them.
Knowledge is everything when it comes to war, and there is a lot the general needs to know. He cannot represent his ruler if he is ignorant on any single matter. Instead, he must be an uncontrollable force with strategies that cannot be fathomed. He does not rely on others, but trusts in his own plan and power.
Reward the men and give orders fairly. Treat the army as one man and do not give explanations. Tell them the opportunity but do not reveal the dangers. Throw them into death ground and they will live—this is how to turn defeat into victory.
The general must know how to treat and manage the men. He should give them only as much information as they need to know—early warning could destroy their morale. Revealing the danger at the right time will spur them to greater courage. Sun repeatedly refers to this approach not only to assert the general’s authority, but also to show the importance of understanding the men’s nature. It is by perceiving these intrinsic characteristics that the general can secure victory.
Being successful hinges on knowing and reacting to the enemy’s movements. You can kill the enemy general from a great distance if focused. It is about cunning. Be decisive when it comes to the final strike. When the enemy presents an opportunity, strike. Take something precious to him to force him to engage. Ignore the rules and focus on the enemy to get to the conclusion. At first be like a maiden, but then strike as quickly as a hare.
The general cannot win by focusing on his own gain or rigidly sticking to one plan. He must remain entirely focused on defeating the enemy, taking every opportunity available and being flexible to the changing winds. If the general can read the situation correctly, he can strike at the most opportune time with pinpoint precision. The most important thing is to secure victory.