Master Sun says that for an army with 1,000 chariots pulled by four horses, with 1,000 wagons armored with hide, 100,000 men with mail armor, and supplies for 400 miles, as well as costs back home and at the frontline, such as diplomacy, materials and repairs, the daily cost of war is 100,000 silver taels or more.
Sun is not discussing minor skirmishes. His military treatise covers total war—states taking on states in a life-and-death battle. The whole nation’s labor and finances, even lives, are dedicated to the venture. This is a costly, potentially fatal affair.
Winning a war should be done quickly. If it takes a long time, the men get tired and disheartened. Sieges take a lot of energy and effort, and drawn-out campaigns stretch the nation’s finances. If both men and treasury are exhausted, the enemy will use the opportunity to attack. No wisdom can see an army through that situation. In war, rushing can be inadvisable, but delaying is never the option. No state has ever benefited from drawn out conflict. Without understanding the impact that war can have, one cannot understand how to lead a war properly.
War is best won as soon as possible to keep costs—financial and human—to a minimum. The enemy will pounce on any weakness perceived, be it a lack of resources or morale. The only escape from that fate is to avoid it altogether—strike hard and fast before you weaken. This is all dependent on the leaders making the right decisions early on, planning well, and executing the attack effectively, to draw the matter to a quick conclusion. After all, war itself is not the goal—it is a burden.
The skilled general never hires reinforcements, or ships supplies around repeatedly. He carries equipment from the home base, but plunders from the enemy so his men do not hunger. Supplying the army from home stretches the nation’s finances and creates poverty back home. When an army is nearby the prices go up, meaning the common people struggle to make ends meet, and find it harder to pay their taxes.
War must be dealt with efficiently—prior planning and plundering when in enemy territory should rule out the need to train new men or any wasting of resources. This makes for an all-round victory, as the home state is not overburdened or weakened by supporting the war effort for an extended time. The common people feel the pinch the hardest, and if they struggle, not only will their output decrease, they are also likely to resent their leaders.
The army’s and the people’s strength is worn-out. The common people lose 70% of their wealth, and the treasury 60%, with the men, equipment, and animals all exhausted. So, the wise general plunders from the enemy, as supplies taken in enemy territory are worth twenty times as much as that hauled from home.
Sun reasserts the wise efficiency of plundering from the enemy—that is, taking food and other resources from enemy territory. In the effort saved for the men and cart-pulling animals, food or supplies taken from the enemy are worth considerably more than those dragged from home.
Killing an enemy comes from anger and plundering comes from seeking reward. In chariot warfare, if more than ten enemy chariots are taken, the man who took the first should be rewarded. The captured enemy chariots should be mixed in with the army’s own. Treat prisoners of war well. Use your victory to improve your own strength. Prize victory, not drawn out war. The nation’s survival or extinction rests on the general.
The general should lead fairly—rewarding the men for daring accomplishments. He should also lead efficiently—not massacring men or destroying equipment wantonly. Instead, these can be put to good use, even merged into the general’s own forces. War itself is not the aim, Sun reminds the reader. It is all about victory, and ultimately, securing peace. This is the general’s basic responsibility. It is also a matter of efficiency—why destroy chariots when you can make direct use of them?