Master Sun says it’s better to conquer a state and keep it whole than raze it to the ground. It is also better to keep the enemy’s men alive. True greatness comes from winning wars without even fighting. The greatest form of fighting is to attack strategy, and second best is to attack alliances. Third best is to attack armies. The worst type of war is attacking cities. Sieges should only be fought if totally necessary.
The fact Sun argues the best-fought wars are those without battles highlights the central goals of warfare—victory and peace. There is no need for bloodshed or ransacking enemy positions. Destroying the enemy’s position politically can achieve the desired effect, and more efficiently at that. Sun lists forms of attack in the order of most efficient, in terms of financial and human cost, indicating the best approach to war is to reduce fallout as much as possible, for an all-round victory.
In sieges, it takes three months to create the defenses and equipment, another three months to build mud ramps. An angry general sends one in three men to their deaths fighting sieges. The men die like ants yet the enemy’s city is not taken. This is the disaster that is siege warfare.
Sieges should be a last resort because of their disastrous cost in effort and lives. Sun characterizes this as a great waste, one that is most likely because of poor leadership from the general. The image of a general sending men out to their deaths as insects indicates his responsibility for their survival—such callous treatment of their mortality is a betrayal of the authority vested in him.
The most skilled general takes the enemy without even fighting, takes the city without a siege, and defeats the enemy nation without a long drawn-out conflict. He aims for a total victory under heaven without loss, with his men and equipment whole.
In contrast, an experienced general knows how to undermine the enemy’s position without the need to fight at all. His victory is total—not just defeating the enemy, but ensuring his men return home, and that there is a home to return to.
This is how to attack. If your forces outnumber the enemy ten to one, surround them. At five to one, attack. At two to one, divide the enemy forces. If your numbers are evenly matched, then fight head to head. If the enemy outnumbers you, hide. If the enemy is much stronger, find a way out. Stubbornly taking on a larger army will end in capture.
Sun often gives very specific advice in his treatise. Here, he deals with the dynamics of size—numbers can matter in battle. Although planning and ingenuity play a larger role in securing victory, pitting an army in direct battle against a force ten times its size is never wise.
The general is the pillar of the whole state. If he is strong, the state is strong. If he is weak, the nation is too. The state’s ruler can bring misfortune in any of three ways. Making bad decisions about moving the troops is called hobbling an army. Disrupting military decisions despite a lack of knowledge confuses the officers and the men, as does interfering in the promotions process. If such confusion arises it gives the enemy an opportunity, creating chaos and defeat.
Leaders have direct responsibility for the health and even survival of the nation. This is not only because they make decisions that directly determine such outcomes, but also because this is the counterbalancing force to their total authority. Rulers must know to trust the general’s decisions, and the general must serve the ruler and nation with their best interests at heart.
To win a war, there are five essentials. Knowing when to fight and when to not, knowing how to deploy an army of any size, having united officers and men, being prepared for surprises, and having a general who can make his own decisions without a ruler interfering. These five things bring about victory. From this comes the saying, knowing the enemy and oneself brings undoubted victory in 100 battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, or vice versa, victory is not assured. He who knows neither the enemy nor himself will lose every battle.
Note that none of these five mention being physically stronger than the opponent, having better equipment, or even having more men. It’s all about strategy—moving the men into the best position at the best time, ensuring the men are mentally prepared and of one mind with their superior officers, having plans for all eventualities, and having total autonomy. Thus, victory is assured by the strength of the general’s command.