Master Sun says getting to the battlefield first means you fight fresh. The one who arrives later will fight tired. Skillful generals move when they want to, and are not forced to move. But they lure out the enemy and block his movement.
The general ensures his strength against the enemy’s weakness. He is prompt, and fights a harried opponent. These characterizations are placed in direct opposition to one another, according to Yin and Yang. By occupying the Yang position of strength, he leaves open the Yin weakness for his enemy. Ensuring he arrives first makes for an easier, more efficient win.
Tire a strong army, starve a well-supplied one, and unsettle an army that is settled. Move where he must follow you and where he least expects. By taking paths that avoid the enemy, you can march 100 miles without tiring. Attacking an undefended place ensures victory. Defend the unattacked.
A good general forces his foe into the Yin position of weakness, undermining any aspect of strength. This helps create a smoother path to victory. By being unpredictable, the general makes the enemy’s job all the harder, and his own job all the easier.
The enemy cannot withstand a skillful general’s attack, or attack that which he defends. It is a matter of formless subtlety and silent mystery. The general is the master of his enemy’s fate. His advances cannot be withstood. He retreats so swiftly he cannot be caught.
With his deep knowledge of the ways of the world, the general can not only command his own forces, he can also force the enemy’s hand to the extent that the general essentially determines his opponent’s ability and success himself. In this way he creates a perfect attack and a faultless withdrawal.
If the general wants to engage the enemy in battle, he cannot be avoided, no matter their defenses. The general attacks what the enemy has to defend. If he doesn’t want to engage in battle, he could defend himself simply by drawing a line in the sand—he distracts the enemy elsewhere.
The general leads the war from both fronts, as he renders the enemy general powerless by the complexities of his own strategy. The enemy cannot attack nor defend against what he cannot see or understand. He can only react after the general has already moved.
The general can see the enemy but the enemy cannot know him. The general is concentrated but the enemy is spread out. The enemy is divided into ten but the general attacks with his full force. Attack fewer men with a larger force, and so the enemy is weak.
The general makes the enemy divide his troops as he doesn’t know the general’s plan. By thinning out his troops, the enemy is vulnerable against the general’s full-force attack.
The enemy must not know where the general intends to hit. He has to defend many places but the general attacks only a few. By reinforcing his front, he weakens his rear, and vice versa. It is the same with his right and left. By defending every part, he weakens every part.
Sun makes his point very clear—by dividing the enemy troops, the general weakens their whole opposing army. By drawing forces away from any area, the enemy weakens it. The further spread out the general can force the enemy’s troops, the weaker the foe will be.
Having to defend creates weakness, whereas making the enemy have to defend creates strength. If the general knows the time and place of attack, even after marching hundreds of miles the army will be prepared. But if he does not know, no part of the army can help another. It is worse if the troops are separated.
By creating weakness in the enemy army, the general makes his own troops stronger. It is because of his knowledge and perception that he can be strong—he can be prepared despite any hardships. But if he is not wise, he leaves himself exposed to the enemy’s manipulations, which could divide and weaken his own troops.
If the troops of Yue have many men but that will not help them in the battle, then victory is still possible. Study and know the enemy—know his plans and their weaknesses. Know what makes him move and know what is life and death matters to him. Know his strengths and weaknesses. Be formless—do not allow spies or enemies to know your plans. But know the enemy’s form to win victory. The common people can see how a battle is won but not the strategies that won it.
If the battle will take place in a narrow ravine, for example, the opposing army’s greater numbers will not help them. So, it is important to know the enemy thoroughly to make such judgments. The general must know every aspect of the enemy to be certain of success. On the other hand, the general must ensure he is invisible to the enemy, so the latter cannot make plans or prepare against the general’s attacks. All this takes place out of the public eye.
Victories are unrepeatable. They happen only once ever from the specific circumstances of that moment. Armies are like water—they shun the high and seek the low. Avoid a strong army, engage a weak one. Water travels according to the lay of the land. Armies act according to the enemy’s circumstances. Both war and water have no constant form or energy. The greatest warriors create victory from the opportunities created by the enemy. There is no constant leader among the five elements. The seasons always change. The days lengthen and shorten, the moon comes and goes.
Every moment only happens once, yet the world moves in predictable ways. As such, there is no one formula to certain victory. Instead, the general must learn the natural laws that govern the world and everything in it. From this knowledge he can thoroughly understand his enemy and the terrain on which they will meet. He can base his movements on his enemy’s, reacting to each opportunity to create an advantage. The general takes the path of least resistance—hitting the enemy where he is weakest and choosing the most efficient strategies for an all-round and certain victory.