Chapter 1 - Laying Plans | The Art of War by Sun Tzu

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State Importance

Sun Tzu said: The art of war is of vital importance to the State

Philip II of Macedon inherited a weak country but moulded his army into a formidable and efficient force. He used warfare to secure his kingdom before instigating a conquest of Greece. After his death, the empire was passed onto his son Alexander the Great who ruled over a military campaign that created one of the largest empires of the ancient world.

War is a tool for the state to achieve important objectives such as protecting the country and influencing others.

Life and Death

It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected

During the first World War, Major-General Arthur Aitken was sent to capture a port in East Africa. He was overconfident and refused to listen to others with knowledge of the area. The element of surprise was given away by sailing too close to the coast allowing the opposition to create strong defensive positions. After hundreds of his men were killed, Aitken gave the order to retreat leaving their supplies for the enemy. The expedition was a crushing failure.

If you are not strong and cunning then others will overrun you. If you wage war unwisely, you will only weaken yourself.

The Moral Law

The art of war is governed by five constant factors, to be taken into account in one's deliberations. These are: The Moral Law, Heaven, Earth, The Commander, Method and discipline.

The Moral Law causes the people to be in complete accord with their ruler, so that they will follow him regardless of their lives, undismayed by any danger.

Sir Winston Churchill rallied the British people during the second World War with his rousing words and optimism. His most iconic speech took place before the start of the Battle of Britain, fought over the skies of his nation.

He said: "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour."

The electrifying effect of Churchill's speeches raised morale and instilled the moral law into his troops and the public. As a result, they were more willing to fight on.

“The Moral Law” is the unifying cause that unites an army or a nation. When a ruler acts in a moral way, showing fairness in all dealings for their people, then the people will reciprocate, caring in return even to the point of death.


Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.

Napoleon Bonaparte began his invasion of Russia with hundreds of thousands of soldiers in his Grand Armée. Many Russian Cossacks burnt crops so they could not live off the land. The harsh Russian winter meant that any troops that hadn’t already died of starvation succumbed to hypothermia.

The world is made up of opposing pairs, yin and yang. By seeing and understanding these pairs you can gain an advantage by knowing the real impact of fighting in different conditions.


Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.

When Hannibal was deep in Roman territory in Italy, the Roman Senate sent an army under Consul Flaminius to face him. Flaminius was incapable of taking the terrain into consideration. Hannibal used it to his advantage. Pursued by the Romans, Hannibal led them down the valley by a lake. He blocked the far end of the valley and placed most of his troops in hiding in wooded hills on the side.

Flaminius marched straight into the trap and Hannibal’s troops pinned him against the lake. The result was the destruction of nearly four Roman legions.

War is fought on the surface of the earth and geographic factors need to be factored into your planning.

The Commander

The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness.

Kublai Khan ruler of the Mongolian empire was taught the art of warfare from a young age. He was also exposed to Chinese culture and philosophy. When he later ruled all of China he showed restraint when dealing with the people he conquered. Allowing their culture to be respected led to improvements in trade and infrastructure.

Qualities and virtues can be found in great leaders from history, whether they fought military battles or not. How you lead dictates whether and how people follow. Your beliefs, values and plans will define how you win and lose wars. A leader with integrity creates passionate, dedicated followers.

Method and Discipline

By method and discipline are to be understood the marshalling of the army in its proper subdivisions, the graduations of rank among the officers, the maintenance of roads by which supplies may reach the army, and the control of military expenditure.

The city of Sparta was known for its legendary fighting force of Spartan warriors. Men from the kingdom would enter military training as young boys and spend over two decades learning discipline, service, and precision. Everything in the Spartan culture existed to serve and strengthen the military might of the city-state. They fought using a tight rectangular formation which gave the kingdom a strong advantage over other Greek civilisations.

When you have a vast number of troops, it is important that each knows where they should be and what they should do. Strict hierarchical organisation is a powerful way to achieve this. Wars are won by far more than fighting.

Familiarity of the Five Heads

These five heads should be familiar to every general: he who knows them will be victorious; he who knows them not will fail.

Subutai was a general and the main strategist for Genghis Khan. He gained victory using imaginative and sophisticated strategies, coordinating movements of armies hundreds of kilometres away from each other. Subutai utilised engineers to help build temporary bridges over rivers downstream to outflank his opponents. He tailored his strategy to match the enemy, adjusting his tactics according to the opponents, the terrain, and the weather. He directed more than twenty campaigns in which he conquered thirty-two nations.

Armies thrive and die based on what leaders truly understand or misunderstand.

Modify Plans

According as circumstances are favourable, one should modify one's plans.

On the eve of the battle of Waterloo, Lord Uxbridge, commanding the cavalry, went to the Duke of Wellington in order to learn what his plans were for the next day, because, as he explained, he might suddenly find himself Commander-in-chief and would be unable to frame new plans in a critical moment. The Duke listened and then said:

"Who will attack the first tomorrow - I or Bonaparte?"

"Bonaparte," replied Lord Uxbridge.

"Well," continued the Duke, "Bonaparte has not given me any idea of his projects; and as my plans will depend upon his, how can you expect me to tell you what mine are?"

“Favourable circumstances” are those where the situation suits particular tactics and strategies. Do not blindly follow advice. Understand how the jigsaw works and place the pieces where they fit.


All warfare is based on deception.

Odysseus crafted a giant, wooden horse and filled it with armed men. He told the Trojan leaders that his gift was an offering to the goddess Athena, who's temple had been destroyed by the Greeks. The gift was accepted and as soon as the horse was safely inside the city walls, Odysseus's men jumped out and massacred the city.

Deception appears at all levels, from faked strategic intent to the individual feints and dodges of swordplay.

Able and Unable - Near and Far

When able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

In the mid-19th century, the British Indian army often wore white or their iconic red uniforms. Due to casualties they had received, they dyed their tunics to a muddy tan colour using tea and curry. This measure reduced soldiers’ visibility from a distance.

As humans, evolution has made us naturally deceptive. It has also made us cautious and good at detecting deception. The side which both spots deception and deceives the best, wins. Consider each perception of your opponent and find ways of changing this.


Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.

The ancient Mongols were famed for their extensive use of false retreats during their conquests, as their fast cavalry made it almost impossible for an enemy to successfully pursue them. In the heat and disorder of a battle, the Mongol army would pretend to be exhausted, confused and defeated and would suddenly retreat from the battlefield. The opposing force, thinking they had routed the Mongols, would give chase. The Mongol cavalry would, while retreating, fire upon the pursuers, discouraging them. When the pursuing forces stopped chasing the Mongol cavalry, the cavalry would then turn and charge the pursuers.

When it appears that you are disorganised and vulnerable, opponents may seek to take swift advantage of your disarray. Traps can be laid for the unsuspecting enemy but beware the double bluff where the enemy sees your deceptions. They may try to counter your trick with a better one.

Preparation and Evasion

If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him.

A Royal Netherlands Navy ship was based in Dutch colony waters when Japan attacked in the Second World War. To escape detection by Japanese aircraft, the ship was heavily camouflaged with jungle vegetation, giving the impression of a small island. The crew cut down trees and branches from nearby islands, and arranged them to cover as much of the ship as possible. Anything exposed was painted to resemble rocks and cliffs. To further the illusion, the ship would remain close to shore, anchored during daylight, and only sail at night. It was the last vessel to successfully escape the area.

Deception is vital when you are weak and cannot rely on strength. This is the strategy of prey who use disguise to deceive the predator.

Give No Rest

If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them.

The Roman imperial strategy in Germany during the reign of Tiberius had two phases. In the first phase, the imperial commander Germanicus interfered in the internal affairs of the Germans by provoking conflict between tribal leaders. In the second phase, Tiberius withdrew the Roman armies to a defensive position and left the Germans to their own internal infighting. The tribes fell apart and no longer posed a threat to the Roman Empire. Divide et impera. Divide and conquer.

Concentrated armies are difficult to overcome as soldiers can swiftly be replaced with reinforcements. By breaking them into parts, you remove their ability to reinforce. A small victory can then present you with a powerful gain. In this way, divide-and-conquer is a common and powerful strategy.

Be Unexpected

Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.

A successful ambush was sprung by Germanic war chief Arminius against the Romans at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The Germanic forces took cover in difficult forested terrain, allowing the warriors time and space to assemble without detection. They had the element of surprise and sprang the attack when the Romans were most vulnerable; when they had left their fortified camp, and were on the march in a pounding rainstorm.

Do not attack with force where the enemy is strongest. Utilise the element of surprise to keep the enemy in a state of confusion and uncertainty.

Do Not Divulge

These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand.

During World War II, the allies launched a successful deception plan to fool the enemy into thinking they were going to invade France. The plan involved creating a fake army group complete with inflatable tanks, wooden planes, a fake camp and a notable general that wandered the camp.

After the enemy caught on to the fake tanks and trucks that were being used, the allies snuck in real tanks and trucks and parked them in the same location. This let them build up their forces for an assault without the enemy catching on that they were there.

Deception only works when the opposition doesn’t realize that it is so. Great secrecy is required, and possibly even deception about the deception.

Calculations and Planning

Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder was known to be one of the first military leaders who transitioned into modern warfare with huge armies. He said: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”.

In other words, during the heat of battle all plans are forgotten. With this in mind, he came up with the strategy to create several army groups all of whom would operate independently and create their own plans during battle while keeping in mind the general objective.

Battles are won or lost before they are started. There is much in the way of planning and preparation that is required. If you are prepared for the numerous possible actions of the enemy and the unpredictable hand of luck, then you may take advantage of opportunity and avoid the terrible surprise of being outmanoeuvred by the leader on the opposing side.

As President Eisenhower said: “Plans are nothing, but planning is everything”.

In planning, knowledge of the other side is critical. Knowing their strength, position and intent helps you make better calculations, though you must also always be prepared for the unexpected.

Of course, the main plan never survives the battle. When the enemy acts, you have to respond. Yet even plans that are never implemented have their value in preparing you.

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