Chapter 10 - Terrain | The Art of War by Sun Tzu

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Accessible ground

Sun Tzu said: We may distinguish six kinds of terrain, to wit:

(1) Accessible ground;
(2) entangling ground;
(3) temporising ground;
(4) narrow passes;
(5) precipitous heights;
(6) positions at a great distance from the enemy.

Ground which can be freely traversed by both sides is called accessible.

For soldiers fighting throughout history, “terrain” referred to the physical ground they were fighting on. In the modern world it can refer to the economic environment. Both have the same effects. Some terrain can be altered and some cannot.

It did not take long since the development of the internet for people to realise that they could make money online. The market was extremely accessible with low barriers to entry meaning it was easier to make money than ever before.

However, cheap costs and accessible conditions meant the market soon contained lots of competitors, all vying for a piece of the financial pie.

Be aware that if something is accessible to you, it may be accessible to your enemies too. If you reach the top, it could be easy for somebody to take that spot away from you.


Entangling ground

Ground which can be abandoned but is hard to re-occupy is called entangling.

Battle of Maryang San, Korea, 1951

The Chinese had taken a key hill in the Korean War from the US and Canadian armies. After trying to recapture the hill without success, they eventually sent up a scouting and sniper team led by French Canadian Léo Major.

By silently climbing the hill, they then used the cover of darkness to open fire and panic the Chinese troops who were expecting the attack to come from outside their territory rather than from within it. This barrage helped the team finally recapture the hill in the early hours.

Ground that is hard to re-occupy such as a hill, forest or a market monopoly are important to keep once you occupy them. As it is good to defend entangling ground, you should attempt to prevent enemies from taking it.


Temporising ground

When the position is such that neither side will gain by making the first move, it is called temporising ground.

Stalemate occurred on the western front in World War I as German troops became exhausted from covering up to 25 miles a day. Both sides were digging trenches to stop themselves from being killed and using sitting machine guns to inflict heavy losses to any attack from the enemy.

Be weary of being enticed out of a strong position, particularly if your rival is also in a strong spot. If going forward could lead to disadvantage, look to go in a different direction.


Narrow passes

With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy.

Battle of Thermopylae, Greece, 480BC

Despite being severely outnumbered, the Greeks, led by Spartan King Leonidas, held the narrow mountain pass of Thermopylae for days by blocking the only road the large Persian army could pass.

Certain environments, if reached first, can be held with ease using a small amount of resource. If you find the opponent is already there, it may be ineffective to attack.


Precipitous heights

With regard to precipitous heights, if you are beforehand with your adversary, you should occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up.

Battle of Ilerda, Spain, 49BC

Julius Caesar’s forces took on Pompey the Great’s Spanish army in the Great Roman Civil War. After Pompey’s men had camped on a hill, Caesar decided to camp close to the foot of it.

In the springtime, a combination of several storms and the snow melting from the mountains led to flooding, which in particular affected the lower land. Caesar’s troops could not forage for food, leading to famine and disease.

Occupying a high position has natural advantages. If you are battling a higher, stronger enemy, the best tactics are trickery and surprise.


Positions at a great distance from the enemy

If you are situated at a great distance from the enemy, and the strength of the two armies is equal, it is not easy to provoke a battle, and fighting will be to your disadvantage.

The Grande Armée began their invasion of Russia travelling vast distances on horseback and on foot. Napoleon made the mistake of exhausting his horses by having them carry men, heavy weapons and provisions. He lost thousands of them as a result. This badly restricted how effective the French troops were as it interrupted the supplies that were required for such a large amount of men to live on the road.

If you want to compete but are a long distance away, be aware that the time and effort to get into position may leave you in a poor position to challenge.


Flight

Now an army is exposed to six several calamities, not arising from natural causes, but from faults for which the general is responsible. These are:

1) Flight
2) insubordination
3) collapse
4) ruin
5) disorganisation
6) rout.

Other conditions being equal, if one force is hurled against another ten times its size, the result will be the flight of the former.

Battle of Maniaki, Greece, 1825

Papaflessas positioned his Greek soldiers so that they had a decent view of the plain ahead and awaited the enemy. After Ibrahim’s enormous Egyptian army arrived for them to see, some of the Greeks lost courage and when night fell many of them fled from the field of battle. Despite losing some of his men, Papaflessas valiantly fought on. After he was defeated and killed, his body was placed on a post, as a mark of respect from his opponent.

When facing a much larger foe, taking them on directly is foolish. Even if you are the stronger outfit avoid a direct conflict, instead stay away from wasting resources by using superior tactics.


Insubordination/Collapse

When the common soldiers are too strong and their officers too weak, the result is insubordination. When the officers are too strong and the common soldiers too weak, the result is collapse.

King Edward II was indecisive and weak. As a result, he invaded Scotland without the backing of one of his most powerful noblemen, Thomas of Lancaster. Edward’s remaining nobles argued over who should have the role of leader prior to a battle and once the battle began, the English were completely defeated.

It is bad if your commands are weak, but it is worse if you allow your commands to be disobeyed.


Ruin

When the higher officers are angry and insubordinate, and on meeting the enemy give battle on their own account from a feeling of resentment, before the commander-in-chief can tell whether or not he is in a position to fight, the result is ruin.

Battle of Halys, now Turkey, 82BC

An overconfident Roman general, Lucius Licinius Murena ignored orders to stop his operations against the Kingdom of Pontus. He provoked a war by launching raids into the Kingdom despite his Senate telling him not to. At a river, the Romans had captured a small number of Pontic troops but spared their lives for too long. The larger Pontic army arrived and together they attacked the badly prepared Romans, forcing them to retreat and lose the battle.

Coordinate your actions with others and work with them to succeed. Failure to do so in a business could mean many departments working independently and seeking their own successes, potentially at the expense of the others.


Disorganisation

When the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixes duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganisation.

The secret of war lies in the communications.” - Napoleon Bonaparte

More specifically, General Baden-Powell added: "The secret of getting successful work out of your trained men lies in one nutshell - in the clearness of the instructions they receive.

The higher an officer is in the army, the stronger and clearer his commands must be. A failure in communication at any point causes problems to all subordinate officers.

Always be aware of the intent of the leader. This is vital as if you cannot communicate, you will still know the ultimate goal and can use your own initiative to achieve it.


Rout

When a general, unable to estimate the enemy's strength, allows an inferior force to engage a larger one, or hurls a weak detachment against a powerful one, and neglects to place picked soldiers in the front rank, the result must be rout.

Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, now Germany, 9AD

Publius Quintilius Varus led his Roman legions into a forest without sending any appropriate scouts ahead of him. His arrogance caused him to ignore warnings from other noblemen about his opponent’s trickery and he didn’t even listen to direct threats from his enemy.

The tribes under Arminius ambushed the Romans in the forest. Unable to get into battle positions, Varus and his men were slaughtered.

Intelligence is key and it is critical to know your opponents strengths. In business, who you put on the frontline will greatly affect the first impression you present.


When To Fight

If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight even at the ruler's bidding.

Prince Frederick Charles criticised a major for messing up a situation. “But I was following an order. Aren’t orders from a superior officer to be treated as if they were issued by the king himself?”, said the major.

The Prince replied, "His Majesty made you a major because he believed you would know when not to obey his orders".

German officers were taught that they were personally responsible for results, not for following orders. If the orders led to a mistake, following them is not a valid excuse. If an officer was aware of a problem, it was their personal responsibility to do something about it and take decisive action.

Erwin Rommel ignored many orders from Berlin when he served in the Second World War. He ignored them on the grounds that he better appreciated the situation than his superiors, as he had more experience and served in the previous World War. He got away with it because he delivered victories. Hitler was said to be thrilled at his initiative.

It is important you obey leaders, but when a choice has to be made in the heat of the moment, do what is right to achieve the overall victory. Allow those below you to do this too and ensure they are trained to make these decisions correctly.


The General’s Thoughts

The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.

French invasion of Russia, 1812

To deal with a French invasion, Russian leaders implemented tactics of strategically retreating to avoid a major battle with a large force that they would probably lose. This drew the French into a long, drawn-out affair they hadn’t prepared for. The large French army slowly diminished in size due to a lack of supplies and most of the men had perished by the time they got to Moscow.

Retreating is not often seen as a positive approach. As the Duke of Wellington once said: “The hardest thing of all for a soldier is to retreat.

However, the ability to extract yourself from a desperate situation is crucial, as it will allow you to fight another day.


How To Treat Your Soldiers

Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.

Napoleon Bonaparte understood that an army would fight better if they knew that they would be taken care of when they became injured. In an attempt to better motivate his troops, he moved his medical personnel as close to the battlefields as possible, so that injured soldiers received immediate medical treatment. Napoleon believed that because of this, his soldiers would be more inspired to fight with a fierce effort, safe in the knowledge they'd be looked after if they were wounded.

Build a bond with people by actively caring for them if you want them to trust and follow you.


Experienced Soldiers

The experienced soldier, once in motion, is never bewildered; once he has broken camp, he is never at a loss.

To carry out the fighting techniques that the Romans developed, new recruits to the army were required to be disciplined and very fit. They were sent to the front line in battle, with more experienced soldiers behind them. This would increase the new recruits confidence, knowing they had battle hardened troops behind them, but it also stopped them from deserting the battlefield if they lost courage. Most importantly, the Romans valued their experienced soldiers and those at the front were more likely to be killed.

Value your experience as it is an important asset. If you lack experience, use innovation to compensate for this limitation.


What & Who To Know

If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.

Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, now Germany, 9AD

As previously mentioned, a reason the Roman massacre in the Teutoburg forest occurred was because of a severe lack of knowledge and an ignorance of the enemy.

Varus didn’t take into account his army was excellent at fighting in formation using open spaces and he also ignored the fact that Arminius’ tribes excelled at ambushes in the forest terrain.

The end result was possibly the greatest disaster in the history of the Roman military.

Know yourself, know your opponent and know your environment. All these factors should be considered and will assist with your decisions of which tactics should be used to determine victory.


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Adam Holownia

Adam Holownia

Adam Holownia loves reading and writing about successful people from history. He has spent the last five years sharing what he's learnt online. He is the creator of educational YouTube channels Eudaimonia and The Art of Improvement which together have over 400,000 subscribers.

His first book, Mastering Machiavelli, is a collection of essays, breaking down key concepts and themes from the highly influential work, The Prince, written by Niccolò Machiavelli. It is almost everything he knows about Machiavelli, packed into a short digital book.