Chapter 3 - Strategic Attack | The Art of War by Sun Tzu

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Capture Rather Than Destroy

Sun Tzu said: In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to capture an entire army, a regiment or company rather than to destroy it.

Lawrence of Arabia led an army in a revolt against the Turkish in the First World War. Huge Turkish guns faced the sea on one side and a vast desert deemed un-crossable was on the other.

Expecting no threat from behind, their guns could not be turned around. Lawrence led his men across the desert, attacking and capturing the city, rendering the guns useless. Lawrence’s surprise attack defeated the Turkish garrison, most of whom were captured instead of killed and the city remained intact.

Attack your enemy’s weaknesses and win the battle whole. Harming people when it is not necessary creates enduring hostility. If you show superiority without fighting, it invokes awe.

Supreme Excellence

To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder’s greatest triumph was the victory over the huge French army in the Franco-Prussian war, won with relatively little bloodshed.

Moltke surrounded a fortress that the French had retreated to. Calling for reinforcements he sealed off all possible escape routes. Realising the position was hopeless, Napoleon II raised the white flag and surrendered. All surviving troops were captured.

If the enemy sees that you can defeat them with ease, then few will seek simply to fight to a predictable and humiliating death.

Don’t Besiege Walled Cities

The rule is not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. The preparation of siege engines and other various implements of war, will take up three whole months; and the building of ram parts over the walls will take three months more.

At the start of the Boer War in South Africa, the British were not prepared and overconfident. The Boers were well armed and struck first, besieging towns. Despite not being ready, the British defended the town by building fortifications, guns and watchtowers. They then brought in heavy reinforcements and fought back. The Boers had lost their advantage, giving their opponents time to recover and they went on to lose the war.

Laying siege to a strongly defended location is hard work, will probably take a long time and takes much resource. Your troops are exposed while theirs are hidden.

Control Your Irritation

The general, unable to control his irritation will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, and the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken. Such are the perils of a siege.

The Japanese general Nogi Maresuke, sent his troops to lay siege on the Russian-held Port Arthur. Despite eventually being victorious, Maresuke used human wave attacks on artillery and guns leading to massive losses.

Frustration in the face of an impenetrable enemy is a dangerous companion for any leader, as is any emotion that clouds judgement.

The Skilful Leader

The skilful leader subdues the enemy's troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.

Napoleon Bonaparte used his strategic knowledge to defeat Austrian general Karl Mack von Leiberich and his troops with minimal losses to his own army. Bonaparte surrounded Mack’s forces with an army three times the size Mack was expecting, cutting off any escape routes. Initially refusing to submit, Mack’s deputies realised the position was futile and started a mutiny. Surrender soon followed.

The best way of fighting is to avoid fighting. The best way to win a war is with a greater strategy that out-plans and out-manoeuvres the enemy, so that they are forced to concede or else suffer a humiliating defeat.

Attacking By Stratagem

With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is the method of attacking by stratagem.

Bonaparte also used bold manoeuvres to defeat his rivals. When trying to capture a crucial but booby-trapped bridge, two of his officers strolled up to the Austrian guards and said that a truce had been signed. French soldiers soon causally walked and joked over the bridge rather than marching. Once they crossed the bridge, the guards were seized and the bridge was taken undamaged.

Fighting wars diminishes forces which limits the number of wars a commander can wage. If, however, soldiers are not lost and few munitions are used, then the army may march and defeat all in its path with little additional cost.

A Complete Wall

Now the general is the protective wall of the State; if the wall is complete at all points; the State will be strong; if the wall is defective, the State will be weak.

Prior to the Second World War, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was not prepared to intervene when Austria was invaded and preferred appeasement and making concessions to avoid conflict. Diplomats and politicians pursued this with skill and nerve like a game of poker, but the enemy wasn’t playing poker.

Despite Chamberlain claiming to have brought peace, the Germans continued to invade European countries. With Chamberlain’s support dwindling, he resigned and a new leader was chosen.

If leaders are weak then their decisions and orders will be weak. Therefore, it is vital for the state to appoint consistently strong leaders.

When To Fight

He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.

The Habsburg Duke Leopold II set out to suppress a revolt by the Swiss. Ascending a mountainside with his army including heavily armoured knights, they found themselves hemmed in on a path blocked by the enemy and became crammed in together in the narrow space. Swiss infantry, hidden on the wooded hillside above, rolled tree trunks and boulders down onto the Habsburg force, knocking men off the cliff into Lake below.

Pick the right time and place to fight. An understanding of geography and the situation is useful. Beware of an enemy who have strength in either.

Handling Forces

He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.

In the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V took on his French opponents, despite having only one quarter of the amount of troops they had. He was victorious in part due to the small, narrow field where the battle took place, allowing his archers firing arrows over a much longer distance to be protected by his men armed with stakes on the front line.

You will not always have the greatest army. Yet you can win. It is important to know the right fighting strategy.

The Power Of Spirit

He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain was commanding the Union troops in the Battle of Gettysburg. They were outnumbered and unable to hold off another attack. As a desperate measure Chamberlain had his soldiers charge into the enemy rifles with their bayonets. A Lieutenant ran forward, waving his sword and shouting. The other troops followed his courageous example. They shattered two lines of Confederate troops, and saved the Union.

A constant purpose and knowing the commander's intent keeps an army together with a clear, cohesive focus.


He will win who has prepared himself and waits to take the enemy unprepared.

The British campaign in Gallipoli during the First World War was a huge disaster partly due to how unprepared the allies were for the difficult and rugged terrain. They also weren’t ready for the strength of the Turkish resistance who used landmines to great effect.

An army will spend very little time actually fighting, but when it is not in combat, it should be preparing. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. If you’re prepared but your enemy isn’t, then you have huge advantage.

Resist Interference

He will win who has the military capacity and the sovereign does not interfere in his command.

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the great military leaders. As well as ruling on the battlefield, he also successfully engineered a coup to gain political power in France, crowning himself Emperor. He owed much of his extraordinary success to the fact that he was then not hampered by any other central authority.

Rulers know how to rule civilians. Generals know how to fight. The intent of the ruler is important, but tactics and strategy should be left to those who understand them the best.

Know Yourself (And The Enemy)

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Fu Chien, the Chinese Emperor marched with a vast force against rival armies in 383 A.D. Despite being warned by advisors not to continue due to having poorly trained soldiers, he said: "I have the population of eight provinces at my back, they could dam up the Yangtsze River by merely throwing their whips into the stream. What danger have I to fear?"

His forces were soon decisively beaten in battle and he was forced to make a hasty retreat.
Self-belief without self-knowledge is dangerous. Knowing yourself without knowing the opposition is also dangerous.

With full knowledge, you can always win. With weak knowledge you can always fail. Be honest with yourself and know the opponent better than he knows himself.

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