Chapter 4 - Tactical Dispositions | The Art of War by Sun Tzu

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Good Fighters Of Old

Sun Tzu said: The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then wait for an opportunity to defeat the enemy.

In the Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali took on the younger and stronger George Foreman. Ali used his rope-a-dope strategy of protecting himself and not throwing many punches, making Foreman miss and tire. Sensing this, Ali pounced to win back his word title.

It may take time to find the right opportunity to win. During the time before victory is available, you may still be defeated. Defence always comes first.

Opportunities From The Enemy

To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

During the end of Han Dynasty in China, a general did not go into battle straight away but camped with his men behind the enemy to act as a deterrent. Meanwhile, he instructed his men to dig trenches around a nearby enemy fortress to deceive the enemy into thinking that they were trying to cut off supplies into their camp. The enemy were fooled and abandoned their position, allowing their camp to be attacked and destroyed.

With a good defence, you can survive attacks. With a weak defence, even a modest attack could succeed. This also applies to your enemy. Use feints to cause defensive moves that may expose weaknesses.

Secure Against Defeat

Thus the good fighter is able to secure himself against defeat, but cannot make certain of defeating the enemy.

When Winston Churchill became the British prime minister, his foreign secretary (Lord Halifax) wanted to explore a compromise deal with Adolf Hitler to preserve Britain’s integrity. Churchill convinced him there wasn’t anything to gain by trying to negotiate in such dire circumstances. He did not know the course of the War at that point, but by hanging on he thought the steps to victory may come to light in the future.

Block, deflect or avoid an opponent’s attacks and wait to find an opening through which you can defeat them. Two good opponents will circle one another and may fight for a long period before a mistake is made.

Take The Offensive

Security against defeat implies defensive tactics; ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive.

Belisarius reclaimed huge sections of the Roman Empire by repeatedly defending and then attacking the Goths. After convincing the enemy to launch a fruitless attack by defending firmly, he’d then go on the offensive, repossessing the land.

To avoid losing, you must be able to defend but don’t spend too long on building a strong defence. To win, you must also be capable to attack. Spend time planning and preparing for effective assaults.


Standing on the defensive indicates insufficient strength; attacking, a superabundance of strength.

Pericles, the ruler of Athens avoided land battles with Sparta, preferring naval strength in a dragged out war, as he calculated Athenian reserves would outlast the Spartans. The Spartans would attack the area around Athens yearly, leading to the Athenians to offer peace to the Spartans who insisted on ruthless terms.

It is often easier to defend than attack. Weaker forces will defend more, hoping to see a weakness in their attackers.

The Skilled General

The general who is skilled in defence hides in the most secret recesses of the earth; he who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven. Thus on the one hand we have ability to protect ourselves; on the other, a victory that is complete.

The Vietnamese General Giap recognised the Americans often used artillery and air strikes followed by bringing troops in. By surviving the initial airstrikes Giap’s men could then ambush the American soldiers. He ordered his fighters to stay as close to the Americans as possible as by having his men nearby, the airstrike would not be called in. By hiding in close proximity to the enemy, his tactics of guerrilla attacks, hand grenade traps, ambushes and snipers were highly effective.

You must know your strengths and limitations in defence and attack. Act based on this knowledge. If you are weak in attack, seek a position that is easy to protect. If you are strong in attack, a fast and powerful drive can overcome many defences.

Unique Knowledge

To see victory only when it is within the knowledge of the common herd is not the peak of excellence.

Han Hsin was about to attack a superior army when he said to his men: "Gentlemen, we are going to annihilate the enemy, and shall meet again at dinner."

The officers barely took his words seriously and only hesitantly agreed. However, Han Hsin had calculated in his head a detailed, smart strategy. As he predicted, he was able to inflict a crushing defeat on his opponent.

When there is a road paved with gold, without distractions and threats heading directly to your goal, it takes no skill to follow it. Being able to see the unseen is a skill that can help you in numerous ways. It’s easy to succeed in a growing market with plenty of demand. True skill is displayed in tougher times.

Sharp Sight And A Quick Ear

To see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear.

When Steve Jobs returned to take charge of a near-bankrupt Apple, experts advised him to sell the company and licence the software. Jobs could see problems within the company that the experts couldn’t and crucially, how to resolve them. After diagnosing the issues he did the opposite of what they advised, turning the business around.

Perceiving what is obvious does not show insight. To perceive what isn’t obvious and understand its significance takes a finer skill. Take time to hone your perceptual abilities.

A Clever Fighter

What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.

Aemilius was sent to Spain to take on Barbarians who were at war with the Roman Republic. Defeating the Barbarians in two battles with ease, the success was noticeably due to his leadership. By selecting favourable ground and crossing a river he made winning easy for his men. He returned to Rome leaving the area in peace and without claiming any money for his expedition.

A good fighter does not get into difficult fights nor gets into difficult situations. Using great skill often appears to be done without much effort. This is because it is done with skill and not effort.

Make No Mistakes

He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.

As Hannibal and his Carthaginian army travelled through Italy, Fabius Cunctator and his Roman soldiers followed him around, hoping Hannibal would make a mistake so they could attack his foragers. Hannibal was a great military strategist and avoided any mistakes allowing him to destroy farms and villages as he marched on towards Rome.

You can lose by making defensive mistakes that allow an attack through. The principle is the same whether in chess, war or business strategy.

Victorious Strategists

Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.

When the Allies broke the German Enigma code in World War II, they could intercept and decrypt military messages sent between German planners. This allowed the Allies to make more informed decisions about when and where to engage the enemy, giving them the ability to stay one step ahead and eventually win the War.

Good tacticians see further ahead than others, planning moves and counter-moves until certain victory is known. The ability to see possibilities and take your business there is a powerful leadership skill.

Consummate Leaders

The consummate leader cultivates the moral law, and strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success.

During the First World War, King Albert I of Belgium fought alongside his men, sharing the risk of death with them on the frontline. He also allowed his 14-year-old son, to enlist in the army and fight.

At the end of the war, as commander of an army, Albert led the final offensive that liberated his country. The King and his family returned to Brussels with a hero's welcome.

Values and morals start from the very top and filter down. What the leader does, others will copy. Succeeding with regards to morality, method and discipline should lead to triumph.

From Measurement To Victory

Measurement owes its existence to Earth; Estimation of quantity to Measurement; Calculation to Estimation of quantity; Balancing of chances to Calculation; and Victory to Balancing of chances.

The Duke of Wellington always performed thorough and detailed preparations. This allowed for his supply routes to be constantly prepared for the requirements of his soldiers. Before the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington studied Napoleon meticulously. He analysed his tactics in great detail. Only once he absolutely knew for sure that the clash was going in his favour did he switch to the offensive.

There is no certainty in war. Victory starts with intelligence that allows understanding of risks and opportunities. Project possibilities for each risk and opportunity, then act on the one with best outcome.

Don’t base risks and opportunities on opinion, use data and calculated projection. Improving this will improve your success.

Victorious Armies

A victorious army opposed to a routed one, is as a pound's weight placed in the scale against a single grain.

General George Patton once said: “Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser.

There is an element of truth in this. No one likes to lose and especially not militaries. It has been shown countless times in history that soldiers are willing to tolerate extreme adversity and suffering, so long as it ultimately leads to tangible results and victory.

Armies that win are superior and have a stronger morale than those which run away. Never underestimate the power of motivation. Leading people to wins, even small ones, will increase morale and lead to more wins. Work hard to rebuild morale after failure.


The onrush of a conquering force is like the bursting of pent-up waters into a chasm a thousand fathoms deep.

The Battle of Stalingrad between Germany and the Soviet Union caused a turning point in the direction of the Second World War. Prior to the conflict, the Germans had invaded and occupied several European countries. The five-month battle and eventual Soviet victory stopped any momentum the Germans had left and gave the Soviets new momentum to eventually drive the enemy out of their country. There was a growth in confidence an increased belief of victory.

A fast-moving bullet fired from a gun will do far more damage than if it was thrown by hand. The momentum created by a powerful attack can break through even a strong defence.

Momentum can be caused by a string of successes that keeps opponents or competitors on the back foot and may even drive them out of the battleground or market altogether.

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