Chapter 6 - Weak Points & Strong | The Art of War by Sun Tzu

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First In The Field

Sun Tzu said: Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.

Francis Drake led a pre-emptive strike against Spanish naval ships that were still assembling with an aim to invade England. Drake’s preparations and actions were approved by the Queen and his attack resulted in 100 ships being destroyed or captured, causing the Spanish Armada’s attack to be crucially delayed for a year. The following year the English fleet defeated the armada, with Drake playing an instrumental role.

Start something early to stand a better chance of success. Arrive at a battlefield or in a business market first; you have time to settle, survey the ground, plan ahead and pick your tactics. You can also attack opponents or competitors as they arrive to prevent them from settling and building a presence or market share.


Imposing Your Will

Therefore the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him.

Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain and his men faced an attack from the Confederates. Chamberlain knew that his soldiers did not have enough ammunition to resist the attack so he ordered his men to fix bayonets to their guns and charge the Confederate troops. The charge surprised the attackers, taking the initiative away from them and causing them to retreat in confusion.

Take initiatives to lead the game. When you act first, the other side has to respond. In this way, you can keep them constantly on the back foot. To be effective fight on your own terms or not at all.


Cause The Approach

By holding out advantages to him, he can cause the enemy to approach of his own accord; or, by inflicting damage, he can make it impossible for the enemy to draw near.

Before the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon tried to lure his opponent out by appearing to be weak and seeking to negotiate peace. Seeing this and being anxious for revenge, Czar Alexander I decided to immediately lead the allies into battle. Napoleon drew the opposing forces forward to expose their weak centre and he went on to defeat them.

When pressed, your opponent will grab at what appear as opportunities to gain advantage and take the lead. Their desperation will make them less thoughtful and they won’t realise the traps that you set until it is too late.


Harass, Starve, Move

If the enemy is taking his ease, he can harass him; if well supplied with food, he can starve him out; if quietly encamped, he can force him to move.

In the First and Second World Wars, German U-boats were used primarily to target merchant ships that sailed in a convoy, bringing supplies to the United Kingdom from overseas. Initially the U-boats were extremely effective, causing Winston Churchill to remark: “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.

When the opposition seems comfortable, find ways to remove their comfort. Sustain their tension to prevent them preparing and exhaust them before they fight.


March Without Distress

An army may march great distances without distress, if it marches through country where the enemy is not.

During the French invasion of Russia in 1812, Napoleon’s large force marched slowly through Western Russia trying to bring their opponents to battle. They initially met little resistance and moved quickly across the territory. Later, Cossacks burnt villages and crops to stop the French living off the land as they progressed. A lack of alternative supplies led to starvation and slow progress for Napoleon’s men.

When travelling through occupied territory, you must be continually scouting around and in a state of constant readiness. When there is nothing to fear, you can move at speed without caution.


Undefended Attacks

You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended. You can ensure the safety of your defence if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked.

When the Vikings sailed over to Britain, they raided various sites. In particular, they focused on largely undefended religious buildings that housed monks, which provided minimal resistance.

Where possible, attack areas which are unguarded. If all places are defended, select points to attack, where defences are weakest. Ensure you have no weak points of your own that offer your foe an easy way in.


Subtlety & Secrecy

O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible; and hence we can hold the enemy's fate in our hands.

Camouflage has been used since the Gallic Wars when Julius Caesar sent ships to the coast of Britain. These scouting ships were sent to gather intelligence and were painted in “Venetian blue”, which was a similar colour to that of the sea. The sailors also wore the same colours to increase the effect of the visual deception.

Use camouflage and secrecy to cover your locations and intent. It will allow you to act at will, even from within enemy ground as an opponent without form or sound is very difficult to attack.


Force An Engagement

If we wish to fight, the enemy can be forced to an engagement even though he be sheltered behind a high rampart and a deep ditch. All we need do is attack some other place that he will be obliged to relieve.

Napoleon Bonaparte was an expert at the turning movement. This military manoeuvre was an indirect approach that attempted to swing around the enemy which then threatened their supply lines. Often this forced the enemy to abandon their strong position, otherwise they risked being cut off and surrounded.

Get an enemy out of their current position by forcing them to come to the defence of another place. Instead of laying siege, attack alternative targets. When the enemy leaves their stronghold to help others, then you can ambush them.


Deceive To Avoid Conflict

If we do not wish to fight, we can prevent the enemy from engaging us even though the lines of our encampment be merely traced out on the ground. All we need do is to throw something odd and unaccountable in his way.

On D-Day, during the Allied invasion of Normandy, German high command kept back numerous divisions on reserve instead of using them against weak allied beachheads. By keeping General Patton out of the Normandy invasion force, the Germans were confused.

Patton was used to command a fictional army complete with landing craft and inflatable tanks elsewhere, causing the Germans to believe the Normandy invasion was a diversion, rather than the real assault. This allowed the beachheads to be established.

An army that advances is cautious in case of trickery and traps. You can deceive such an army by implying deception. This bluff will halt them temporarily, until the suspected issue is resolved.


Protect The Attack Point

The spot where we intend to fight must not be made known; for then the enemy will have to prepare against a possible attack at several different points; and his forces being thus distributed in many directions, the numbers we shall have to face at any given point will be proportionately few.

When discussing the reason behind General Ulysses S. Grant’s numerous victories, Philip Sheridan a Union general said: "While his opponents were kept fully employed wondering what he was going to do, he was thinking most of what he was going to do himself."

When you identify the enemy’s weaker points, even greater secrecy is needed so that they don’t learn your plans and bolster the defence at the point you’ll attack.


How To Spread Resources

For should the enemy strengthen his front, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his front; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.

The King of Prussia, Frederick the Great set out the following principles to his generals:

"A defensive war is apt to betray us into too frequent detachment. Those generals who have had but little experience attempt to protect every point, while those who are better acquainted with their profession, having only the capital object in view, guard against a decisive blow, and acquiesce in small misfortunes to avoid greater."

To strengthen a part requires taking troops from elsewhere, weakening another part. If a force is evenly spread on all parts, it is easy for the enemy to produce a force greater in strength at a certain point, allowing them to penetrate your defence.

Know how to spread your concentration of resources. This may mean allowing the opponent smaller wins in order for you to achieve a larger victory.


Know The Time & Place

Knowing the place and the time of the coming battle, we may concentrate from the greatest distances in order to fight.

Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher’s intervention with his Prussian Army in the Battle of Waterloo was a masterly employment of a strategy that coordinated his forces with the Duke of Wellington’s men. At a critical moment, Blücher provided assistance and diverted Napoleon’s vital reinforcements, preventing a British defeat and overwhelming Bonaparte’s forces.

Know when and where your battles will be so you have time to bring in more resources to the battlefield. Timing is critical; a well-timed arrival of reinforcements can turn your fortune around.


It's Not The Size Of The Dog In The Fight

Though according to my estimate their soldiers exceed our own in number, that shall advantage them nothing in the matter of victory. I say then that victory can be achieved.

In 1700, Peter the Great and his Russian army encircled a city belonging to the Swedish empire. The Russian forces outnumbered the Swedes by about 4 to 1 but a blizzard stopped both armies from moving. Seeing the wind change direction, Swedish King Charles XII realised the snow was obscuring Russian vision and he marched forward undetected with his troops, killing or capturing the whole Russian army around the city.

Having more resources and assets is an advantage, but it is not the only way to gain an advantage. Use superior strategy and tactics to enable a far smaller force to win.


Compare Opposing Armies

Carefully compare the opposing army with your own, so that you may know where strength is superabundant and where it is deficient.

The Battle of Crécy was a victory for England against France despite having a smaller army on the battlefield. The use of longbows by the English, which were quicker to fire with a longer range than the French crossbows, was a significant factor to the triumph.

Compare yourself with your opponent in all skill sets and understand who is superior in each and to what extent. Take advantage in the places where you are superior. Express caution in the areas where you are weaker.


Conceal Tactics

In making tactical dispositions, the highest pitch you can attain is to conceal them; conceal your dispositions, and you will be safe from the prying eyes of the subtlest spies, from the machinations of the wisest brains.

Many of the most successful Roman generals kept their strategies as secret as possible. This not only provided an upper hand against enemies that were unaware of their plans, but it also protected their own soldiers too.

In battle, spying and intelligence is a subtle but important activity. The opponent may be able to infiltrate into your people, so the more important your plans, the more secret you must keep them and for as long as possible. Know who you can trust.


The Difference Between Tactics & Strategy

All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.

When Richard the Lionheart faced the army of Saladin, his tactics involved forming a defensive position with his back to a river. There he waited despite being under constant missile attack.

Saladin could see the tactic but was unaware Richard’s strategy was to wait for him to get impatient.

Saladin thought Richard and his Crusaders wouldn’t move for days, so he ordered his men off their horses to better fire their missiles. When he saw this, Richard ordered his heavy cavalry to charge, flattening the enemy and winning the battle.

Tactics are actions that are part of an overall strategy. Understand the strategy and you may be able to predict probable tactics. Good tactics do not give away the strategy. They will surprise the enemy or cause them to believe you are using an altogether different strategy.


Surprise > Repeated Tactics

Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.

The Thirty Years War in Western Europe saw many military developments take place during it’s time. Prior to the War, many armies took part in attacks that were un-sustained, leaving time for soldiers to pillage. That approach proved unsuccessful in this war as successful attacks were continual and offensive tactics became more common. A fast offensive campaign gave the enemy little time to prepare its defences.

It is tempting to repeat using a method you are successful with, but success often comes from the surprise created. Lightning is very unlikely to strike twice. Innovation is critical, especially when it comes to business. Keep opponents guessing by including changing direction in your strategic innovation.


Avoid Strong, Strike Weak

So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.

Mahatma Gandhi knew when he was campaigning politically for Indian independence that by taking on the British empire directly with violent protests, many people would be massacred. Instead he encouraged non-cooperation with British rule. Boycotts of goods and a refusal to pay taxes lead to Britain weakening its stance and beginning negotiation of Indian independence.

Fighting a strong opponent directly is foolish and a good way of losing resources. Direct conflict is not the only way to win; there are many alternatives.


Conditions Are Not Constant

Just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.

The Spartan army consisted of warriors that were known for their bravery, skill and proficiency. With Spartan warriors being picked before birth and beginning training as boys, their lifestyle meant individual as well as overall group tactics were honed to perfection and they could adapt to many different conditions or situations.

Water is fluid and doesn’t have a fixed shape like a rock. It can wear down a rock over time or roll it out of the way. Gain success by not just a grand strategy but also by adapting to situations as they occur.


Modify Tactics To Win

He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.

The trench warfare that took place in World War I had multiple changes in tactics over the years it took place. As the conditions were very poor, men were put on a rotating schedule in the trenches. As the intensity of the war changed, so did the routines to match it.

A year into the war, allied tactics were modified again. They now planned artillery barrages to destroy the enemies barbed wire and fixed defences. These attacks were closely monitored and carefully controlled.

Be sure to sense even the slightest change in your environment and respond as necessary, whilst always remembering your ultimate goal. Do not react purely based on the present, but try to think about your vision further down the line and how to cope with all the possibilities.


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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.