Chapter 7 - Manoeuvring an Army | The Art of War by Sun Tzu

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The General and the Ruler

Sun Tzu said: In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign.

Subutai, was Genghis Khan’s most astute and brilliant general. His great discipline and intelligence when carrying out his ruler’s orders allowed him to execute them successfully and help the Mongols create one of the largest empires in history.

Set goals and aspirations that are achievable; allow others to use their expertise to advance the strategy to achieve your intended objectives.


Position Your Army

Having collected an army and concentrated his forces, he must blend and harmonise the different elements thereof before pitching his camp.

Miltiades the Athenian general used innovative tactics at the Battle of Marathon to defeat the Persians, despite his men being outnumbered.

Miltiades convinced his war-ruler that to defeat their opponent, they needed to change from the traditional tactics of spreading their hoplite soldiers evenly across the battlefield and instead move them to the flanks to protect against the strong Persian cavalry. This move helped win the battle for the Greeks.

When deciding where to position your best people, there is no magic formula. The choice can be critical but is dependent on your strategy and the manoeuvres you intend to make.


Tactical Manoeuvring

After that, comes tactical manoeuvring, than which there is nothing more difficult. The difficulty of tactical manoeuvring consists in turning the devious into the direct, and misfortune into gain.

Hannibal and Napoleon were two of the most ruthless generals of their respective eras. They both made the treacherous journey of crossing the Alps, two thousand years apart. Despite being extremely difficult ground to travel across with obvious natural obstacles, both generals used swiftness of movement to turn these difficulties into an advantage. Hannibal bypassed Roman naval ships to attack in Italy directly, while Napoleon took the shortest route to surprise and drive back the Austrian army.

Once your plans are in place, the next step is to get them in motion. Strong execution is very important. Strategy is worthless if you can’t do what you planned.


Disciplined Vs Undisciplined Army

Manoeuvring with an army is advantageous; with an undisciplined multitude, most dangerous.

Alexander the Great was given an already well-trained army from his father but he trained them even further. He dressed in the same way as his soldiers to increase their loyalty to him. As well as leading from the front in battle, he’d walk through the camp and stop to talk to his men, which increased their motivation. He was also ruthless in punishing those soldiers who betrayed him, executing dissenters. His disciplined force travelled far and wide, with speed and mobility when needed.

Often you have to move quickly to take advantage of an opportunity. There may be little time for planning and training. You must see the need and move quickly. This is why preparation and practice is so important: there is no time on the day.


The Importance of Supplies

An army without its baggage-train is lost; without provisions it is lost; without bases of supply it is lost.

After the death of Alexander the Great, two of his successors battled over his empire. In the Battle of Gabiene, Antigonus captured Eumenes' baggage train, which contained supplies and stolen goods from nearly four decades of warfare. This directly lead to the defeat of Eumenes, who was turned over by his own men in exchange for the return of the captured baggage train.

An army marches on its stomach. Food and other supplies keep troops alive, motivated and strong. You may still perform well without supplies for a short period of time but you cannot hold out forever. Ensure adequate resources are in place.


Alliances and Intent

We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbours.

England and Portugal have enjoyed a partnership for hundreds of years, dating back to the middle ages. Both countries were aware of the benefits for each other. For Portugal, English aid helped them repel potential invaders and for the English it provided them with a foothold in mainland Europe. It is the oldest alliance still in force.

When offered a partnership, ask what is in it for them and what do they really seek? When their desires and intent are known, you can determine how much you trust them and whether to become an ally.


Familiarity Helps Foresight

We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country - its mountains and forests, its pitfalls and precipices, its marshes and swamps.

Emperor Nicephorus I of the Byzantine Empire ignored an offer of peace from the leader of Bulgaria, Khan Krum, and instead marched and pillaged the capital with 80,000 men. The looting was so brutal and lengthy it gave the Bulgarian army time to block the passes in the Balkan mountains. By failing to scout the passes after the ransacking, Nicephorus and his army marched into the mountains, became trapped and were killed. Krum had Nicephorus’ skull encased in silver and made into a drinking cup.

Understand well the land in front and any obstacles to come. By knowing anything that lies ahead, you will be prepared as well as you can be.


Benefits of Locals

We shall be unable to turn natural advantage to account unless we make use of local guides.

In the Battle of Thermopylae, despite having vastly inferior numbers, the Greeks successfully blocked the only road the Persian army could pass for two days. After the second day, a local Greek resident betrayed his fellow men by revealing that a small path led behind the Greek lines.

Xerxes the Persian ruler sent his troops over the mountain path that evening so that they could attack the Greeks from the rear, and leave them surrounded, which led to the Greeks being defeated.

Research can only tell you so much. Local experts will know much more than you possibly can through experience, so make use of them. Seek out and learn from those that understand things to a depth that you can’t.


When to Concentrate and When to Divide

Whether to concentrate or to divide your troops, must be decided by circumstances.

During the First World War, the Central Powers were unable to match the Allies in terms of number of fighter aircraft. To overcome this, instead of deploying their fighters evenly across the fronts, the Germans concentrated their fighters into large mobile formations called Jagdgeschwader. One of these formations was known as the Flying Circus due to the aircraft’s bright colours and their method of being transferred from one area of conflict to another, improvising and setting up camp wherever they went, much like a circus.

These rapidly moving units allowed the Germans to achieve air supremacy by creating a local superiority in numbers.

Do not blindly apply rules of thumb as this will often lead to failure. Each decision has many complicating factors and must be carefully considered.


Secret Plans, Quick Moves

Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire fell to the King of Persia, Cyrus the Great in the Battle of Opis.

The only way into the city of Babylon was though one of the gates or through the Euphrates river, as the city walls were considered impenetrable. Metal grates installed underwater allowed the river to flow through the city walls while stopping invaders.

The Persians formulated a secret plan to enter Babylon via the Euphrates river. During a Babylonian national feast, Cyrus' troops redirected the river upstream, which allowed soldiers to enter the city through the lowered water. The Persian army then overran the outer areas of the city while the majority of its citizens were in the city centre, unaware of any attack.

Keep your plans secret and strictly on a need-to-know basis. When attacking, use speed and move fast to build unstoppable momentum.


Share the Wealth

When you plunder a countryside, let the spoil be divided amongst your men; when you capture new territory, cut it up into allotments for the benefit of the soldiery.

After his successful invasion of England, William the Conqueror carried out some land management. Approximately 25% of available land was acquired for himself and 25% went to the church, who had given the invasion their blessing from Rome. The remaining land was divided between his dozen or so loyal and trusted servants.

Giving land as a reward had a double purpose. It motivated his servants with a future reward and it meant that through them he was still in control of the land, due to their loyalty.

Remember to reward people for the efforts that they make. It shows that you care about them and that you are fair and even-handed. The more motivated they are, the harder they will fight for you.


Gongs, Drums, Banners and Flags

Gongs and drums, banners and flags, are means whereby the ears and eyes of the host may be focused on one particular point.

In ancient China, there was extensive usage of flags for communication in warfare. Different positions were used to indicate enemy movements. Commands were transmitted through horns, drums, gongs, bells and whistles. The drums were also used to influence enemy and friendly morale.

In order for people to understand your communication, you must broadcast using a method that people can grasp. Communication is not what is transmitted, but what people understand. Use loud and visible communications in environments where there are many distractions.


Working as One

The host thus forming a single united body, is it impossible either for the brave to advance alone, or for the cowardly to retreat alone. This is the art of handling large masses of men.

The American poet and war correspondent, Stephen Crane spoke of “a mysterious fraternity born out of smoke and danger of death”. He was referring to the special type of friendship and ties developed when facing life and death situations in battle. The obligations to your fellow soldiers is seen as one of the most powerful reasons to fight. This bond with the men standing beside you helps prevent troops from fleeing. Camaraderie is therefore vital in uniting fighters in war. Leadership is critical to move the men in the intended direction.

When a group of people come together, they behave differently. The herd mentality drives them to act in the same way as those around them.
A large group can therefore be moved by a small group within. This is the essence of leadership.


Commander Spirit

A whole army may be robbed of its spirit; a commander-in-chief may be robbed of his presence of mind.

A few weeks after becoming Prime Minister, Winston Churchill gave a speech following the Dunkirk evacuation.

We shall fight on the seas and oceans... we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…

It was an exhilarating declaration to the nation to pick itself up and start the struggle all over again. The speech strengthened Britain's resolve at a vital time in history.

An army’s “spirit” provides the motivation and energy to engage in combat. Low spirits increase bad decisions. By being positive and energised, you can make a huge difference to your workforce as a spirited leader.


Effects of the Time of Day

Now a soldier's spirit is keenest in the morning; by noonday it has begun to flag; and in the evening, his mind is bent only on returning to camp.

When the Carthaginians took on the Roman Republic in the Battle of the Trebia, the Roman soldiers were ordered to march forward and wade through ice cold water, despite not even having their morning meal. When they got across the river, they could hardly hold their weapons.

Hannibal on the other hand was prepared. His men were fed and warmed from their camp fires, with their weapons ready.

Ensure you have adequate rest and food as it improves your mood. Even one day of inaction can reduce spirit and make you listless and lethargic.


Study Moods

A clever general, therefore, avoids an army when its spirit is keen, but attacks it when it is sluggish and inclined to return. This is the art of studying moods.

Between December 1941 and February 1942, several Japanese successes across Southeast Asia reduced the morale of British soldiers defending Singapore. Spirits were so low that when the Japanese eventually attacked, they quickly surrendered.

After the war was over, a Japanese commander said that his attack was a bluff and that his men were extremely low on water and ammunition. He admitted that if the British defenders had held for one more week - which was feasible - his attack would have failed.

Engage your opponent when their spirit is low and yours is high. It will give you a significant advantage.


Study Circumstance

To refrain from intercepting an enemy whose banners are in perfect order, to refrain from attacking an army drawn up in calm and confident array: this is the art of studying circumstances.

Napoleon in 1812 and the Germans in 1941 both tried to invade Russia. The Russians refrained from attacking in both cases and sacrificed vast expanses of their land until the environmental conditions wore their enemies out.

The American Continental Army fought a long, drawn-out campaign in the War of Independence. This tactic helped to defeat the British, who were also concerned with the great military threat from France.

Good timing is required when striking at the enemy. Keep cool and calm; it will let you wait for the right moment. Lose your cool first and as a consequence, you may lose the fight.


Elevated Positions

It is a military axiom not to advance uphill against the enemy, nor to oppose him when he comes downhill.

Historically, fighting from an elevated position has numerous advantages. Holding the high ground provides a wide field of view which enables observation of the surrounding area. This makes it easier to provide early warning about enemy troops. Troops fighting uphill will move more slowly and tire quicker than the enemy fighting downhill.

Also, elevated soldiers have greater range with weapons such as rocks, arrows, and grenades. Well trained archers that were positioned on top of a hill at the Battle of Agincourt illustrated this point and helped England to beat the French.

Among humans, height is often seen as a symbol of status. Taller people are statistically more likely to be in senior business positions. The fact that height is used as a metaphor for superiority provides a subtle psychological edge and the effect could affect motivation in a battle.


Bravery and Temper

Do not pursue an enemy who simulates flight; do not attack soldiers whose temper is keen.

Lucius Cornelius Scipio captured several towns in the island of Sardinia by landing strong units of soldiers at night. He told them to stay in hiding until he drew near to land with his own ships.

As the enemy left their towns to come and meet the ships, Scipio pretended to flee, leading them on a long chase. Meanwhile, his hidden troops were ordered to attack the towns that had been abandoned by their inhabitants.

If your opponent runs away or backs down unexpectedly, beware of chasing them as they may well be leading you into a trap.


Leave an Escape

When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard. Such is the art of warfare.

During their invasion of Europe, the Mongol Empire took on the Kingdom of Hungary. After the Mongols attacked one camp, demoralised Hungarian soldiers fled. They tried to escape through a gap which the Mongols had left open deliberately. The Mongols believed that fleeing soldiers can be killed more easily than those who are forced to fight to the death with their backs against the wall.

If an enemy is cornered, they must fight for their lives. By forcing them to go down in a blaze of glory they will take more of your soldiers or resources than you might otherwise have used.

Needlessly slaughtering an army will gain you hostility from their family and fellow citizens. It will increase the chance of them arising to take revenge. Allowing a graceful retreat in a direction you choose, is often a better option. After you show your superiority, you will be able to negotiate a favourable peace.


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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.