Chapter 9 - The Army on the March | The Art of War by Sun Tzu

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Pass Over Mountains, Pause in Valleys

Sun Tzu said: We come now to the question of encamping the army, and observing signs of the enemy. Pass quickly over mountains, and keep in the neighbourhood of valleys.

Al Capone chose not to hide from the media and made many public appearances, rather than hiding in the criminal underworld. His celebrity status made him a high-visibility target for prosecutors, which eventually led to his arrest and imprisonment.

Avoid high places where you can be trapped and spotted from multiple other locations. Valleys offer more space in which to manoeuvre.


Cross, Then Leave, A River

After crossing a river, you should get far away from it.

Battle of Tettenhall, England, 910

In the Battle of Tettenhall, Anglo Saxon kingdoms took on the Vikings, who had travelled up a river to take revenge for an earlier attack. The river took the Vikings deep into the Anglo Saxon heartland. They ravaged the land, but they were later caught and stopped from returning. Trapped in hostile territory lead to the death of some Viking kings and thousands of their men.

Avoid any boundaries that are difficult to cross easily as it is easy to become hemmed in. Use boundaries for defensive purposes, if rivals struggle to cross them.


Hard Ground to Avoid Disease

If you are careful of your men, and camp on hard ground, the army will be free from disease of every kind, and this will spell victory.

Siege of Harfleur, France, 1415

Henry V invaded France with thousands of troops. Within a few days he had captured a French port but a combination of bad weather and poor conditions led to the loss of around a third of his men to dysentery.

Ensure the environment you spend time in is suitable. Avoid areas where bad habits are easily spreadable.


Wait For Heavy Rain To Subside

When, in consequence of heavy rains up-country, a river which you wish to ford is swollen and flecked with foam, you must wait until it subsides.

The Battle of Northampton, England, 1460

The Earl of Warwick attacked King Henry VI during a civil war. After only half an hour of battle, the King was captured. In attempting to escape, many of his soldiers drowned trying to swim across the rain-swollen river nearby.

Do not attempt to overcome obstacles when the difficulty is heightened. It may result in the loss of large amounts of resources.


Close & Quiet = Strong Position

When the enemy is close at hand and remains quiet, he is relying on the natural strength of his position.

The Battle of Torvioll, now Albania, 1444

Skanderbeg, an Ottoman captain, left the army and decided to go back to his native land to take charge of a new rebellion. The night before a battle against the Ottoman Empire both sides were camped opposite each other.

Skanderbeg’s men put out all their campfires and those who were not on guard were directed to rest. The Ottomans made approaches to the camp to try and provoke Skanderbeg's soldiers, but they stayed quiet.

The next day, seeing Skanderbeg had positioned his forces at the bottom of a hill, the Ottomans attacked with all their men, expecting a quick victory. Predicting this, Skanderbeg ordered his forces hidden in the forests behind the Ottomans to strike from the rear. The Ottomans entire army was defeated.

Beware if a competitor does not react to your moves, especially if you cannot see their advantage. If they do not attack or retreat, it is likely they are confident in their position.


Provocation To Advance The Enemy

When he keeps aloof and tries to provoke a battle, he is anxious for the other side to advance.

Pericles, the general of Athens refused to give the Spartans a confrontation on land, knowing that the Athenians strength was their navy. The Athenians were secure behind their defences with supplies constantly arriving via the sea and hoped to seek peace with the Spartans by frustrating them due to their unsuccessful attacks and provocations.

An opponent that avoids an all-out fight does so for a reason. Beware of competitors who provoke. They may be testing you or trying to drain your resources through your response.


Signs Of An Ambush

The rising of birds in their flight is the sign of an ambush. Startled beasts indicate that a sudden attack is coming.

King Charles VI of France and his escort were travelling through the forest one hot, summer morning when a leper dressed in rags rushed up to the King's horse. "Ride no further, noble King! Turn back! You are betrayed!" he shouted as the king's escorts beat the man back.

They emerged from the forest at noon. Tired from the sun, a soldier dropped the king's lance, which clanged loudly against a steel helmet. Thinking it was an ambush, Charles drew his sword and yelled: "Forward against the traitors! They wish to deliver me to the enemy!"

The king began swinging his sword at his companions, killing several men, including a knight.

Learn to correctly read the signs and indicators around you about different types of activity and the presence and movement of others.


Humble & Violent Words

Humble words and increased preparations are signs that the enemy is about to advance. Violent language and driving forward as if to the attack are signs that he will retreat.

Harald Hardrada lay siege to a castle as part of his conquest to become King of Norway. Before a battle took place his soldiers went to the castle to inform them of Harald’s death. They humbly asked the priests in the castle if the King could be buried within their city.

Thinking they would receive rich gifts for accommodating such a request, the priests accepted. His coffin and a small group of men were allowed into the castle. Once they entered, King Harald leapt from the coffin, declared that everyone should be killed and called his remaining men to battle.

Be prepared for enemies trying to deceive you with words and actions, by trying to appear as something they are not.


Proposals Of Peace

Peace proposals unaccompanied by a sworn covenant indicate a plot.

Cambyses, the Persian ruler, sent spies acting as ambassadors to Ethiopia, offering friendship. They presented beautiful gifts to impress the Ethiopian king but he saw through the pretend friendship. He gave the ambassadors a gift in return - a gigantic, heavy bow - and informed the Persians not to attack until they had the strength to string the bow.

Understand the values that your opponents follow. If they act in the same way as you but have different values, then without any formal agreement, they may be trying to deceive you.


Not Taking Advantage Due To Exhaustion

If the enemy sees an advantage to be gained and makes no effort to secure it, the soldiers are exhausted.

Battle of the Marne, France, 1914

The German plan to sweep through France in World War I came to an end when the French army counter-attacked in the Battle of the Marne. The Germans retreat was caused partly by the exhaustion of many of the German forces. Some of the men had marched more than 150 miles, fighting often along the way.

Grasp opportunity and potential advantages quickly, as they easily pass. If opponents do not make any attempts to seize an advantage, it may be because they lack the energy to do so, meaning they are more suitable to attack.


Cooking Pots & Camp Fires

When an army feeds its horses with grain and kills its cattle for food, and when the men do not hang their cooking-pots over the camp-fires, showing that they will not return to their tents, you may know that they are determined to fight to the death.

Siege of Paris, France, 1870-1871

During the Prussian forces attempt to capture Paris, a severe shortage of food led to locals being forced to slaughter any animals that were around. Rats, dogs and cats were regularly served in restaurants. Horse meat was eaten too as the horses were eating grain that was needed by the local population.

Look for signs of opponents not preparing for the future. It may be an indicator of desperation as they think they will not survive in the long term.


Reward... In Moderation

Too frequent rewards signify that the enemy is at the end of his resources; too many punishments betray a condition of dire distress.

Mercenaries have been used throughout history in many conflicts. In the 1500s, Niccolò Machiavelli argued against the use of mercenary armies, stating that since the only motivation of mercenaries is their financial reward and they are less likely to take the kind of risks in battle that may cost them their lives. He believed citizens with a real attachment to their home country will be more motivated to defend it and therefore will make much better soldiers.

Rewards motivate. The less motivated the person, the more rewards needed to motivate them. Be careful not to over-use rewards as it indicates something is potentially wrong.


With Equal Numbers Avoid Direct Conflict

If our troops are no more in number than the enemy, that is amply sufficient; it only means that no direct attack can be made. What we can do is simply to concentrate all our available strength, keep a close watch on the enemy, and obtain reinforcements.

Battle of Chaeronea, Greece, 338BC

Philip II of Macedon attacked the Greeks with his son Alexander the Great leading a wing of his army. With armies of similar numbers, after an initial direct attack many soldiers fell on both sides.

Philip’s feint withdrawal on one wing lured the Athenian wing forward weakening their line and creating a gap for Alexander to charge through. Philip’s superior tactics led to a crushing victory.

When you have many tactics available to use, a direct conflict with an equal force is risky and wasteful. Use your superior skill in other ways.


No Planning. No Victory.

He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.

Battle of Balaclava, Crimea, 1854

The disastrous British Charge of the Light Brigade was a suicidal charge into Russian heavy guns. Seeing the Russians taking away some captured British guns, Lord Raglan tried to stop them and made an emotional, rather than tactical decision. A combination of lack of planning and inefficient communication led to men charging down the wrong valley attacking the wrong target.

Always think before acting. Victories are won in the planning, even though the plans may have to change once being carried out.


Enforced Commands Enforce Discipline

If in training soldiers commands are habitually enforced, the army will be well-disciplined; if not, its discipline will be bad.

Frederick The Great said that his soldiers must fear their officers more than they fear the enemy. The Prussian leader was famous for the harsh discipline he inflicted on his men. One form of punishment included assembling two ranks of soldiers with the offender made to walk between them, being lashed by each man as he passed.

Never let a command be ignored as this teaches people that commands are optional. Once given, a command should be seen through. If the command later appears ill-judged, it can be changed with another firm command.


Mutual Gains For A General

If a general shows confidence in his men but always insists on his orders being obeyed, the gain will be mutual.

Leonidas had full confidence in his men as he knew they had been disciplined and well-trained from a young age. He was in turn rewarded with their loyalty. 300 Spartans stood by his side as they were hacked down by the Persians at the battle of Thermopylae.

When you expect high performance from people, and they seek your approval, then they will strive to meet your expectations.


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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.