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Waging War

In this chapter Sun-tzu begins his analysis of the actual mechanics of waging war. In doing so Sun-tzu quotes specific examples obviously drawn from his own age and at first glance these examples appear obsolete. This is not the case, if instead of making a literal interpretation of the work the reader takes the broader view and examines the principles behind the work it can be readily demonstrated that these basic principles are timeless.

"In general, the strategy for employing the military [is]: If there are one thousand four-horse attack chariots, one thousand leather-armoured support chariots, one hundred thousand mailed troops, and provisions are transported one thousand "Ii", then the domestic and external campaign expenses, the expenditures for advisers and guests, materials such as glue and lacquer, and providing chariots and armor will be one thousand pieces of gold per day. Only then can an army of one hundred thousand be mobilised.

This passage raises several interesting points. Firstly and incidentally to the main point Sun-tzu makes, he illustrates that even in ancient times organised military forces were (as they are today) split into differing troop types each to be employed in differing ways. As a second (ancillary) point Sun-tzu illustrates that the fighting arm of an army cannot (or ought not to) exist as a discrete entity. Thus to mobilise a fighting force it is also necessary and equally important to mobilise the means to support this fighting force.

The main point Sun-tzu raises is that fighting a campaign is a financially expensive undertaking, this is a point that he makes again and again as he expands on it emphasising its importance.

“When employing them in battle, a victory that is long in coming will blunt their [your army's] weapons and dampen their ardour. If you attack cities, their [he is again referring to your own army] strength will be exhausted. If you expose the army to a prolonged campaign, the state‘s resources will be inadequate.

We'll discus later what Sun-tzu means by, "fortified cities" at this stage it is suffice to say that he is advising against drawn-out attritional warfare. Later Sun-tzu qualifies the above and describes under what circumstances "fortified cites" should be attacked but at this stage he is only attempting to outline general principals.

A good contemporary example that well illustrates the major point Sun-tzu makes above would be the fate of Germany during the 1939-45 war. In inciting a World War, Germany was instigating a series of actions that were beyond its capacity to support economically. Whilst most commentators would agree that, in the main Germany fielded excellent troops, provided them at times with exceptional weapons and usually employed them in a tactically advantageous way, Germany still failed to win the war. We would argue that apart from some obvious strategic failures, the failure in the desert, the waging of war on more than one front and so on perhaps the major failing was an economic one. That is, once committed to battle Germany was unable to make good its losses whereas its major opponents with a better economic base were to continually make good theirs.

“When the weapons have grown dull and spirits depressed, when our strength has been expended and resources consumed, then the feudal lords will take advantage of our exhaustion to arise. Even though you have wise generals, they will not be able to achieve a good result.

For "feudal lords" read "enemies.

“Thus in military campaigns I have heard of awkward speed but have never seen any skill in lengthy campaigns. No country has ever profited from protracted warfare. Those who do not thoroughly comprehend the dangers inherent in employing the army are incapable of truly knowing the potential advantages of military actions.

Again in just one paragraph Sun-tzu makes several incisive points. The first one being that whilst it may be difficult to maintain a high rate of progress such difficulty is far preferable to the opposite and being drawn into protracted warfare. He also comments unfavourably on the skill of a general who fails to realise this.

The last point he makes is more generalised and double edged in nature, in that he clarifies that no general can be successful in his military actions without first realising the potential pitfalls of the same. His implied point being that it is the general's aim to induce the opposing [and hopefully less perceptive] general into the pitfalls associated with military action thus gaining a victory by the enemy's own mismanagement.

“One who excels in employing the military does not conscript the people twice or transport provisions a third time. If you obtain your equipment from within the state and rely on seizing provisions from the enemy, then the army‘s foodstuffs will be sufficient.

Whilst the last point Sun-tzu makes here, is, in a modern context somewhat open to question the preceding points nevertheless remain fundamentally valid in their generality.

That is by repeatedly conscripting troops from a friendly population the economic base of the country becomes undermined as insufficient people remain behind to support the military. Additionally, conscription is fundamentally an unpopular measure, by repeatedly conscripting troops the ruler becomes by these actions more and more unpopular. Elsewhere Sun-tzu makes the point more forcibly but it nevertheless the point needs to be stated here, the point being that a military action without popular support at home will ultimately fail.

The point about the transportation of provisions needs further explanation. Several explanations of this comment have over time been advanced by various scholars. Due to the difficulties in translating Sun-tzu's work perhaps all interpretations are equally valid (and we would make this point for nearly all the points debated in this document) we prefer to take our own view. We take the more literal (and we believe more logical) view that Sun-tzu is saying that to preserve resources, manpower and to reduce wastage and the like, provisions should literally only be transported on two occasions. We believe that he is referring to the transportation from the place of production to the place of collection and thence from the place of collection to the place where they are needed - and are thus expended. In making this point Sun-tzu re-emphasises his earlier precept that military operations can only be sustained when they have adequate non-combat support. Taking this a stage further it can be argued that Sun-tzu is actually stating the need for a staff corps (in order to order this support/supply) in order to leave the general free to command the troops in combat.

“The state is impoverished by the army when it transports provisions far off. When provisions are transported far off, the hundred surnames are impoverished.

In a modern context we can read the "hundred surnames" as being a nation's taxpayers - particularly those from the "upper" echelons of a society, that is, those people and organisations that provide employment for those of the working classes.

“Those in proximity to the army will sell their goods expensively. When goods are expensive, the hundred surnames wealth will be exhausted. When their wealth is exhausted, they will be extremely hard-pressed [to supply] their village's military impositions.

“When their strength has been expended and their wealth depleted, then the houses in the central plains will be empty. The expenses of the hundred surnames will be some seven-tenths of whatever they have.

A somewhat prophetic note, war, especially extended operations impoverishes a nation. The implied message being that although a general may eventually be victorious on the field there may be nothing for him and his army to come home to.

The ruler‘s irrecoverable expenditures—such as ruined chariots, exhausted horses, armour, helmets, arrows and crossbows, halberd-tipped and spear--tipped protective shields, strong oxen, and large wagons—will consume six-tenths of his resources.

Despite the obvious message that war is expensive there is a more subtle warning here. By waging war a ruler (nation state) commits itself to expending resources on non-recoverable expenses and that success in war will not by itself make good these losses. This is another hint of a theme that was first mentioned in chapter 1 - war is not an end in itself, it should be fought for some purpose.

“Thus the wise general will concentrate on securing provisions from the enemy. One bushel of the enemy‘s foodstuffs is worth twenty of ours; one picul of fodder is worth twenty of ours.

Again in a modern context this is open to significant debate however the underlying theme that the obtaining of an enemies supplies is a beneficial course of action remains true. Why so? For every unit of supplies that gets to an army other supplies have to be consumed in both producing and transporting the finished item. This is true whether or not the supplies in question are basic foodstuffs or modern advanced electrical equipment. The value of destroying or capturing an enemies supplies is far in excess of the apparent physical cost because of the costs the enemy is obliged to expend in replacing them.

“Thus what [motivates men] to slay the enemy is anger; what [stimulates them] to seize profits from the enemy is material goods. Thus in chariot encounters, when ten or more chariots are captured, reward the first to get one. Change their flags and pennants to ours; intermix and employ them with our own chariots. Treat the captured soldiers well in order to nurture them [for our use]. This is referred to as ‘conquering the enemy and growing stronger.

Yet again if taken literally this point somewhat debatable in a modern sense however...

During the Second World War, Germany managed to increase its armies by integrating troops drawn from conquered enemy nations. There were Cossack (Russian) divisions, French, Dutch and a whole host more who flocked to the nazi flag. In every case Germany managed to persuade troops that their best interests lay in fighting on behalf of the conquering nation rather than remaining loyal to their own.

"Thus the army values being victorious; it does not value prolonged warfare. Therefore a general who understands warfare is Master of Fate for the people, ruler of the state's security or endangerment"


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