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Military Dispositions

Sun-tzu now discusses some strategic maxims to be borne in mind when preparing for military action. That is he sets the strategic basis for military action.

“In antiquity those that excelled in warfare first made themselves unconquerable in order to await [the moment when] the enemy could be conquered.

In other words first arrange affairs so that you cannot be defeated before attempting to defeat the enemy. Some commentators have argued that this maxim, if followed to the letter produces the drawn out attrititional warfare that Sun-tzu has already warned us against. The argument is presented simply as during the period during which you make yourself unassailable the enemy can be doing likewise, thus it becomes likely that opportunities to defeat the enemy become less as time goes by. If this occurs a rapid (and cheap) campaign to defeat the enemy becomes improbable and thus warfare is reduced to economics in that the side that can sustain the war for the longest period becomes the winner.

This is not necessarily what Sun-tzu is arguing. In saying that you should first make yourself unconquerable Sun-tzu is not saying that this state of affairs should be met in any absolute sense. He is saying that your should make yourself unconquerable in relation to your anticipated enemy. Furthermore, in saying that you should first make yourself unassailable Sun-tzu is not saying that you should adopt a defensive stature - at least not in a strategic sense. It is after all possible to make yourself unassailable by premeditated action against the enemy and thus cause the enemy to suffer a setback from which it would not be possible to recover sufficiently to actually assail you.

The key point that Sun-tzu makes is that prior to engaging in offensive conduct the effective means for defence must first be prepared.

“Being unconquerable lies with yourself; being conquerable lies with the enemy.

“Thus one who excels in warfare is able to make himself unconquerable, but cannot necessarily cause the enemy to be conquerable.

“Thus it is said a strategy for conquering the enemy can be known but yet not possible to implement.

Whilst this does not logically follow from the earlier points it is in its own way a useful starting point. From this statement we can say that the object of manoeuvring is to implement the pre-decided strategy that will defeat the enemy.

“One who cannot be victorious assumes a defensive posture; one who can be victorious attacks. In these circumstances by assuming a defensive posture, strength will be more than adequate, whereas in offensive actions it would be inadequate.

The strength required to defend is less than that required for attack.

“Those who excel at defence bury themselves away below the lowest depths of Earth. Those who excel at offence move from above the greatest heights of Heaven. Thus they are able to preserve themselves and attain complete victory.

“Perceiving a victory that does not surpass what the masses could know is not the pinnacle of excellence. Wrestling victories for which All under Heaven proclaim your excellence is not the pinnacle of excellence.

“Thus lifting an autumn hare cannot be considered great strength; seeing the sun and moon cannot be considered acute vision; hearing the sound of thunder cannot be considered having sensitive ears.

“Those that the ancients referred to as excelling at warfare conquered those who were easy to conquer. Thus the victories of those that excelled in warfare were not marked by fame for wisdom or courageous achievement. …

Doing the obvious, defeating the weak and seeing that which is in clear sight is not an indication of excellence regardless of what others may believe.

… Thus their victories were free from errors. One who is free from errors directs his measures toward victory, conquering those who are already defeated.

“Thus one who excels at warfare first establishes himself in a position where he cannot be defeated while not losing [any opportunity] to defeat the enemy.

“For this reason, the victorious army first realises the conditions for victory, and then seeks to engage in battle. The vanquished army fights first, and then seeks victory.

The vanquished army fights not for victory but to prevent the ‘victorious’ army actually achieving victory. It may be that by using this argument the vanquished argument cannot achieve victory until such time as it has effectively prevented the enemy from achieving victory itself. This may sound tautologious however it clarifies a faulty reading of the above that may suggest that an army facing defeat could by some force of arms achieve a victory without first dealing with the conditions that present the opposing army with its victorious state.

“One who excels at employing the military cultivates the Tao and preserves the laws; therefore, he is able to be the regulator of victory and defeat.

“As for military methods: the first is termed measurement; the second, estimation [of forces]; the third, calculation [of numbers of men]; the fourth, weighing [relative strength] and the fifth, victory.

“Terrain gives birth to measurement; measurement produces the estimation [of forces]. Estimation [of forces] gives rise to calculating [the numbers of men]. Calculating [the numbers of men] gives rise to weighing [strength]. Weighing [strength] gives birth to victory.

“Thus the victorious army is like a ton compared with an ounce, while the defeated army is like an ounce weighed against a ton! The combat of the victorious is like the sudden release of a pent up torrent down a thousand fathom gorge. This is the strategic disposition of force.”

Advantages of terrain, advantages in numbers and so forth are insufficient to gain victory, opposing strengths have to be carefully considered and thus troops of an inferior force can be deployed in a manner that achieves a local superiority and in a manner that guarantee’s victory.


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