The Art of War by James Clavell

  Camp in high places facing the sun. Not on high hills, but on knolls or hillocks elevated about the surrounding country. Do not climb heights in order to fight.

  After crossing a river, get far away from it. When an invading force crosses a river in its onward march, do not advance to meet it in midstream. It will be best to let half the army get across, and then deliver your attack.

  Li Ch’uan alludes to the great victory won by Han Hsin over Lung Chu at the Wei River in about 100 B.C.: “The two armies were drawn up on opposite sides of the river. In the night, Han Hsin ordered his men to take some ten thousand sacks filled with sand and construct a dam a little higher up. Then, leading half his army across, he attacked Lung Chu; but after a time, pretending to have failed in his attempt, he hastily withdrew to the other bank. Lung Chu was much elated by this unlooked-for success, and exclaiming, ‘I felt sure that Han Hsin was really a coward!’ he pursued him and began crossing the river in his turn. Han Hsin now sent a party to cut open the sandbags, thus releasing a great volume of water, which swept down and prevented the greater portion of Lung Chu’s army from getting across. He then turned upon the force which had been cut off, and annihilated it, Lung Chu himself being among the slain. The rest of the army, on the farther bank, also scattered and fled in all directions.”

  If you are anxious to fight, do not go to meet the invader near a river he has to cross. Instead, moor your craft higher up than the enemy, and facing the sun. Do not move upstream to meet the enemy. Our fleet must not be anchored below that of the enemy, for then they would be able to take advantage of the current and make short work of you.

  In crossing salt marshes, your sole concern should be to get over them quickly, without any delay, because of the lack of fresh water, the poor quality of the herbage, and last but not least, because they are low, flat, and exposed to attack. If forced to fight in a salt marsh, you should have water and grass near you, and get your back to a clump of trees.

  In dry, level country, take up an easily accessible position with rising ground to your right and on your rear, so that the danger may be in front, and safety lie behind.

  All armies prefer high ground to low, and sunny places to dark. Low ground is not only damp and unhealthy, but also disadvantageous for fighting. If you are careful of your men, and camp on hard ground, your army will be free from disease of every kind, and this will spell victory.

  When you come to a hill or a bank, occupy the sunny side, with the slope on your right rear. It will be better for your soldiers and utilize the natural advantages of the ground.

  When, in consequence of heavy rains up-country, a river which you wish to ford is swollen and flecked with foam, wait until it subsides. Country in which there are precipitous cliffs with torrents running between, deep natural hollows, confined places, tangled thickets, quagmires, and crevasses, should not be approached or else left with all possible speed. While we keep away from such places, we should get the enemy to approach them; while we face them, we should let the enemy have them on his rear.

  If in the neighborhood of your camp there should be any hilly country, ponds surrounded by aquatic grass, hollow basins filled with reeds, or woods with thick undergrowth, they must be carefully routed out and searched; for these are places where men in ambush or insidious spies are likely to be lurking.

  When the enemy is close at hand and remains quiet, he is relying on the natural strength of his position. When he keeps aloof and tries to provoke a battle, he is anxious for the other side to advance. If his place of encampment is easy of access, he is tendering a bait.

  Movement among the trees of a forest shows that the enemy is advancing. If a scout sees that the trees of a forest are moving and shaking, he may know that they are being cut down to clear a passage for the enemy’s march. The appearance of a number of screens in the midst of thick grass means that the enemy wants to make us suspicious.

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

  When there is dust rising in a high column, it is the sign of chariots advancing; when the dust is low, and spread over a wide area, it betokens the approach of infantry. When it branches out in different directions, it shows that parties have been sent to collect firewood. A few clouds of dust moving to and fro signify that the army is encamping.

  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. When the light chariots come out first and take up a position on the wings, it is a sign that the enemy is forming for battle. Peace proposals unaccompanied by a sworn covenant indicate a plot. When there is much running about and the soldiers fall into rank, it means that the critical moment has come. When some are seen advancing and some retreating, it is a lure.

  In 279 B.C. T’ien Tan of the Ch’i state was hard pressed in his defense of Chi-mo against the Yen forces, led by Ch’i Chieh.

  T’ien Tan openly said: “My only fear is that the Yen army may cut off the noses of their Ch’i prisoners and place them in the front rank to fight against us; that would be the undoing of our city.”

  The other side, being informed of this speech, at once acted on the suggestion; but those within the city were enraged at seeing their fellow countrymen thus mutilated, and fearing only lest they should fall into the enemy’s hands, were nerved to defend themselves more obstinately than ever.

  Once again T’ien Tan sent back converted spies who reported these words to the enemy: “What I dread most is that the men of Yen may dig up the ancestral tombs outside the town, and by inflicting this indignity on our forefathers cause us to become fainthearted.”

  Forthwith the besiegers dug up all the graves and burned the corpses lying in them. And the inhabitants of Chi-mo, witnessing the outrage from the city walls, wept passionately and were all impatient to go out and fight, their fury being increased tenfold.

  T’ien Tan knew then that his soldiers were ready for any enterprise. But instead of a sword, he himself took a mattock in his hands, and ordered others to be distributed among his best warriors, while the ranks were filled up with their wives and concubines. He then served out all the remaining rations and bade his men eat their fill. The regular soldiers were told to keep out of sight, and the walls were manned with the old and weaker men and with women. This done, envoys were dispatched to the enemy’s camp to arrange terms of surrender, whereupon the Yen army began shouting for joy. T’ien Tan also collected 20,000 ounces of silver from the people, and got the wealthy citizens of Chi-mo to send it to the Yen general with the prayer that, when the town capitulated, he would not allow their homes to be plundered or their women to be maltreated.

  Ch’i Chieh, in high good humor, granted their prayer, but his army now became increasingly slack and careless. Meanwhile, T’ien Tan got together a thousand oxen, decked them with pieces of red silk, painted their bodies, dragonlike, with colored stripes, and fastened sharp blades on their horns and well-greased rushes on their tails. When night came on, he lighted the ends of the rushes and drove the oxen through a number of holes that he had pierced in the walls, backing them up with a force of 5,000 picked warriors. The animals, maddened with pain, dashed furiously into the enemy’s camp, where they caused the utmost confusion and dismay; for their tails acted as torches, showing up the hideous pattern on their bodies, and the weapons on their horns killed or wounded any with whom they came into contact. In the meantime, the band of 5,000 had crept up with gags in their mouths, and now threw themselves on the enemy. At the same moment a frightful din arose in the city itself, all those that remained behind making as much noise as possible by banging drums and hammering on bronze vessels, until heaven and earth were convulsed by the uproar.

  Terror-stricken, the Yen army fled in disorder, hotly pursued by the men of Ch’i, who succeeded in slaying their general, Ch’i Chieh. The result of the battle was
the ultimate recovery of some seventy cities that had belonged to the Ch’i state.

  When the soldiers stand leaning on their spears, they are faint from want of food. If those who are sent to draw water begin by themselves drinking, the army is suffering from thirst. If the enemy sees an advantage to be gained and makes no effort to secure it, the soldiers are exhausted.

  If birds gather on any spot, it is unoccupied: a useful way to tell that the enemy has secretly abandoned his camp.

  Clamor by night betokens nervousness. Fear makes men restless, so they fall to shouting at night in order to keep up their courage. If there is disturbance in the camp, the general’s authority is weak. If the banners and flags are shifted about, sedition is afoot. If the officers are angry, it means that the men are weary.

  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 campfires, showing that they will not return to their tents, you may know that they are determined to fight to the death.

  The rebel Wang Kuo of Liang was besieging the town of Ch’en-ts’ang, and Huang-fu Sung, who was in supreme command, and Tung Cho were sent out against him. Tung Cho pressed for hasty measures, but Sung turned a deaf ear to his counsel. At last the rebels were utterly worn out, and began to throw down their weapons of their own accord.

  Sung was now for advancing to the attack, but Cho said: “It is a principle of war not to pursue desperate men and not to press a retreating host.”

  Sung answered: “That does not apply here. What I am about to attack is a jaded army, not a retreating host; with disciplined troops I am falling on a disorganized multitude, not a band of desperate men.” Thereupon he advanced to the attack, unsupported by his colleague, and routed the enemy, Wang Kuo being slain.

  When envoys are sent with compliments in their mouths, it is a sign that the enemy wishes for a truce. If the enemy’s troops march up angrily and remain facing ours for a long time without either joining battle or removing demands, the situation is one that requires great vigilance and circumspection.

  To begin by bluster, but afterward to take fright at the enemy’s numbers, shows a supreme lack of intelligence.

  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.

  The sight of men whispering together in small knots or speaking in subdued tones points to disaffection among the rank and file. Too frequent rewards signify that the enemy is at the end of his resources, for when an army is hard pressed, there is always a fear of mutiny, and lavish rewards are given to keep the men in good temper. Too many punishments betray a condition of dire distress, because in such case discipline becomes relaxed, and unwonted severity is necessary to keep the men to their duty.

  If soldiers are punished before they have grown attached to you, they will not prove submissive; and, unless submissive, they will be practically useless. If, when the soldiers have become attached to you, punishments are not enforced, they will still be useless. Therefore soldiers must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline. This is a certain road to victory.

  Yen Tzu (493 B.C.) said of Ssu-ma Jang-chu: “His civil virtues endeared him to the people; his martial prowess kept his enemies in awe. The ideal commander unites culture with a warlike temper; the profession of arms requires a combination of hardness and tenderness.”

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

  If a general shows confidence in his men but always insists on his orders being obeyed, the gain will be mutual. The art of giving orders is not to try to rectify the minor blunders and not to be swayed by petty doubts. Vacillation and fussiness are the surest means of sapping the confidence of an army.


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  We may distinguish six kinds of terrain: accessible ground, entangling ground, temporizing ground, narrow passes, precipitous heights, positions at a great distance from the enemy.

  Ground that can be freely traversed by both sides is called accessible. With ground of this nature, beat the enemy in occupying the raised and sunny spots, and carefully guard your line of supplies. Then you will be able to fight with advantage.

  Ground that can be abandoned but is hard to reoccupy is called entangling. From a position of this sort, if the enemy is unprepared, you may sally forth and defeat him. But if the enemy is prepared for your coming, and you fail to defeat him, then, return being impossible, disaster will ensue.

  When the position is such that neither side will gain by making the first move, it is called temporizing ground, and the situation remains at a deadlock. In a position of this sort, even though the enemy should offer an attractive bait, it will be advisable not to stir forth, but rather to retreat, thus enticing the enemy in his turn; then, when part of his army has come out, you may deliver your attack with advantage.

  With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy. Should the enemy forestall you in occupying a pass, do not go after him if the pass is fully garrisoned, but only if it is weakly garrisoned.

  With regard to precipitous heights, if you precede your adversary, occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up.

  Chang Yu tells the following anecdote of P’ei Hsing-chien (A.D. 619–682), who was sent on a punitive expedition against the Turkic tribes.

  At nightfall he pitched his camp as usual, and it had already been completely fortified by wall and ditch when suddenly he gave orders that the army should shift its quarters to a hill nearby. This was highly displeasing to his officers, who protested loudly against the extra fatigue that it would entail on the men. P’ei Hsing-chien, however, paid no heed to their remonstrances and had the camp moved as quickly as possible. The same night, a terrific storm came on, which flooded their former place of encampment to the depth of over twelve feet. The recalcitrant officers were amazed at the sight, and owned that they had been in the wrong.

  “How did you know what was going to happen?” they asked.

  P’ei Hsing-chien replied: “From this time forward be content to obey orders without asking unnecessary questions.”

  Remember, if the enemy has occupied precipitous heights before you, do not follow him, but retreat and try to entice him away.

  With regard to positions at a great distance from the enemy, if the strength of the two armies is equal, it is not easy to provoke a battle, and fighting will be to your disadvantage.

  Sometimes an army is exposed to calamities, not arising from natural causes, but from faults for which the general is responsible. These are: flight; insubordination; collapse; ruin; disorganization; rout.

  Other conditions being equal, if one force is hurled against another ten times its size, the result will be the flight of the former.

  When the common soldiers are too strong and their officers too weak, the result is insubordination.

  Tu Mu cites the unhappy case of T’ien Pu, who was sent to Wei in A.D. 821 with orders to lead an army against Wang T’ing-ts’ou. But the whole time he was in command, his soldiers treated him with the utmost contempt, and openly flouted his authority by riding about the camp on donkeys, several thousand at a time. T’ien Pu was powerless to put a stop to this conduct, and when, after some months had passed, he made an attempt to engage the enemy, his troops turned tail and dispersed in every direction. After that, the unfortunate man committed suicide by cutting his throat.

  When the officers are too strong and the common soldiers too weak, the result is collapse.

  When the higher officers are angry and insubordinate, and on meeting the enemy give battle on their own account from a feeling of resentment, before the com
mander in chief can tell whether or not he is in a position to fight, the result is ruin.

  When the general is weak and without authority; when his orders are not clear and distinct; when there are no fixed duties assigned to officers and men, and the ranks are formed in a slovenly, haphazard manner, the result is utter disorganization.

  When a general, unable to estimate the enemy’s strength, allows an inferior force to engage a larger one, or hurls a weak detachment against a powerful one, and neglects to place picked soldiers in the front rank, the result must be a rout.

  These are the six ways of courting defeat—neglect to estimate the enemy’s strength; want of authority; defective training; unjustifiable anger; nonobservance of discipline; failure to use picked men—all of which must be carefully noted by the general who has attained a responsible post.

  The natural formation of the country is the soldier’s best ally; but a power of estimating the adversary, of controlling the forces of victory, and of shrewdly calculating difficulties, dangers, and distances, constitutes the test of a great general. He who knows these things, and in fighting puts his knowledge into practice, will win his battles. He who knows them not, nor practices them, will surely be defeated.

  If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight, even though the ruler forbid it; if fighting will not result in victory, then you must not fight, even at the ruler’s bidding.

  The general who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom.

  Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.

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