Fighting Smart. A Lesson from Sun Tzu

Posted by Barry Strauss under on April 12, 2023

Winning is hard. Minimizing the energy needed to win is even harder, but it can be all important, especially in war. You want to win the battle but not if it leaves you too exhausted to reap the fruits of victory.

Few understand this better than the master of strategy, Sun Tzu. He wrote the famous ancient Chinese military manual, The Art of War. It’s a short book but rich in lessons.

Sun Tzu recognizes that there are many ways to win, but the very best way, he writes, is to defeat the enemy without fighting. That is, to maneuver him into a position where his resistance is futile. If he recognizes this he will surrender, but if he chooses to fight, he is sure to be overcome.

But how do you get your opponent into this position? By mastering the art of strategy and applying it beforehand. The background to strategic success is taking the other side into account. Winning is not just a matter of what you bring to the battle: you’ve got to know what the enemy is bringing to the field.

Once you assess your opponent, says Sun Tzu, you then ought to trick him. Deception, he writes, is crucial. He then refers to two additional ideas that help guide the way. One, hsing, means “strategic positioning.” A simple example would be occupying the high ground and forcing the enemy to fight uphill.

The other idea is shih. Harder to translate, shih has been rendered by different scholars as “strategic advantage,” “potential energy,” or “propensity” (that is, the tendency or inclination to do something). Sun Tzu compares shih to a crossbow. By using a simple bow, a strong archer can shoot an arrow with force. But a crossbow is a force multiplier. It has much greater potential energy and gives the archer an advantage. That’s how shih works.

Winning is not just a matter of what you bring to the battle: you’ve got to know what the enemy is bringing to the field.

Military history offers some examples. At the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, the Greek master strategist Themistocles deceived the Persian enemy into fighting in a narrow body of water. He convinced them that he was ready to turn traitor; all they had to do was to come get his ships. But he was lying, and the Persians were stuck having to fight in a tight space where they couldn’t use their superiority in numbers. Without meaning to do so, the Persians multiplied the force of the smaller Greek fleet. The Greeks won the battle and, eventually, the war.

At the Battle of Hattin in 1187, the Muslim commander Saladin lured a strong Crusader army into marching across waterless terrain on a blazing hot summer day and then taking shelter on a hill that looked impregnable from one direction, but which was quite accessible from the other. Much against their will, the Crusaders threw away their strength and gave the advantage to the enemy. Saladin won a great victory and soon after took the ultimate prize, Jerusalem.

In the D-Day invasion in 1944, the Allies lured the Germans into thinking they planned their major landing around Calais, on the northernmost French coast. They deployed a phony army in northern England, supposedly under the command of U.S. General George Patton. Their real goal, of course, was Normandy, further to the south. The Germans took the bait and held back their tanks in reserve instead of deploying them to the front in Normandy, where they could have done major damage to the landing. Once again, a shrewd strategy allowed an attacker to multiply his force.

Themistocles, Saladin, and the Allies. Perhaps none of them read Sun Tzu, but they each followed a playbook that he would have approved of. Deception and strategic positioning allowed each of them to maximize his potential energy with a minimum of effort. They each gained the strategic advantage and won the battle. It’s true that the enemy didn’t simply surrender without fighting in any of these cases, but that's sort of a checkmate rarely happens in real life.

Once you have the enemy where you want him, you can then maximize the pressure you can apply while minimizing the effort needed.

There’s a lesson here for today’s leaders, whether in warfare, statecraft, business, or any walk of life. You can win a battle simply by coming out swinging and hitting hard, but you’re likely to take a lot of hits in the process, and you run the risk of losing. A much better strategy is to take the enemy into account and to try to maneuver him into a weak position. Deception is usually a key tool in that regard. Once you have the enemy where you want him, you can then maximize the pressure you can apply while minimizing the effort needed. You may even find that your opponent is ready to fold without putting up a fight.

How can you master the art of shih or strategic advantage? Ask yourself that question. With some soul searching, you may find yourself taking your game up to a new level.

If you have to fight, fight smart.

Barry Strauss © 2023