Chapter Three of the Art of War, by Sun Tze, is only Eighteen Lines. This writer has added only a few comments, which are in Italics.
III. Attack by Stratagem
1. In the practice of the Art of War, it is best is to capture an Enemy’s resistance without fighting, and capture an entire Nation whole and intact; it is not as good to shatter and destroy it. Additionally, it is better to recapture an entire Army than to destroy it, to capture an entire Regiment, Detachment or Company, than to destroy them.An “entire Army”, in Sun Tze’s Day, would have been about 12,500 men, a Regiment, about 500, and a Detachment, about 100. Again, Sun Tze is promoting alternative solutions to battle.
2. Therefore, it is not supreme excellence to fight and conquer in all your battles; supreme excellence consists in breaking the Enemy's resistance without fighting.
Not many Generals have successfully pulled this off.
3. Thus, the highest form of Generalship is to attack before the Enemy's completes planning; the next best is to disrupt the junction of the Enemy's forces; the next in order is to attack the Enemy's Army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.
Some commentators have stated, that this passage implies preemptive action. In the Modern Era, we no longer have walled cities, of course, but we may interpret this as a call to caution.
4. The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided. The preparation of barricades, movable shelters, and various implements of war, will take up three whole months; and the piling up of mounds over against the walls will take three months more.
Again, we have a warning against a prolonged siege.
5. The General, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to the assault like swarming ants, with the result that one-third of his men are slain, while the town still remains untaken. Such are the disastrous effects of a siege.
Sun Tze is prepared to offer an alternative.
6. Therefore the skillful leader subdues the Enemy's troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their Kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.
This implies taking the Government by subterfuge.
7. With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is the method of attacking by stratagem.
There are many modern examples of this stratagem. We call it “Guerilla Warfare”.
8. It is the rule in war, if our forces are ten to the Enemy's one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him; if twice as numerous, to divide our Army into two.
9. If equally matched, we can offer battle; if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the Enemy; if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him.
In Shakespeare’s “Henry the IV”, Part 1, Act 5, scene 4, Falstaff says, in part,
The better part of valor is discretion, in the which better part I have sav'd my life.
10. Hence, though an obstinate fight may be made by a small force, in the end it must be captured by the larger force.
The Battle of Thermopylae , a bizarre exception to this Rule, took place in Greece less than One Hundred Years after Sun Tze’s passing into Legend.
11. Strong is the State that Supports its Generals; weak is the State, that does not support its Generals.
12. There are three ways in which a Sovereign can bring misfortune upon his Army:
13. (1) By commanding the Army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey. This is called hobbling the Army.
14. (2) By attempting to govern an Army in the same way as he administers a Kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an Army. This causes restlessness in the soldier's minds.
15. (3) By employing the officers of his Army without discrimination, through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to circumstances. This shakes the confidence of the soldiers.
16. But when the Army is confused and distrustful, trouble is sure to come from the other feudal princes. This is simply bringing anarchy into the Army, and flinging victory away.
Notice that this is good advice in Life. One’s Higher Self must allow the Lower Self to function.
17. Thus we may know that there are five essentials for victory: (1) He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight. (2) He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces. (3) He will win whose Army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks. (4) He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the Enemy unprepared. (5) He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the Sovereign.
18. Hence the saying: If you know the Enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the Enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the Enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Lao Tze, in the Thirty-Third Chapter of the Tao Te Ching, said something very similar.
33.1 To know others is to possess Wisdom, however, to know oneself is to possess Enlightenment.
33.2 To overcome others is possess Strength, however, to overcome oneself is to possess Power.
33.3 To be content is to possess Wealth, however, to continue persevering is to possess Will.
33.4 To adapt to one’s environment is to endure, however, to die without perishing is to be able to live forever.