XI. The Nine Positions

[Note: The eleventh chapter of The Art of War is considerably more disjointed than the rest of the book. The chapter also covers many of the same topics already covered in earlier chapters. Scholars speculate that this chapter represents earlier texts that have been blended into Sun Tzu's text over time.]

These are the words of Master Sun:

There are nine positions in which a commander may find himself:

  1. A dispersive position
  2. A simple position
  3. A contested position
  4. An open position
  5. A crossroads position
  6. A perilous position
  7. A difficult position
  8. A constricted position
  9. A deadly position

When a sovereign is forced to fight in his own realm, he is caught in a position that disperses his troops. When a sovereign has invaded the realm of the enemy, he finds himself in a simple position. If the control of a specific location will confer great advantages, this position will be contested. Terrain that allows all combatants free range of motion will create an open position. An area whose central characteristic is the meeting of three main roads such that the area becomes the key to three adjoining states is a crossroads position. Conquering a crossroads position is the first step towards controlling the entire Realm. An army that has penetrated to the heart of an enemy state but has left a number of fortified cities uncontested at its rear has brought itself into a perilous position. Mountainous forests and weathered steppes, as well as marshes and bogs, make for difficult positions. Narrow canyons where escape can only be found by following strenuous paths make for constricted positions; here our army is at risk of being destroyed by a small enemy force. A position where only desperate fighting may save us is called a deadly position.

In a dispersive position you should retreat and gather your strength. Conversely, you should never halt your attack in a simple position. Never attack a contested position. Never try to block the movement of the enemy in an open position. Link up with your allies if you find yourself in a crossroads position. In a perilous position you should order your army to pillage. In a difficult position you must never stop moving. In a constricted position you must rely on cunning and stratagems. In a deadly position all you can do is fight.

In the past a commander was recognized as skilled if he knew how to drive a wedge between the vanguard and rearguard of the enemy, how to thwart the cooperation of the enemy's large and small units, how to block the enemy's best troops from helping his weakest troops, and how to stop the officers of the enemy from bringing order to the ranks of his army. Even when the enemy's army was linked up, a skilled commander of the past had to know how to sow confusion in the mind of the enemy. Such commanders knew that they needed to push ahead when they had an advantage over the enemy and to stop when their advantage ceased.

If you were to ask, "How do you handle a large enemy force that is perfectly ordered and about to attack?" my answer would be this: "Take control of something which the enemy values greatly, and he will become subject to your will."

Haste is of great importance in war. Exploit your advantage if the enemy is illprepared. Arrive with great speed by unexpected means. Attack unguarded sites.

These are the principles for invasion: As an army advances into a foreign land it will steadily grow in solidarity and camaraderie. The defenders of the foreign land will therefore soon be hard pressed to defend against the advancing invasion force. An invading army should seek out fertile land and gather supplies there.

You should always be fully attuned to the well-being of your troops so as to never overextend your army. Focus their energy and muster their strength while you conceive inscrutable plans for moving against the enemy.

Bring your troops into positions from which there is no escape, and they will fight rather than try to take flight. When your soldiers are faced with death, they will achieve great things. Officers and the rank-and-file will jointly muster all of their strength. When there is no escape, a soldier will lose his sense of danger; when there is no refuge, he will stand firm. In enemy territory your army will become a stalwart whole. Your men will fight their hardest when there is no help to be had from friendly forces.

Soldiers caught in such a grave situation will be on constant alert without your intervention. They will follow your orders before you give them. They will be loyal and steadfast without hesitation.

Forbid the taking of omens and talk of prophecies, and ban all other superstitious sources of doubt. You will hereby eradicate needless fear.

A soldier may not own many things. This does not mean that he detests riches. Likewise, a soldier may not live very long. This does not mean that he abhors the thought of living a long life.

Your soldiers will cry on the day they are called upon to go to battle. Some will wet their garments, and others will let tears stream down their faces as they lie on their backs. However, once they have stood on the front line they will be as brave as Chuan Chu or Ts'ao Kuei [heroic figures of Sun Tzu's time].

A skilled tactician is comparable to a Shuai-jan, a type of snake that may be found in the Ch'ang Mountains [here Sun Tzu is likely referring to Mount Heng. The name, however, has been changed by an early transcriber out of deference to Emperor Wen of Han, whose personal name was Liu Heng]. If you strike at its head, it will attack you with its tail, and if you attack its tail, its head will strike at you. Attack its middle and you will face both its head and tail. An army may be made to act like a Shuai-jan.

Men from the state of Wu and men from the state of Yue are great enemies, but if they are put on a boat together with the purpose of crossing a river and suddenly find themselves caught in a storm, they will soon help each other just as the left hand helps the right.

It is not enough to simply tether your horses and bury the wheels of your chariots in the ground [for the purpose of defense]. You have to adopt a single standard of courage that applies to all. This is the guiding principle of managing an army.

Exploiting the terrain to your advantage will serve you well, no matter the strength of the army you lead.

A wise commander commands his army in the same way he would command a single man, willing or otherwise.

It is the duty of those in command to behave in a serene and dignified manner and thus ensure secrecy. A man in command must act in a fair and upright manner and in this way maintain order. He must also keep his officers and his men in the dark about his plans so that they are not revealed to the enemy. This is done by feeding the men of the army half-truths and falsehoods and by keeping them ignorant of the commander's true designs.

The enemy must not be allowed to obtain certainty about your plans. A wise commander thus changes his disposition and plans often. By moving camps frequently and employing meandering routes, the wise commander thwarts the enemy's attempts to anticipate his moves.

When the critical moment arrives, the commander must act like a mountaineer who scales a tall cliff and throws his ladder away. He must lead his men deep into enemy territory before he reveals his plans. He must burn the army's boats and have his men destroy their cooking pots [thus making defeating the enemy and taking their cookware the only option]. He must be like a shepherd; he must drive his men forward like sheep that do not know the way.

To unit a group of men and lead them into danger - that is the purpose of a commander.

Suitable tactics for each of the nine positions, the effectiveness of either offensive or defensive tactics, and the immutable laws of human nature: these are all things that should be studied carefully.

When you invade enemy territory, the main principle is this: to penetrate deeply into enemy territory unites the army, while to merely reach the outskirts of enemy territory promotes discord within the army.

When you leave behind the borders of your own state and lead your army through neighboring states, you bring yourself into a perilous position. If you find that there are means of communication available to you on all sides, you can think of yourself as being in a crossroads position. When you press deep into an enemy state, you bring your army into a difficult position. If you have only pressed slightly into enemy territory, you have brought your army into a simple position. When you find yourself faced with strong enemy fortifications on your rear and only narrow mountain passes ahead, you have been caught in a constricted position. When no places of refuge are available to you, you are in a deadly position.

My advice is this: In a dispersive position, I would inspire my army by uniting it with a common objective. In a simple position, I would make sure to keep all parts of my army tightly linked. In a contested position, I would hurry the rearguard. In an open position, I would watch my defense very closely. In a crossroads position, I would work to strengthen my alliances. If caught in a perilous position, I would work to secure steady supplies for my army. In a constricted position, I would work to close off all of the enemy's routes of escape. In a deadly position, I would press upon my troops the hopelessness of the situation, as it is the nature of any soldier to resist doggedly when he is surrounded, to fight bravely when there is no help to be found, and to obey any command given to him when danger is inescapable.

No worthwhile commander will be ignorant about these general principles.

A sovereign who strives to conquer the whole Realm demonstrates his prowess by sowing disunity between his enemies. He plants the seeds of fear in the heart of his enemy, and he thwarts the allies of his enemy from providing aid. He does not strive to make allies that are not worthwhile, and he refrains from helping other states gain strength. He puts secret plans into motion and keeps his enemies at bay. In this manner, he conquers cities and lays waste to foreign kingdoms.

Distribute loot without regard for customary rules. Issue orders without regard for previous commands. Thus you will be able to lead an army as if it was only a single man. Give your troops specific orders and concrete jobs, but never reveal your plans to them. Make favorable events known, but keep gloomy prospects secret. Subject your army to mortal danger and it will survive; bring desperate circumstances upon it and it will come through for you. It is precisely when the peril is greatest that your army will deliver you victory.

Success in war is attained by carefully adapting to the objective of the enemy.

Focus your energy on your enemy, and you will be able to kill the enemy commander at a distance of three hundred miles. This is done by securing your victory in advance through deception and clever stratagems and by knowing the plans of your enemy. The wise commander has the ability to complete an objective in this way simply by using deception.

On the day you assume command, you must close all border crossings and burn all passports. No envoys must be allowed to travel through your state. In the privy council you must be ruthless to ensure that you are in control.

If the enemy leaves a door open, burst in.

Anticipate your enemy by taking something that is valuable to him, and then carefully plan for his arrival. Follow the prevailing rules, adapt to the actions of the enemy, and wait patiently for the moment where a decisive blow may be landed. Act like a shy young girl until the enemy exposes himself, and then move swiftly like a hare, and it will be too late for the enemy to stand against you.