VIII. Tactical Variations

These are the words of Master Sun:

[1] Do not make camp in difficult terrain. [2] Join with allies when you are in a district where important roads meet. [3] Do not remain in an isolated and dangerous position. [4] If you have been encircled, you must use deception. [5] In a desperate situation, you must fight [Sun Tzu does not number the above list of instructions. It has been numbered here for clarity; see below].

There are roads that should not be walked, armies that should not be attacked, cities that should not be besieged, territories not worth fighting for, and orders that you should not obey.

The commander who understands fully how to employ tactical variations understands how to lead troops. The commander who does not understand tactical variations will not be able to adapt his knowledge of military strategy even to known terrain. The commander who is acquainted with the five advantages [it is unclear what Sun Tzu is referring to here, but it is likely the five situations listed in the first paragraph of this chapter, cf. the numbers in the square brackets above], yet is unwilling to change his plans according to them, cannot deploy his troops to their full effect.

A wise commander's planning will involve contemplations of both advantages and disadvantages of a course of action. In this way, he will temper his expectations and make the completion of the most essential parts of his assignment more likely. If he is always ready to exploit his advantage when he finds himself in difficult situations, he will always be able to save himself.

Weaken enemy sovereigns by inflicting destruction upon them; cause them problems and exhaust them; keep them constantly engaged; put out tempting lures and get them to move without purpose.

The art of war teaches us that we cannot allow ourselves to believe that the enemy will not attack. Rather, we must prepare for when he does move against us. We cannot rely on the possibility that the enemy will not move against us. Instead, we must make ourselves unassailable.

A commander may be affected by five dangerous faults:

  1. He can be foolhardy, which leads to destruction.
  2. He can be cowardly, which leads to capture by the enemy.
  3. He can be reckless and short-tempered, which makes him easy to provoke.
  4. He can be proud, which makes him easily shamed by the enemy.
  5. He can be too friendly with his troop, which exposes him to trouble and worry.

These five faults are disastrous when waging war. Whenever an army is defeated and its commander slain, the reason can be found among these five faults. You should therefore study them closely.

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