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Sun Tzu and The Art of War

by Tim Hoyt




"War is a vital matter of state. It is the field on which life or death is determined and the road that leads to either survival or ruin, and must be examined with the greatest care." (Chapter 1).

The Art of War represents the earliest existing codification of military and political strategy, and is probably the most widely-read work on strategy in history. (It helps, of course, that the book comes from China, which is undoubtedly the most widely-populated country in history, and which has a long literary tradition.) Sun Tzu's book is widely studied by the business and military communities today. At least seven different translations appeared in the last two decades alone, including an "official" copy of the version used by the People's Liberation Army complete with Marxist dialectic and critique (I know this because I have them on my desk. Isn't it great, being weird and obsessive?)

Historical information regarding Sun Tzu is spotty, and complicated by the existence of a separate text by Sun Pin (apparently a descendant) which is also titled The Art of War (to be examined, perhaps, in a later article). The oldest Chinese historical records indicate the Sun Tzu lived at the end of the so-called Spring and Autumn Period (703-481 B.C.). During this period, the ruling Chou Dynasty gradually collapsed, and power drifted into the hands of increasingly independent provincial nobles. As these nobles contested for power and influence, China became divided into approximately a half-dozen to a dozen sizeable "kingdoms". The Period of the Warring States (403-221 B.C.) marked the struggles of the largest of these kingdoms to destroy their enemies and unify China. This period represents the closest parallel in the Asian world to the kinds of "balance of power" politics that dominated Europe from the 18th-20th centuries, and which form the basis of Diplomacy and, coincidentally, much of modern international relations theory.

Sun Tzu was a contemporary of Confucius (who lived from 551-479 B.C.). The tone of the text, which may easily be read as an exercise in Taoist philosophy, is profoundly influenced by both the increasing violence of the end of the Spring and Autumn period and by changes in the prevailing military technology. Warfare was changing from an aristocratic monopoly to a profession, and the "butcher's bills" in battle were increasing from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands. The perfection of an "art of strategy" which would minimize the disruption and social cost of increasingly terrible and bloody wars was clearly desirable. The Art of War consistently indicates a marked dislike for warfare. The height of strategy is not to subdue the enemy in battle, but to subdue him without fighting at all. Sun Tzu, unlike many Western analysts, focuses on the period before the war begins as a principle realm for strategy. This pre-war period requires deft manipulation of friends and enemies during the mobilization of military forces, stockpiling of logistic requirements for the initial campaigns, and other preparations for war. Sun Tzu, therefore, pays particular attention to deceit and diplomacy: two topics that should be close to the heart of any serious Diplomacy player.

"...the best military policy is to attack strategies; the next to attack alliances; the next to attack soldiers..."(Chapter 3)

There's a reason that Diplomacy recommends an extra-long period of diplomacy before the first turn. This is the period when most, if not all, players formulate their basic strategies for the game. These strategies may or may not be formulated in cooperation with allies, but in any event they require outside assistance to have any chance of succeeding. Attacking enemy strategies still requires a strategy of your own: who is likely to be your enemy? Who do you want as an ally? How can you get them on your side? A simple method is to attack a fellow-neighbor's strategy. You don't even have to tell the truth, as long as you're persuasive. "Doug? Doug Kent? He ALWAYS attacks France when he plays Britain. He's been after me as an ally from the word go, but I just don't trust him. Germany and France are natural allies..." Denying an opponent allies at the beginning of the game is the best way of putting him in a position where you can destroy him.

"A government should not mobilize its army out of anger...Act when it is beneficial; desist when it is not. Anger can revert to joy, wrath can revert to delight, but a nation destroyed cannot be restored to its existence, and the dead cannot be brought back to life." (Chapter Twelve)

"The individualist without strategy who takes opponents lightly will inevitably become the captive of others."(Chapter Nine)

This is the essence of competitive Diplomacy play. ALWAYS have a strategy. While no strategy is perfect, in the absence of one you are simply floundering around the board waiting for someone to get organized enough to attack you and take you over. Recognize that no strategy is perfect: there are simply too many variables, many of which reside in the individual psyches of your fellow-players, to plan for everything. Remember to be flexible, too: plans change, allies stab or are stabbed, former enemies may become fast friends or useful tools. And remember that your enemies have strategies, too.

"In ancient times, skillful warriors made themselves invincible, and then watched for vulnerability in their opponent. Invincibility is in oneself; vulnerability is in the opponent. Therefore skillful warriors are able to make themselves invincible, but they cannot cause vulnerability in an opponent." (Chapter Four)

The ugly truth is that you can't force someone to be vulnerable. You can, however, sometimes persuade them to weaken themselves. If you can't get them to weaken themselves, and you decide to attack them anyway, be prepared for a long war (see below).

"Warfare is the art of deceit. Therefore, when able, seem to be unable; when ready, seem unready; when near-by, seem far away; and when far-away, seem near. If the enemy seeks some advantage, entice him with it...Attack where he is not prepared: go by way of places where it would never occur to him you would go." (Chapter 1)

Like it or not, treachery and deceit dominate the game of Diplomacy. Players spend most of their time figuring out when and who to trust. Deceiving your opponent is particularly critical just before the stab. Always have an excuse ready, and try not to make the pre-stab move too obvious. Think a turn or two ahead, and come up with clever and nasty combinations. Naturally, you don't have to worry about this if you have lots of pieces and no enemies. But for those of us not graced with those conditions, deceit is a wonderful way to assist our neighbors in becoming vulnerable.

Deceit is not lying: it is more sleight of hand, or, if you prefer, the small con. An example is the Italian opening move of A Ven-Tri. This *could* be a full-fledged stab of Austria. It also can be combined with a Lepanto to get an extra army into the Balkans against a possible R-T combination. The only way to know for sure is to wait until the fall move. Even an Austrian attack on Tri (A Vie S F Alb-Tri, or some variation) is no guarantee that there isn't an Austro-Italian alliance: perhaps Italy then retreats to Bud or Ser, where it can still be useful against the Eastern powers. A skillful Italian player can keep this up for a couple of turns. Mind you, if he's *not* allied with Austria, this deception won't do him much good! But if he is and wants to keep it secret, this deceit may forestall an R-T, or at least keep it off balance for a couple of turns early in the game.

"Forces are to be structured strategically, based on what is advantageous." (Chapter One)

The meaning of this should be obvious. In Diplomacy, there are only two kinds of pieces: armies and fleets. Each state has only limited resources. Forces must be built to achieve your objectives (which may require complementing your allies' forces) or to defend your possessions against enemy attacks. What's the threat? What's the objective? These are questions which should, but often do not, determine builds. Under what circumstances does Austria need to build a second fleet, especially early in the game. Should Italy build A Rom or F Nap in 1901? When should England build the second army? Should France build F Bre in W1901? (The answers to these and other troubling questions, naturally, can be found by a new publication by Doug Kent entitled "Diplomacy: The Truth", available for a nominal fee of $99.95 from Illuminated Publications, Munich, Bavaria, Germany, c/o Adam Weisshaupt and friends).

Because builds indicate so much about a state's intentions, they can also be used for deceit. A French W1901 build of F Mar and F Bre could mean an attack on England or Italy. A German build of F Kie can be used against the Brits or the Tsar. Russia's first builds can be especially enigmatic, if the Tsar avoids the temptation to build F Sev and F Stp (nc). Build A War and A Mos. Then look at your options. North? Mos-Stp, War-Lvn/Pru. South? Mos-Ukr/Sev, War-Gal/Sil. Steamroll Germany? War-Sil, Mos-Lvn.

"In joining battle, seek the quick war, I have heard of foolish haste, but I have yet to see a case of cleverly dragging on the hostilities. There has never been a state that has benefitted from an extended war." (Chapter 2)

Gee, doesn't this seem obvious? In fact, academics have "proven", either through ponderous statistical research or through more readable history-based analyses (I strongly recommend Geoffrey Blainey's Causes of War) that wars almost always start when one, or both, sides think they can win quickly. The problem, natch, is that most wars take a long time, both in the real world and in Dip, unless you have some way to make the enemy collapse.

In Diplomacy, there are two ways to do this. 1) Have vastly superior resources and position. 2) Stab the poor bastard when he's most vulnerable. Number one can either be done as a coalition (how long does France last against an E-G-I?) or later in the game, when you have become a monster. Sometimes, later in the game, it is done to you, by someone else who's a monster. Bummer.

Stabbing has its ups and downs. That first-turn Italian stab of Austria, for instance, really looks great: it doubles the potential build for Italy, which gives so many more options for later turns because of the extra units. On the other hand, Austria may have a very hard time forgiving and forgetting: in fact, the stab may drag Italy into a long war with Austria which is both unproductive after the first turn and which allows Russia and Turkey to solve the Balkan dilemma on their own, almost invariably to the detriment of Italy. Stabbing for one center, without a plan or allies to follow up, is a good way (not necessarily the best way, but close !) to get yourself in the kind of long war that Sun Tzu abhorred.

Some long wars, however, aren't such bad things. I was recently involved in a Youngstown variant where France (Kevin Jaekley) put a truly elegant stab on Italy. He didn't gain much initially, but gradually enveloped the Italian position and drove the Italians out of the Mediterranean and the African coast. It took a couple of years and some very careful and well-planned moves before Italian centers started falling, but by stabbing when he did France completely halted Italian expansion (they both had about a dozen pieces at the time) and forced him entirely on the defensive.

As the victim of a stab, you must make a choice. Do you sue for peace quickly, and hope the stabber keeps the deal, or do you try to draw out the conflict, gain other allies, or hope that the stabber's allies eventually desert him? A long war may be better for you, and worse for your attackers, than an immediate peace. On the other hand, a quick peace may allow you to minimize your losses and stay in the game as something other than a minor power or puppet.

Last but not least, Sun Tzu devotes an entire chapter (Chapter Ten) to the "nine types of ground". Much of this discussion is tactical, but some of it is still relevant for Diplomacy players. The board is a constricted space, and therefore the occupation of certain provinces can be extremely significant. Some of the most important and influential spaces on the board are not supply centers, but provinces or sea zones which allow you to threaten multiple attacks.."Land that would be advantageous to you if you got it and to opponents if they got it is called contested ground".

Contested ground is, generally, the ground which powers try to negotiate neutrality pacts over in the first few turns of the game. It's great to have if you're there, but it usually means war once you've taken it. Burgundy is a good example. So is Armenia, or the English Channel.

"Land that is surrounded on three sides by competitors and would give the first to get it access to called intersecting ground."

Early in the game, Tyrolia is intersecting ground, as is Belgium. As the game progresses, other provinces and sea areas become critical: Galicia is almost always intersecting ground during Balkan conflict, for instance. Sweden is usually intersecting ground in 1902 , and Skagerrak is frequently intersecting ground that holds the key to Scandinavia. Taking intersecting ground without the support or permission of at least one of the other neighbors is likely to lead to conflict. On the other hand, if someone else gets there first, they pose a substantial threat to your position.

"When you will survive if you fight quickly and perish if you do not, this is called dying ground."

A pleasant thought, that. For Italy, the Ionian Sea is almost always dying ground: if you lose it to an opponent, your chances of winning plummet, and survival doesn't look good. The same is true for England and Nth, for France and Mid (and, often forgotten, Gas); Germany and Sil, Turkey and Arm, and Russia and Ukr (to name just a few).

So there in a nutshell, you have all the secrets <grin>. Naturally, there are no guarantees, but if you have a strategy, pursue it through alliances and deception, break the alliances or your enemies, build appropriately, and are aware of the critical provinces for you to break stalemate lines and defend your home centers, you've got a pretty good start on the parts of the game that you can control. Best of luck!

Tim Hoyt is a regular terror in the Dip forum on Compuserve, and he's not stupid either!