All Warfare Is Based on Deception: What Sun Tzu Really Meant

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In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says, “All warfare is based on deception.” What does Tzu mean by this?

Deception was an important element of Sun Tzu’s battle strategies. Learn why all warfare is based on deception.

All Warfare Is Based on Deception

The goal of any conflict is to control your opponent and overcome them. Controlling their beliefs about your abilities helps you understand their assumptions and plan a strategy accordingly. As a well-known translation of Sun Tzu puts it, “all warfare is based on deception.”

Deception includes feigning weakness when you are strong or professing ignorance when you are informed. Appearing to be weak, unprepared, or small in size can lure your opponent into traps and make them susceptible to misguided actions or responses.

For instance, creating a scenario where only a small portion of your force is visible can mislead opponents into thinking they outnumber or outarm you. When they prepare an attack under that guise, they will be ill-prepared for the full strength of your forces. 

Another example of the lesson that all warfare is based on deception is allowing your opponent to win small victories or gains. Your opponent may fall victim to greed or an inflated ego, which will confuse and hinder their strategy when the truth is revealed. 

Historical Example: All Warfare Is Based on Deception

When a Chinese emperor was strategizing an attack on the Han dynasty, which had joined forces with the Huns, he sent a scout to scope out the Huns’ forces. Ten scouts returned after seeing old and feeble men milling about and reported that the Huns were weak. However, one scout, Lou Jing, saw the placement of these men as a ruse and reported that an attack would be unwise. The emperor punished Lou Jing for this advice and sent a massive force into Hun territory. 

Lou Jing had been right. The hidden Huns forces surrounded the emperor’s men and stranded them for a week without supplies. All warfare is based on deception.

Deception & Orthodox vs. Unorthodox Action

In battle, fighting is unremarkable. It is straightforward in action. But victory is attained through the remarkable, and all warfare is based on deception. Unremarkable and remarkable actions are also referred to as orthodox and unorthodox actions, respectively.

Both orthodox and unorthodox actions are taken during conflict. Ensuring victory means having a command of both orthodox and unorthodox actions. 

Orthodox actions are straightforward techniques—tried and true behaviors and formations.

  • For example, fighting on the front lines or attacking a valuable territory are orthodox actions.

Unorthodox actions are surprise attacks and other maneuvers outside the typical boundaries of battle. 

  • For example, ambushes and deception are unorthodox tactics.

Orthodox and unorthodox tactics should be blended to work in harmony. Like the endless combination of colors derived from the five primary colors, there are multiple variations encompassed within the primary actions of orthodox and unorthodox behaviors. 

  • Orthodox behavior is always direct, and unorthodox behavior is always a surprise. 
  • But the manifestation of each is endless in its possibilities. 

Manipulate what your enemy views as orthodox and unorthodox behaviors. By feigning orthodox behavior, you set your opponent up for attack through unorthodox action. For instance, disorganization emerges from organization, fear emerges from bravery, and vulnerability emerges from strength.

  • If you want to appear unorganized, you must first be organized. 
  • If you want to appear cowardly, you must come from a place of courage. 
  • If you want to appear weak, you must start from a foundation of strength. 
  • These deceptions will mislead your enemy. 

Deception is a great way to gain information about your opponent. If they think you are weak and they attack, you know the level of their aggression and greed. Remember, all warfare is based on deception.

Any time you can confuse or deceive the opponent, you force them to adapt. In these adaptations, you can discern their patterns of movement, strength of force, and tendencies to react. 

  • This information becomes useful in determining how to strategize against them. 
  • You will know in which situations they will fight and which they will run. 
  • You can determine when lives will be threatened and when lives can be saved.
  • You can find out where the gaps in their strength are, otherwise known as vulnerabilities.
  • With this information, you can strategize when attacking is beneficial and when defending is more beneficial. 

Do not repeat tactics or strategies. The possibilities of orthodox and unorthodox actions are endless, so constantly adapt both to serve the momentum and remain mysterious.

To gain advantage in a foreign place, you must use deception to manipulate the enemy.

  • Feign your condition to fool enemies.
  • Divide and combine forces to exhibit false formations while you are actually formless. False formations confuse and mislead the enemy. 
  • Confuse the enemy with deception and formlessness, and they will work overtime chasing you around.

Deception & Leadership

A good leader gets their opponent to open the door and appears innocent so as to be let in. Once in, they wreak havoc like a virus. A good leader knows that all warfare is based on deception.

A good leader uses tactics to confuse and discombobulate the opponent, drives wedges among the enemy’s troops and populace, relies on unorthodox and orthodox tactics, and strikes when it is advantageous and can be done in a way that leaves the enemy without time to prepare. 

All Warfare Is Based on Deception: What Sun Tzu Really Meant

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  • How to mislead your enemies to win the war
  • Classic examples from Chinese history to illustrate Sun Tzu's strategies
  • How to use spies to gather information and defeat your opponents

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

One thought on “All Warfare Is Based on Deception: What Sun Tzu Really Meant

  • December 29, 2020 at 6:56 am

    Thank you Amanda from an ex South African. You are a true teacher, knowing how to capture our interest and making the subject easy to understand. 👏👏👏


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