Swift as the Wind: Sun Tzu on War and Strategy

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In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says, “Move swift as the wind and closely-formed as the wood. Attack like the fire and be still as the mountain.” How can you use the example of nature to help you be victorious in battle?

We’ll cover Tzu’s advice, such as to be swift as the wind, on how to understand the environment and imitate it to gain the advantage in battle.

Move Swift as the Wind, and Other Battle Strategies

Struggle is the energy required to gain advantage. Combat is the toughest form of struggle, meaning it is the hardest way to gain advantage. However, there are easier ways to gain advantage.

Location, Location, Location

When the path to battle is long, resources are used and troops tire. This makes either you or your opponent weakened and vulnerable to attack. Therefore, use the distance traveled for battle to your advantage.

  • When your journey to battle is long, double the speed of travel to arrive sooner than expected. Move swift as the wind. Your opponent will be relaxed as they wait and unprepared for your early arrival.
  • When your opponent’s journey to battle is short, force them to take circuitous routes to lengthen their journey. Forcing the enemy to defend multiple points or cherished locations disrupts their straight path and keeps them from moving swift as the wind.

When you travel far for battle, you are in enemy territory. The terrain is unfamiliar. Until you know the advantages and disadvantages of the land, you cannot prepare a strategy. Use local guides to assist in understanding the environment and make sure to move swift as the wind.

  • The IChing states, “Chasing deer without a guide only takes you into the bush.”

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. 

Act only when you have an advantage. When no advantage is seen, create a strong defense and hold your ground in a way that is not seen. 

  • Be immovable as a mountain and as secret as fire, destroying every trace of where you have tread. Once you’re done, move swift as the wind.
  • When you have gained advantages in the war, divide your troops to defend what was gained so you can expand your territory. 

Three Other Considerations During Armed Struggle

In addition to moving swift as the wind and closely-formed as the wood, there are other strategies to gain the upper hand.

1) Use signals to gain fullness and force emptiness. Signals are a way of organizing your troops and confusing the enemy. 

  • Use drums and banners to draw multiple ears and eyes to the same message. Drums and banners signify unity among your troops so all are linked under the same umbrella.
  • Use signals to send false messages to enemies, such as setting more fires than there are troops (as in the example in the previous chapter) or raising more banners than there are squads. 

2) Understand the nature of energy and how it leads to advantages. Energy is the key to any successful mission. Energy is strong in the mornings, wanes in the afternoon, and depletes in the evening. 

  • A good leader does not strike the energized. They wait until the energy has waned or depleted to strike. Then, they move swift as the wind.

Morning also means early in the battle, afternoon means mid-battle, and evening means the end of battle.

  • If conflict has gone on for too long, the energy of the enemy’s troops will wane, and they will be more vulnerable. 
  • Psychologically, even the most timid soldier is brave when energized. But as their energy fades, fear and remorse will infiltrate their minds. 

3) When you surround your enemy, leave an opening for escape. An enemy who sees no way out will fight with everything they have. They are desperate and are willing to fight to the death. In contrast, an enemy who sees an opening will try to maneuver through it—then you know what their next move is.. 

Remain Steadfast in Your Strategy

Once you have prepared your strategy and are capable of adapting, put your mind at ease. Do not be persuaded by the actions of the enemy or dangling carrots of gain or victory. Set your plan and stick to it. 

  • If you see the enemy adjusting and losing focus because of events or prospects of gain, attack, for they are disorganized and emotional. 

Do not get emotional and be forced into action. Stand your ground, remain controlled, and maintain fullness.

  • If the enemy suddenly retreats, don’t assume weakness and attack. It may be a feigned retreat and a setup for an ambush.
  • If the enemy abandons provisions, do not snatch them up. Abandoned provisions may be poisoned. 

Do not fight an enemy on higher ground, and do not fight an enemy who has the momentum. 

Do not attack an enemy on their way home. They will do whatever it takes to make it home. They will be braver when the end of their struggle is near. 

Historical Example: Using Distance as an Advantage

After the fall of the Han dynasty, three kingdoms—the Wu, Shu, and Wei—battled during what was known as the Era of the Three Kingdoms (190 to 265 C.E.). The general of Shu joined forces with the Wei, becoming a military governor of what was called “New City.” However, soon after, he defected to the Wu, again switching his allegiance. 

The Wei general was advised by his commanders to send scouts to observe the actions of the Shu and Wu before reacting. But the Wei general wanted to take advantage of the uncertainty of loyalty that would necessarily follow such a flip-flopping of allegiance. He wanted to move swift as the wind. The Wei general sent a force to New City, traveling day and night. Meanwhile, the defector assured his commanders that the Wei was too far away. He said his troops would be fortified and ready by the time the Wei learned of his actions and mobilized. 

When the Wei arrived eight days later, surprising everyone with their swiftness, they easily pushed through the defector’s ill-prepared army and forced a surrender.  

Swift as the Wind: Sun Tzu on War and Strategy

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  • How to mislead your enemies to win the war
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  • 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.

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