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All Warfare Is Based Upon Deception

All Warfare Is Based Upon Deception

When Sun Tzu elaborates on deception, he begins:

“Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; 

When using our forces, we must seem inactive; 

When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; 

When far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

A reader might glance over this and be tempted to remark, “Well, that sounds easy.” It most assuredly is not.

When in a conflict against fellow human beings, the opponent is a fellow man; being a fellow man, he is familiar with the patterns that accompany readiness to attack, signs of inactivity, and indications of proximity or lack thereof. These are signs that armies and other large organizations give off without conscious thought or effort. While not every leader or strategist is well versed with the subtleties that accompany them, they are all familiar with the bold strokes that accompany an armored cavalry thrust from a General Patton, as one example. These are things that are hard to conceal, yet easy to detect.

Thus, something more is required. This is the role of deception.

Unable to simply show the enemy nothing, the strategist instead shows his opponent something that the opponent wishes to see and wishes to believe. Having shown something, but having shown this something in a way that creates a false impression, the enemy is seduced into deceiving himself.

I should point out right now that Sun Tzu, a man who strenuously preached the importance of benevolence and sincerity in a commander’s personal dealings – not only with his peers and his sovereign, but spies and others in uniquely vulnerable positions where trust is a greater commodity than money – in no way supported deception as a way of life in general. He supported the use of deception in war. This is a critical distinction.

Sun Tzu continued,

“Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.”

Why feign disorder? Feigning disorder works because of a simple, time-honored principle: if you look like a sucker, someone is going to try and “sucker punch” you. This is also true in martial arts. A skilled martial artist who deliberately puts up a false front, pretending to be “slow” – mentally as well as physically – and to be quiet and passive, can lure an aggressive, careless opponent into making a first move in a careless manner that leads to a thorough beating. Such things have been known to happen. This reaction – seeing weakness, and pouncing on it – is deeply ingrained “alpha male” behavior.

If the opponent attempts to exploit a false opening, it is he who becomes exposed.

“If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is superior in strength, evade him.”

Against an opponent who is secure in defense, the best strategy may well be to await the opponent’s attack. When the opponent leaves his secure position to do battle, he may then be assaulted. However, if the opponent is superior in strength to you, you are not obligated to do him any favors and fight him on terms favorable to him; indeed, much of Sun Tzu’s strategy is devoted to not fighting on terms favorable to the enemy, but to fight on terms favorable to you. Thus, an enemy superior in strength can be evaded.

As we can see, Sun Tzu constantly sees delivering value to his stakeholders as the objective of his strategy. SunT zu does not seek fame or fortune via courage that brings battlefield defeat. Every thought and every action is devoted to fighting war in the most efficient, effective manner possible, seeking to bring it to an end as quicky as possible.

“If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.”

Another deeply ingrained alpha male behavior is to take advantage of the weak. If an opponent is weak, he may be treated lightly and with arrogance. Like a cat playing with a mouse, the man in a position of advantage may seek to not only defeat his opponent, but to thoroughly humiliate his enemy in every respect. This search for a more satisfying victory leads directly to carelessness.

Humans naturally do a sort of triage when dealing with threats. If one opponent seems to be weak, that opponent is left aside while the measures are taken against the stronger opponent. (This is a strategy made famous on the reality television series “Survivor.”) When the only opponent on a field of battle seems weak, the tendency of an already prideful man is to boast, “I have no enemy here! I am peerless! This foe is no match of mine! I can defeat him any time I wish!”

By the same token, a man who is attempting to behave in a rational way, but who is prone to bursts of anger, can be provoked into highly aggressive actions (as befit his core nature) if he is sufficiently provoked. Not everyone with a temper can be lured in quite so easily, but those that can be will frequently make careless mistakes.

“If he is taking his ease, give him no rest.”

In the late stages of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, commanders were making decisions when having remained awake constantly over the course of three days. Fatigue – individual and organizational – is one of the leading causes of critical mistakes. Giving the enemy any unnecessary chance to rest and recover his mental strength is unwise. When able to deny the enemy rest, one should do so, for fatigue only makes his job much harder.

“Attack him where he is unprepared; appear where you are not expected.” 

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Now we get to the crux of the matter.

Someone learning “The Art of War” as a grouping of isolated quotations and passages would be tempted to read this and believe that it stands wholly on its own. It does not.

Your opponent is unprepared because you have deceived him. He does not expect you because you have irritated him, made him arrogant, and denied him the rest required for him to regain his senses and reconsider his vulnerable position. 

When engaged in warfare, every large deception you make is built on every smaller deception you have already made. Having seduced the opponent into deceiving himself as to your strength, disposition, intention, activity, and location, you lead him around calmly and effortlessly as if leading a donkey via a dangling carrot. You show your opponent what he wishes to see, and he decides, purely by himself, that it is so; in this way, you deceive without ever having spoken a word to him, without ever having “lied” in the conventional sense. You have assisted him in lying to himself. Thus, believing his own overconfident conclusions, he is completely at your mercy.

Thus can superiority in numbers and other measurements of strength be brought low, purely due to recognizing that an army is led by a falliable human being.


“These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand.” 

I summarize this passage with a simple quote: Do not tip your hand.

Having entered through all this trouble to deceive one’s opponent, to tip one’s hand and announce one’s tactics to the enemy via word, deed, or spy, is not only fatal to deception, but ruinous because this allows the enemy to develop successful countermeasures. One does not have to lie to not tip one’s hand; the leader merely requires discipline to keep his cards close to the vest rather than flaunt them for all to see. Thus is secrecy preserved.

Thus is victory won where defeat would otherwise be certain. By the same measure, thus is a crushing victory won obtained, routing the enemy with less loss to one’s own side, rather than a narrow, hard-fought victory that could have been obtained through brute force alone.

This is how maximum value is delivered to stakeholders via the most efficient use of resources possible.


Sun Tzu (孫子; pinyin: Sūnzǐ) is a honorific title bestowed upon Sūn Wu (孫武 c. 544-496 BC), the author of The Art of War (孫子兵法), an immensely influential ancient Chinese book on military strategy. Sun Tzu believed in the use of the military sciences to effect outcomes that would result in peace.

© 2019 Walizen. All Wrongs Reversed.

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