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The Annotated Art of War (Parts 1.18-25: Deception)


Disciplines > Warfare > The Annotated Art of War > Parts 1.18-25: Deception

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I. Laying Plans


Sun Tzu said: Commentary
18. All warfare is based on deception. Deception appears at all levels, from faked strategic intent to the feints and dodges of swordplay.

Much business is also deception, particularly in terms of deceiving competitors. Beware, however, about deceiving customers or employees who may turn against you when they discover this betrayal.

19. 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. As humans, we are naturally deceptive. Evolution has made us so. It has also made us cautious and good at detecting deception. The side which both spots deception and deceives the best, wins.

Consider every perception of the other side and find ways of changing this.

20. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him. These are but two examples, and yet each deserves attention.

When an opponent is greedy for conquest they will grab unthinking at what seems like an easy gain, especially if it seems that the opportunity is brief.

When it seems that you are disorganized or otherwise vulnerable, even for a moment, they may seek to take quick advantage of your temporary disarray.

In such ways traps can be laid for the unsuspecting enemy who gifts you a win.

Yet always beware the double-bluff where then enemy sees your deceptions and counters your trick with a better one, leading your arrogant response into a deeper trap.

21. If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. When you can find no way through a strong defense,


Deception is perhaps most important when you are weak and cannot depend on strength. This is the strategy of prey who use camouflage and other ways of deceiving the predator.

22. If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. A choleric temper is one which is easily roused. When we are emotionally roused, we think far less and so are open to simple traps.

Those who easily become angry often do this as a way of feeling powerful, yet they may have learned that this is not a guarantee of success. The bully only attacks the weakling. If you appear weak, caution is not needed and the bully will more easily emerge.

23. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Everyone needs rest. Even being alert and ready to defend is draining, let alone the exhaustion that battle engenders. One way to weaken your enemy is hence to constantly harry and pick at them.

Random small attacks creates uncertainty and keeps them tense. In this way, a small and nimble army can defeat a much larger army. Guerilla war is one such method.

Concentrated forces are very difficult to defeat as front-line troops can quickly be replaced with reinforcements. If you can break them into parts or spread them out along a long front, removing the ability to reinforce, then a single, small victory can provide you with a powerful gain. In this way, divide-and-conquer is a common and powerful strategy.

24. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. Do not attack in force where the enemy is strongest, although keeping stronger forces can be helpful while you throw a fierce attack at weak corners elsewhere.

As with other suggestions, Sun Tzu makes use of surprise to keep the enemy in a state of confusion and  uncertainty.

25. These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand. Deception only works when the other side does not realize that it is so. Hence great secrecy is needed, and perhaps even deception about the deception.



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