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The Annotated Art of War (Parts 11.29-31: Mutual Support and the Shuai-jan Snake)


Disciplines > Warfare > The Annotated Art of War > Parts 11.29-31: Mutual Support and the Shuai-jan Snake

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XI. The Nine Situations


Sun Tzu said: Commentary
29. The skillful tactician may be likened to the shuai-jan. Now the shuai-jan is a snake that is found in the Chung mountains. Strike at its head, and you will be attacked by its tail; strike at its tail, and you will be attacked by its head; strike at its middle, and you will be attacked by head and tail both.

When a force is connected, all parts know what is happening with all other parts and can come to the rescue as needed. Or maybe one part can deliberately occupy the enemy whilst the other attacks the flanks.

Such coordination and connection depends either on careful timing or, better, on excellent communications.

Businesses can become so split up and with each unit so self-focused that competitors can win by picking off the units one by one. It is better to see the big picture and compete with coordinated action. A single attack can then be warded off by diverting resources from other units.

30. Asked if an army can be made to imitate the shuai-jan, I should answer, Yes. For the men of Wu and the men of Yueh are enemies; yet if they are crossing a river in the same boat and are caught by a storm, they will come to each other's assistance just as the left hand helps the right. Armies share a common fate as they win or fail together. Soldiers know this. Hence, even if there are internal rivalries, they know that it is in their best interests to work together and to come to the rescue even it there is significant loss.

Of course this must be done with intelligence. There is no point throwing soldiers into a fray where they will lose.

31. Hence it is not enough to put one's trust in the tethering of horses, and the burying of chariot wheels in the ground. If you tether horses away from the battlefield, the soldiers cannot flee on horseback. If you bury chariot wheels, they cannot flee this way either.

These are methods that were used to ensure soldiers fought on a common footing.

Yet these are cynical methods and the horses and chariots could be used more constructively if you can trust your troops. This requires leadership.

Leadership is important also in ensuring communication, coordination and acting as the snake of shuai-jan.



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