The Art of War and Geopolitics

In Sun Tzu’s military classic from ancient China The Art of War we get an early work of geopolitics. The text is well known for providing insights into commanding a military, maintaining discipline within ranks, and emphasizing the right mind-set for victory but a large part of it is devoted to classifying and evaluating terrain. The relationship an army has with the earth upon which it travels is one of the key aspects that leads it to victory or defeat, perhaps the key. The word geopolitics evokes control of resources, topographical access routes and choke points, and alliance-building amongst nations and states (or lords and chiefdoms) – all of which are discussed in the Art of War, only in the context of war in the ancient world instead of economics.

Modern warfare has grown far more complex and broadened its scope to include every vital component of a nation’s industrial output, with economics and international trade flows entering the military picture. What Sun Tzu’s famous work does in its military exposition of terrain is foster the image of the earth as a place or ground upon which forces both human and non-human are moved in certain predictable ways. It is in properly adapting one’s forces to the formations of the earth’s surface that victory is assured. A general’s success requires correct decisions but a great deal of the preparation for making those decisions is in analyzing the earth’s terrain. This mindset allows the reader to more easily imagine how power is established on earth and become primed to understand what is called in modernity geopolitics.

The meaning of Earth in The Art of War is contrasted with Heaven, although the two do not constitute different worlds as they historically have in the Christian West. Earth is typically used when referring to the ground that is walked on while Heaven refers to the greater constraints surrounding the earth up in the sky but also the state and its rule by the despot. Much of Chinese history is a succession of divine emperors with a special relationship to Heaven and from which the state derives its authority. The contrast is stark in the case of China: the emperor rules the earthly kingdom down below from the center of the state and with the authority of Heaven from up above. According to Sun Tzu, what unites them into a harmonious state is the Tao (Way):

“The Tao causes the people to be fully in accord with the ruler. Thus will die with him; they will live with him and not fear death.

Heaven encompasses yin and yang, cold and heat, and the constraints of the seasons.

Earth encompasses far or near, difficult or easy, expansive or confronted, fatal or tenable terrain.” (Chapter 1, Initial Estimations)

The ever-important and always sought after Tao is the unifying glue that keeps ruler and people, general and soldier together. It also ensures that warriors and aristocracy are bound together in a common cause, but warfare is conducted under different circumstances than state administration. The state is stationary and is located on a fixed territory whose borders can expand or shrink so long as it doesn’t dissolve or become subsumed. It’s duty is administration and it is from here that the decisions to go to war are made that the military then carries out. The military, on the other hand, is mobile and ruled by the generals orders as they maneuver through the terrain of the earth. These are two different and opposed organizations of a social body that have allied, or we could say, with Deleuze and Guattari, that the military’s war machine is captured by the state apparatus. The Tao in all of its glory and prestige is here viewed as a tool for capture. As Sun Tzu makes clear at the beginning of chapter seven, the despot is in control but then let loose: “[From the time] the general receives his commands from the ruler, unites the armies, and assembles the masses, to confronting the enemy and encamping, there is nothing more difficult than military combat.” He also notes at the end of chapter three that the general’s military is on a campaign it should be left alone: “One whose general is capable and not interfered with by the ruler will be victorious.”

Heaven is also not merely invoked as a province of the state but denotes the sky and wind which are not so far above the ground. When the army moves and strikes with fury, Sun Tzu often describes this as the force whose “speed is like the wind” (ch.7) or that crashes down “from above with the greatest heights of Heaven.” (ch.4). This is to say that the Heaven of Sun Tzu and his time is above the ground and soars high but doesn’t constitute another world unto itself. Earth and Heaven are natural forces that can be manipulated by the army and the state. It is something greater (not higher) than Heaven in the Tao that brings with it the unity of military and state, ruler and people, and general and soldier – the glue that creates cohesion. In a way, the army seeks Heaven by gaining the high ground from which it can attack using less energy and with the force of gravity on its side. Obviously high ground is still ground and so part of the earth but the meaning is clear: the strategic advantage is gained by properly utilizing the elemental forces of both Earth and Heaven.

While an irresistible attack force bears down from Heaven high above, good military strategy is built from the ground-up. As the general plans the movement and positioning of his troops he must master surveying the terrain. It is the earth that dictates the right decisions for the military; though the general must ultimately make the decision, he must observe the configurations of the terrain and plan in accordance with it or perish. This is made clear in chapter 4, ‘Military Dispositions’:

“As for military methods: … Terrain gives birth to measurement; measurement produces the estimation [of forces]. Estimation [of forces] gives rise to calculating [the numbers of men]. Calculating [the numbers of men] gives rise to weighing [strength]. Weighing [strength] gives birth to victory.” (ch.4)

So the general begins with assessing the terrain, which then leads to measurement, then estimation, then calculation, then weighing, then victory. Going backwards in this logical series, the stronger army will be victorious, but this (weighted) strength requires men. Attaining a superior number of men requires calculation. This calculation (dealing with numbers) relies on estimation, which is further distinguished from calculation in a footnote as follows: “‘Estimation’ is variously described as referring to types of forces suitable for segments of the terrain, such as crossbowmen for the hills, or the quantities of materials required to sustain the battle.” (p.312) Estimation, or matching the type of forces with the corresponding advantageous terrain comes from measurement of the terrain where the general should begin. In another footnote, we learn that “‘Measurement’ is generally understood by the commentators as referring not only to the extent and dimensions of the terrain but also its classification according to the categories advanced in the various chapters that follow.” (p.312) So measurement, like estimation, does not involve numbers but is like surveying the terrain to best determine how to deploy ones army. It comes down to the terrain, or the varieties of the earth, with regards to “military disposition” and “method.” Excepting the last two chapters on incendiary attacks and spies, respectively, the last part of The Art of War is about how to deal with the variety of terrains and the army.

In chapter 11, ‘Nine Terrains’ we learn the classification of terrains and gain advice on what actions to take with respect to them.

“When the feudal lords fight in their own territory, it is ‘dispersive terrain.’

When thy enter someone else’s territory, but not deeply, it is ‘light terrain.’

If when we occupy it, it will be advantageous to us while if they occupy it, it will be advantageous to them, it is ‘contentious terrain.’

When we can go and they can also come, it is ‘traversable terrain.’

Land of the feudal lords surrounded on three sides such that whoever arrives first will gain the masses of All under Heaven is ‘focal terrain.’

“When one penetrates deeply into enemy territory, bypassing numerous cities, it is ‘heavy terrain.’

Where there are mountains and forests, ravines and defiles, wetlands and marshes, wherever the road is difficult to negotiate, it is ‘entrapping terrain.’

“Where the entrance is constricted, the return is circuitous, and with a small number they can strike out masses, it is ‘encircled terrain.’

Where if one fights with intensity he will survive but if he does not fight with intensity he will perish, it is ‘fatal terrain.’” (my emphasis)

The main goal for an army is to seize the focal terrain. This is to seize the enemy’s capital and gain control of all of the people in the state, their resources, administration, and, to use Sun Tzu’s parlance, “the masses of All under Heaven”. This being a text written for generals of state-deployed armies (and it is hard to imagine a text written by barbarians for the purpose of military strategy as opposed to oral stories), the objective is to acquire another state’s territory and assume rule for one’s army’s ruler. Focal terrain takes on a geopolitical significance when it is seen as the central node in the network of state distribution. It is terrain without which one could not rule and administer a great many people in the largest territory possible – the territory within the borders of the state. This is ground where the concentration of power is the greatest.

The location of focal terrain and so the state capital is not arbitrary but a matter of defense and accessibility. It too is predetermined by the shape of the earth in terms of being such an important location that one must choose a spot that will be difficult to overtake by an invading army. But it is easy to see why focal terrain is associated with Heaven in that it is the place where the ruler can rule over all his subjects. It is a state-decision made by men that determines focal terrain and its purpose is to allow for the state to endure as long as possible. A state is meant to persist as long as possible and its borders must retain integrity. It’s capture is then a long-term goal of a captured military (by the state) and redirected by the state to follow its dictates. Focal terrain is the nexus that connects a mobile military force with a territorial state: the military flows towards the focal terrain with this alliance and receives the glory bestowed by the state for its services.

Light terrain and heavy terrain are both defined with respect to the borders of the state. Sun Tzu’s advice on light terrain is to “not stop” and “have [the troops] group together”, presumably because the opposing army will quickly reinforce their border’s integrity and troops will be inclined to return to the safety of their own home territory. His advice for heavy terrain is to “ensure a continuous supply of provisions” though “plunder.” “When the troops have penetrated deeply, they will be unified, but where only shallowly, they will [be inclined to] scatter.” To be deep inside an enemy’s territory is to be in a hostile environment and that common experience pulls the troops together in fear. From here on to the focal terrain it is a matter of not falling into entrapping terrain, encircled terrain, and, of course, fatal terrain. An army must occupy and hold contentious terrain first and then is told “do not attack”, on traversable terrain “focus on defense”, because the field is open on all sides.

Sun Tzu’s advice for entrapping terrain is to move quickly, not to encamp or do battle. These places are the marshes, forests, mountains and so forth that restrict movement. A very important principle is to not become trapped, channeled into a narrow space where the enemy can attack you with a small force (encircled terrain), or otherwise be forced into restricted spaces. It is here on encircled terrain that a general’s strategic prowess is most put to test, for Sun Tzu simply says “use strategy.” Here is where the complex configurations of flanking, surrounding, and holding lines comes into play, that is, as long as one general hasn’t thoroughly out-prepared the other. When you are on fatal terrain, it is win or die. This should of course be avoided, but it is also an opportunity to demonstrate to the troops that they must to battle with the utmost ferocity – leave it all out on the battlefield. A fatal battle is not necessary in a war but is the worst case scenario. This is roughly how to “[r]ealize the appropriate employment of the hard and soft through the patterns of terrain.”

Since a general cannot have a superior knowledge of a foreign territory, he must gain that knowledge with help. Sun Tzu advises using the locals to explain their terrain, for this information is paramount. “One who does not know the topography of mountains and forests, ravines and defiles, wetlands and marshes cannot maneuver the army. One who does not employ local guides will not secure advantages of terrain.” So again geographical tactics are the way to keep one’s army moving and successful. It is rather interesting to note that Sun Tzu seems to be speaking to the generals of invading armies rather than ones in defense, although one could easily reverse these principles and try to restrict a foreign army invading ones home territory with entrapping, encircling, and disrupting their alliances.

In the preceding chapter, ‘The Configurations of Terrain’, we get another category of terrains that are even more specific to the relationship between two armies confronting each other. These terms operate as simple directives so I will only touch on them briefly:

“If we can go forth and the enemy can also advance, it is termed ‘accessible.’ In an accessible configuration, first occupy the heights and yang [sunny] [side], and improve the routes for transporting provisions. Then when we engage in battle, it will be advantageous.

If we can go forth but it will be difficult to return, it is termed ‘suspended.’ In a suspended configuration, if they are unprepared go forth and conquer them…

If it is not advantageous for us to go forth nor advantageous for the enemy to come forward, it is termed “stalemated.”…

As for constricted configurations, if we occupy them first we must fully deploy throughout them in order to await the enemy. If the enemy occupies them first and fully deploys in them, do not follow them in…

As for precipitous configurations, if we occupy them we must hold the heights and yang [sunny] side to await the enemy. If the enemy occupies them first, withdraw [our forces] and depart…

As for expansive configurations, if our strategic power is equal, it will be difficult to provoke them to combat. Engaging them in combat will not be advantageous.” (ch.10)

It is maneuvering within these configurations and terrains that the advantage is gained, with a preparing eye always focused on the moves ahead. It is important to add that even when the advantage is lost or one is under-prepared, the soldiers can also overtake the opposing soldiers with better training or the simple and unpredictable element of battlefield luck.

As testified by the still present popularity of The Art of War, the conduct of war has not changed in its most fundamental aspects. War is fought by the proper control of the flow of humans and goods over the diversity of the surface of the earth. An army is an easy to distinguish force of humans who must act in a disciplined and hierarchical manner. Ancient warfare is conducted at a much different scale than modern warfare, but the close attachment to the earth remains. War has changed its shape drastically over the recent centuries with the invention of guns and explosives, production of greater vehicles, ships and so forth with steel, and the greater complexity of forces of economic production. Colonies have long been an objective of military might but the increase in technological innovation has enlarged the scale of resource extraction, leading empire to become something different in form and justifying the new word imperialism. British imperial control of sea-routes for its mercantile trade and subsequent American control of petroleum and international finance are examples of warfare taken to new heights. These developments extend the earth-dependent theater of war into politics with the aptly termed geopolitics.

Modern war is less delineated between military and civilian, with the twentieth and early twenty-first century seeing unprecedented civilian deaths and tactics that blur the line. The theater of war seems to have spread throughout the globe along with the ever refined image of the map, which is strangely enough the view of the earth from the Heavens. With these new tools like the map, and a standard mass education with which to read them, a great many more people are able to think and understand the strategies and tactics of war and geopolitics. The state is, at least in theory or through struggle, capable of fulfilling its modern quality as a nation-state and allow the people to have more decision-making power than the despotic rulers of “All under Heaven” of the past. In this way, through nations and international bodies, people ought to be able to influence the actions of the state in a way that only a ruler and his court could before. Just as the operations of war have expanded into civilian and economic realms, so those realms can influence the decisions to engage in war or not – provided political power is actually attained.

To better influence the right course of action (or Tao if you will), a public would be advised to use the achievements of the nation and become educated in the ways of geopolitics. Adding the earth to political opinions is not only a better way to predict and impose one’s will within the political but has been emphasized in the methods of warfare since at least ancient times.


I used Ralph D. Sawyer’s 1994 Basic Books edition of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for all quotes.  The image is the book cover.