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The Art of War - Chapter 12. The Attack by Fire

1. Introduction

2. The Text of Sun Tzu

3. The Commentators

4. Appreciations of Sun Tzu

5. Apologies for War

6. Bibliography

7. Footnotes

8. Chapter 1. Laying Plans

9. Chapter 2. Waging War

10. Chapter 3. Attack By Stratagem

11. Chapter 4. Tactical Disposition

12. Chapter 5. Energy

13. Chapter 6. Weak Points and Strong

14. Chapter 7. Manuevering

15. Chapter 8. Variations in Tactics

16. Chapter 9. The Army on the March

17. Chapter 10. Terrain

18. Chapter 11. The Nine Situations

19. Chapter 12. The Attack by Fire

20. Chapter 13. The Use of Spies


[Rather more than half the chapter (SS. 1-13) is devoted to
the subject of fire, after which the author branches off into
other topics.]

1. Sun Tzu said: There are five ways of attacking with
fire. The first is to burn soldiers in their camp;

[So Tu Mu. Li Ch`uan says: "Set fire to the camp, and kill
the soldiers" (when they try to escape from the flames). Pan
Ch`ao, sent on a diplomatic mission to the King of Shan-shan [see
XI. ss. 51, note], found himself placed in extreme peril by the
unexpected arrival of an envoy from the Hsiung-nu [the mortal
enemies of the Chinese]. In consultation with his officers, he
exclaimed: "Never venture, never win! [1] The only course open
to us now is to make an assault by fire on the barbarians under
cover of night, when they will not be able to discern our
numbers. Profiting by their panic, we shall exterminate them
completely; this will cool the King's courage and cover us with
glory, besides ensuring the success of our mission.' the
officers all replied that it would be necessary to discuss the
matter first with the Intendant. Pan Ch`ao then fell into a
passion: 'It is today,' he cried, 'that our fortunes must be
decided! The Intendant is only a humdrum civilian, who on
hearing of our project will certainly be afraid, and everything
will be brought to light. An inglorious death is no worthy fate
for valiant warriors.' All then agreed to do as he wished.
Accordingly, as soon as night came on, he and his little band
quickly made their way to the barbarian camp. A strong gale was
blowing at the time. Pan Ch`ao ordered ten of the party to take
drums and hide behind the enemy's barracks, it being arranged
that when they saw flames shoot up, they should begin drumming
and yelling with all their might. The rest of his men, armed
with bows and crossbows, he posted in ambuscade at the gate of
the camp. He then set fire to the place from the windward side,
whereupon a deafening noise of drums and shouting arose on the
front and rear of the Hsiung-nu, who rushed out pell-mell in
frantic disorder. Pan Ch`ao slew three of them with his own
hand, while his companions cut off the heads of the envoy and
thirty of his suite. The remainder, more than a hundred in all,
perished in the flames. On the following day, Pan Ch`ao,
divining his thoughts, said with uplifted hand: 'Although you
did not go with us last night, I should not think, Sir, of taking
sole credit for our exploit.' This satisfied Kuo Hsun, and Pan
Ch`ao, having sent for Kuang, King of Shan-shan, showed him the
head of the barbarian envoy. The whole kingdom was seized with
fear and trembling, which Pan Ch`ao took steps to allay by
issuing a public proclamation. Then, taking the king's sons as
hostage, he returned to make his report to Tou Ku." HOU HAN SHU,
ch. 47, ff. 1, 2.] ]

the second is to burn stores;

[Tu Mu says: "Provisions, fuel and fodder." In order to
subdue the rebellious population of Kiangnan, Kao Keng
recommended Wen Ti of the Sui dynasty to make periodical raids
and burn their stores of grain, a policy which in the long run
proved entirely successful.]

the third is to burn baggage trains;

[An example given is the destruction of Yuan Shao`s wagons
and impedimenta by Ts`ao Ts`ao in 200 A.D.]

the fourth is to burn arsenals and magazines;

[Tu Mu says that the things contained in "arsenals" and
"magazines" are the same. He specifies weapons and other
implements, bullion and clothing. Cf. VII. ss. 11.]

the fifth is to hurl dropping fire amongst the enemy.

[Tu Yu says in the T`UNG TIEN: "To drop fire into the
enemy's camp. The method by which this may be done is to set the
tips of arrows alight by dipping them into a brazier, and then
shoot them from powerful crossbows into the enemy's lines."]

2. In order to carry out an attack, we must have means

[T`sao Kung thinks that "traitors in the enemy's camp" are
referred to. But Ch`en Hao is more likely to be right in saying:
"We must have favorable circumstances in general, not merely
traitors to help us." Chia Lin says: "We must avail ourselves
of wind and dry weather."]

the material for raising fire should always be kept in readiness.

[Tu Mu suggests as material for making fire: "dry vegetable
matter, reeds, brushwood, straw, grease, oil, etc." Here we have
the material cause. Chang Yu says: "vessels for hoarding fire,
stuff for lighting fires."]

3. There is a proper season for making attacks with fire,
and special days for starting a conflagration.
4. The proper season is when the weather is very dry; the
special days are those when the moon is in the constellations of
the Sieve, the Wall, the Wing or the Cross-bar;

[These are, respectively, the 7th, 14th, 27th, and 28th of
the Twenty-eight Stellar Mansions, corresponding roughly to
Sagittarius, Pegasus, Crater and Corvus.]

for these four are all days of rising wind.
5. In attacking with fire, one should be prepared to meet
five possible developments:
6. (1) When fire breaks out inside to enemy's camp, respond
at once with an attack from without.
7. (2) If there is an outbreak of fire, but the enemy's
soldiers remain quiet, bide your time and do not attack.

[The prime object of attacking with fire is to throw the
enemy into confusion. If this effect is not produced, it means
that the enemy is ready to receive us. Hence the necessity for

8. (3) When the force of the flames has reached its height,
follow it up with an attack, if that is practicable; if not, stay
where you are.

[Ts`ao Kung says: "If you see a possible way, advance; but
if you find the difficulties too great, retire."]

9. (4) If it is possible to make an assault with fire from
without, do not wait for it to break out within, but deliver your
attack at a favorable moment.

[Tu Mu says that the previous paragraphs had reference to
the fire breaking out (either accidentally, we may suppose, or by
the agency of incendiaries) inside the enemy's camp. "But," he
continues, "if the enemy is settled in a waste place littered
with quantities of grass, or if he has pitched his camp in a
position which can be burnt out, we must carry our fire against
him at any seasonable opportunity, and not await on in hopes of
an outbreak occurring within, for fear our opponents should
themselves burn up the surrounding vegetation, and thus render
our own attempts fruitless." The famous Li Ling once baffled the
leader of the Hsiung-nu in this way. The latter, taking
advantage of a favorable wind, tried to set fire to the Chinese
general's camp, but found that every scrap of combustible
vegetation in the neighborhood had already been burnt down. On
the other hand, Po-ts`ai, a general of the Yellow Turban rebels,
was badly defeated in 184 A.D. through his neglect of this simple
precaution. "At the head of a large army he was besieging
Ch`ang-she, which was held by Huang-fu Sung. The garrison was
very small, and a general feeling of nervousness pervaded the
ranks; so Huang-fu Sung called his officers together and said:
"In war, there are various indirect methods of attack, and
numbers do not count for everything. [The commentator here
quotes Sun Tzu, V. SS. 5, 6 and 10.] Now the rebels have pitched
their camp in the midst of thick grass which will easily burn
when the wind blows. If we set fire to it at night, they will be
thrown into a panic, and we can make a sortie and attack them on
all sides at once, thus emulating the achievement of T`ien Tan.'
[See p. 90.] That same evening, a strong breeze sprang up; so
Huang-fu Sung instructed his soldiers to bind reeds together into
torches and mount guard on the city walls, after which he sent
out a band of daring men, who stealthily made their way through
the lines and started the fire with loud shouts and yells.
Simultaneously, a glare of light shot up from the city walls, and
Huang-fu Sung, sounding his drums, led a rapid charge, which
threw the rebels into confusion and put them to headlong flight."
[HOU HAN SHU, ch. 71.] ]

10. (5) When you start a fire, be to windward of it. Do
not attack from the leeward.

[Chang Yu, following Tu Yu, says: "When you make a fire,
the enemy will retreat away from it; if you oppose his retreat
and attack him then, he will fight desperately, which will not
conduce to your success." A rather more obvious explanation is
given by Tu Mu: "If the wind is in the east, begin burning to
the east of the enemy, and follow up the attack yourself from
that side. If you start the fire on the east side, and then
attack from the west, you will suffer in the same way as your

11. A wind that rises in the daytime lasts long, but a
night breeze soon falls.

[Cf. Lao Tzu's saying: "A violent wind does not last the
space of a morning." (TAO TE CHING, chap. 23.) Mei Yao-ch`en
and Wang Hsi say: "A day breeze dies down at nightfall, and a
night breeze at daybreak. This is what happens as a general
rule." The phenomenon observed may be correct enough, but how
this sense is to be obtained is not apparent.]

12. In every army, the five developments connected with
fire must be known, the movements of the stars calculated, and a
watch kept for the proper days.

[Tu Mu says: "We must make calculations as to the paths of
the stars, and watch for the days on which wind will rise,
before making our attack with fire." Chang Yu seems to interpret
the text differently: "We must not only know how to assail our
opponents with fire, but also be on our guard against similar
attacks from them."]

13. Hence those who use fire as an aid to the attack show
intelligence; those who use water as an aid to the attack gain an
accession of strength.
14. By means of water, an enemy may be intercepted, but not
robbed of all his belongings.

[Ts`ao Kung's note is: "We can merely obstruct the enemy's
road or divide his army, but not sweep away all his accumulated
stores." Water can do useful service, but it lacks the terrible
destructive power of fire. This is the reason, Chang Yu
concludes, why the former is dismissed in a couple of sentences,
whereas the attack by fire is discussed in detail. Wu Tzu (ch.
4) speaks thus of the two elements: "If an army is encamped on
low-lying marshy ground, from which the water cannot run off, and
where the rainfall is heavy, it may be submerged by a flood. If
an army is encamped in wild marsh lands thickly overgrown with
weeds and brambles, and visited by frequent gales, it may be
exterminated by fire."]

15. Unhappy is the fate of one who tries to win his battles
and succeed in his attacks without cultivating the spirit of
enterprise; for the result is waste of time and general

[This is one of the most perplexing passages in Sun Tzu.
Ts`ao Kung says: "Rewards for good service should not be
deferred a single day." And Tu Mu: "If you do not take
opportunity to advance and reward the deserving, your
subordinates will not carry out your commands, and disaster will
ensue." For several reasons, however, and in spite of the
formidable array of scholars on the other side, I prefer the
interpretation suggested by Mei Yao-ch`en alone, whose words I
will quote: "Those who want to make sure of succeeding in their
battles and assaults must seize the favorable moments when they
come and not shrink on occasion from heroic measures: that is to
say, they must resort to such means of attack of fire, water and
the like. What they must not do, and what will prove fatal, is
to sit still and simply hold to the advantages they have got."]

16. Hence the saying: The enlightened ruler lays his plans
well ahead; the good general cultivates his resources.

[Tu Mu quotes the following from the SAN LUEH, ch. 2: "The
warlike prince controls his soldiers by his authority, kits them
together by good faith, and by rewards makes them serviceable.
If faith decays, there will be disruption; if rewards are
deficient, commands will not be respected."]

17. Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your
troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless
the position is critical.

[Sun Tzu may at times appear to be over-cautious, but he
never goes so far in that direction as the remarkable passage in
the TAO TE CHING, ch. 69. "I dare not take the initiative, but
prefer to act on the defensive; I dare not advance an inch, but
prefer to retreat a foot."]

18. No ruler should put troops into the field merely to
gratify his own spleen; no general should fight a battle simply
out of pique.
19. If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if
not, stay where you are.

[This is repeated from XI. ss. 17. Here I feel convinced
that it is an interpolation, for it is evident that ss. 20 ought
to follow immediately on ss. 18.]

20. Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be
succeeded by content.
21. But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never
come again into being;

[The Wu State was destined to be a melancholy example of
this saying.]

nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.
22. Hence the enlightened ruler is heedful, and the good
general full of caution. This is the way to keep a country at
peace and an army intact.

[1] "Unless you enter the tiger's lair, you cannot get hold of
the tiger's cubs."

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