The Chinese have a story about giving the enemy a ray of hope. In 206 BC, Cao Cao, a great statesman, artist of war and man of letters, led his army to attack the city of Huguan. As the city was strategically located and very difficult to access, Cao’s army could not take it in spite of great efforts. Cao got extremely outraged and said, “Once I get into the city, I will have all those in it buried alive.”
Soon his words were spread throughout the city. As the defenders in the city feared that it would really happen to them, they waged a desperate resistance. As a result, Cao’s army found it even harder to win the battle. They made months of attempts to get in but in vain. Cao became more uneasy and consulted with his generals for a scheme.
At a meeting, General Cao Ren rose from his seat and said, “The art of war tells us that we should not put the enemy in too tight a ring, that the enemy should be left a way to survive. But here we have been trapping our enemy in a deadly corner. What’s more, you have declared to have them all buried alive. This will only make them battle desperately against us, for they would rather fight to death than be buried alive.”
The general continued: “As I estimate, the enemy has almost run out of supplies. If we now give them a ray of hope by leaving an opening in the ring we have put around them, they are very likely to surrender to us. After all, they would rather survive than fight to death for nothing.”
Cao Cao thought this advice to be quite sensible and ordered to do as the general said. Soon, the defending troops in the city crossed over to Cao’s side. The city was filly seized without a cruel, bloody fight to the finish.
And so it was that Sun Tzu, the great Chinese general, military strategist and philosopher wrote in his treatise ‘The Art of War’: “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard. In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it.”
Sun Tzu’s teaching has been echoed by other military thinkers who believe it makes more sense to conquer by assimilating. “By absorbing your enemy and his strengths you become stronger, destroy them and you are more likely to have an empty victory” — is their advice in a nutshell.
Sun Tzu further wrote: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
But it is not possible to truly know the enemy if he is held in contempt, if he is considered lesser than oneself. Once the enemy’s emotions are understood with proper compassion, his mind can be read.
This makes it possible to apply Sun Tzu’s crowning principle — that the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting, that the greatest victory is one which requires no battle.