The Nine Grounds from The Art of War

The Art of War, compiled over two thousand years ago has been a valuable source of insight for leaders and strategists. As a study of organizations in conflict its aim is invincibility, victory without battle, and unassailable strength through an understanding and mindful application of the physics, politics, and psychology of conflict. The ‘nine grounds’ examines the ‘tactical’ issues of a group in relation to its terrain or territory, useful in its application to competitive and market analysis and to the social, political, and more abstract senses.

Ground of Dissolution

An area of civil strife, where local interests fight amongst themselves on their own territory – Let there be no battle; maintain coherence, accuracy, and order; unify their minds.

Light Ground

When you enter other’s land, but not too deeply; where soldiers can all get back easily, hence their minds are not fully concentrated and they are not ready for battle – Let there be no stopping; avoid important cities and highways and move forward quickly; keep in touch; burn your boats and bridges to show you have no intention of looking back.

Ground of Contention

A position that would be advantageous to either side in a conflict; from which few could overcome many; the weak could overcome the strong – Let there be no attack; what is advantageous is to get there first and occupy the position; have the troops follow up quickly.

Trafficked Ground

Land of free travel, where you and others can come and go without conflict and without being cut off – Let there be no cutting off of travel and access, so the roads may be used for supply routes; build alliances.

Intersecting Ground

Territory controlling important arteries of communication; surrounded by competitors; providing access to all the people to who is the first to occupy it – Form communications; make alliances firm and secure; be careful about defense.

Heavy Ground

A deep incursion into other’s territory; past many cities and towns; ground from which it is difficult to return – Plunder, in the sense of building up supplies but do not act unjustly or antagonize the people; strengthen supply lines.

Bad Ground

Difficult or useless terrain; difficult routes to travel including mountain forests, marshes, and steep defiles; lacking stability and unsuitable for building fortifications – Keep going; leave this terrain quickly; urge your troops onward.

Surrounded Ground

Terrain with restricted access, suitable for ambush; when the way in is narrow and the way out is circuitous, so a small enemy force can strike you even though your numbers are greater – Make plans; you win by ambush; bring surprise tactics into play; close the gaps and defend against ambush.

Dying Ground

When you cannot press forward or retreat; when you will survive if you fight quickly and will perish if you do not – Indicate to your troops there is no surviving and fight. It is said “Put them on dying ground, and then they will live.” If they are to die there, what can they not do? Warriors exert their full strength; when warriors are in great danger they have no fear; when there is nowhere to go they are firm; when they are deeply involved they stick to it; if they have no choice they will fight. Confront them with annihilation, and they will survive; plunge them into a deadly situation, and they will then live; when people fall into danger, they are then able to strive for victory; once they have fallen into danger and difficulty then the question of winning or losing depends on what they do.

Master Sun

“The condition of a military force is that its essential factor is speed, taking advantage of other’s failure to catch up, going by routes they do not expect, attacking where they are not on guard.”
“In general, the pattern of invasion is that invaders become more intense the farther they enter alien territory, to the point where the native rulership cannot overcome them.”

“Glean from rich fields, and the armies will have enough to eat. Take care of your health and avoid stress, consolidate your energy and build up your strength, maneuver your troops and assess strategies so as to be unfathomable.”

“To even out bravery and make it uniform is the Tao of organization, To be successful with both the hard and soft is based on the pattern of the ground.”

“The contour of the land is an aid to an army; sizing up opponents to determine victory, assessing dangers and distances, is the proper course of action for military leaders. Those who do battle knowing these will win, those who do battle without knowing these will lose”

“To assemble armies and put them into dangerous situations is the business of generals. Adaptations to different grounds, advantages of contraction and expansion, patterns of human feelings and conditions – these must be examined.”

“Therefore those who do not know the plans of competitors cannot prepare alliances. Those who do not know the lay of the land cannot maneuver their forces. Those who do not use local guides cannot take advantage of the ground. The military of an effective rulership must know all these things.”

“So it is said that when you know yourself and others, victory is not in danger; when you know sky and earth, victory is inexhaustible.”

The Art of War, Sun Tzu, Translated by Thomas Cleary, Shambala Publications Inc., Boston, 1988.