Tuesday, September 30, 2014
The Nine Terrains
[I did some consulting for a business friend of mine about the 9 types of terrain listed by Sunzi, particularly focal terrain, and thought my answer might benefit a wider audience.]
Thanks for the questions. To start I looked at Ralph Sawyer’s commentary accompanying his translation:
The Nine terrains analyzed in this chapter appear in two sequences with some variations. In addition, some the terms appeared previously in Chapters 8 and 10; other are new but apparently overlap with earlier configurations. This suggests that essential materials have been lost, the text has been corrupted, or the concepts were in a state of flux and not yet rigidly defined.
Dispersive: Following Giles and Griffith [other translations], who use the appropriate term “dispersive.” The commenters generally understand dispersive as referring to the tendency of the men, while fighting within their native state, to be thinking of their homes and families and to be inclined to return there. Consequently, they are neither unified nor aroused to a fighting spirit. Note that later in the chapter the commander must unify their will on dispersive terrain (before invading enemy territory), and Sunzi also advises against engaging on dispersive terrain. This was perhaps a strategy designed to vitiate an invader’s strength before engaging him in battle.
Light: Apparently, the soldiers still do not regard the enterprise too seriously and continue to think about home and family. Because it remains relatively easy to withdraw but dangerous to forge ahead, it is termed “light terrain.”
Contentious Terrain: This is ground for which one contends, therefore “contentious” terrain. (Giles also translates as “contentious,” Griffith as “key ground,” and it is unquestionably a strategic point.) The configurations of terrain previous warned against in the last chapter are probably prime objectives under this category of their great tactical potential if they can be seized and exploited.
Traversable terrain: In chapter 10 this is termed “accessible” terrain. Army movement is unhampered.
Focal: Following Griffith’s apt term, “focal.” Presumable this is territory in which major highways intersect and is accessible to major powers on various sides. Its occupation is the key to controlling vast territory…The character literally means, “terrain where the highways intersect.”
Heavy: Griffith translates as “serious.” This term contrats with “light terrain,” the severity of their situation now being clearly apparent to the soldiers. Their minds are unified, their courage united. Chu Chun sees the critical element as the cessation of food supplies, with the soldiers suddenly having to forage and plunder to sustain themselves, as stately slightly later in the chapter. This weighs heavily on them.
Entrapping: This seems to also encompass Heavens Pit and Heaven’s Net. The term is first discussed in Chapter 8.
Encircled Terrain: “Constricted” is the same term as that used for one of the configurations in chapter 10. (It can also mean a “gorge.”) The term for “encircled” can also be translated as “besieged” in other contexts and clearly carries such implications. The emphasis here is on the necessity to pass through a narrow opening or along a narrow passage, which constrains the flow of men and material and thereby makes them vulnerable to being surrounded and attacked by even a small force. [See the Chinese success against the Japanese army at Pingxingguang Pass, September 1937, for a good example.]
Fatal: Sunzi consistently advocates exploiting “ground of death” because when troops are deployed on it, the situation forces them to fight valiantly. The commentators think it would be terrain with the solid obstacles to the front, such as mountains, and water to the rear, preventing a withdrawal.
For an example of focal terrain we might look at Moroni 9:16:
And again, my son, there are many widows and their daughters who remain in Sherrizah; and that part of the provisions which the Lamanites did not carry away, behold, the army of Zenephi has carried away, and left them to wander whithersoever they can for food; and many old women do faint by the way and die.
Strategically this implies that the Nephites were pressed on several fronts. All the armies were close to the tower of Sherrizah, but Mormon could not reach it. So the Lamanite army likely occupied what is called the central position. This allowed the Lamanites to shift and mass their forces between the army of Mormon and that of Zenephi as necessary. While the Nephites armies would each have to attack on their own. Since Zenephi is not following the orders of Mormon it is unlikely that would work together, even if they could coordinate an attack with a Lamanite army between them. Napoleons early campaigns in Italy, and Stonewall Jackson at the battles of Cross Keys and Port Republic used this to maneuver to great effect. Jackson was being chased by two separate armies closing in on the North and South. So he delayed one and fought the other. After his victory he then turned and defeated the other army. The combined armies could have crushed Jackson if they coordinated properly, but Jackson was able to out maneuver them and defeat each in turn.
The Chinese held focal terrain during WWII at the battles of Wuhan (1938) and Hengyang (1944). Both were pivotal rail junctions, the former had a large concentration of factories and the fleeing national government, the latter housed important American air bases and was the junction of several important rail lines in southern China. The first battle featured Chinese forces defending a central position with Japanese armies maneuvering and defeating Chinese forces from the North, South, and East. Chinese forces eventually fled West to Chongqing.
Wang Qisheng, Professor of History at Peking, wrote: During the battle of Hengyang, Chiang Kai-Shek sent Bai Chongxi, the vice chief of staff, to Guilin with the task of coordinating the defense of the city…. Bai held to a different strategic view than Xu Yongchang [leading Nationalist commander], but he also disagreed with Xue Yue’s [a local commander] operational plans. Unsurprisingly, conflicting order confused local combat units, and the Chinese forces were hamstrung by a lack of coordination.
A further problem was the lack of communication between frontline commanders. The Tenth Army defended [the focal terrain] of Hengyang for more than forty days. If reinforcements had coordinated their operations with the Tenth Army inside the city, the defense of Hengyang might have been more effective. When the Tenth Army tried to force its way out of the city, units outside offered no support. When units outside attacked the enemy, the Tenth Army merely adopted a defensive position. The lack of coordination meant that the Japanese could defeat the defenders piecemeal. 
This is good example of the need for unity in command, and coordination of forces when occupying a central, or focal position.
From my chapter on military philosophy in Ender’s Game, many Chinese commanders would deliberately place their armies with their backs to a river or mountain, to prevent fleeing; Sunzi called these kinds of decisions the use of “fatal terrain.” Of the soldiers, he said “Throw them into a place from which there is nowhere to go, and they will die rather than flee. When they are facing death, how could one not obtain the utmost strength from the officers and men?” At the beginning of Ender’s training, Graff was asked if he “enjoyed breaking” students. He replied that he did, but only when they “put the pieces back afterward, and are better for it.” The modern slogan “sink or swim” nicely captures this concept. In a military context, a commander would deliberately place his troops in hopeless situations, with their backs to the river or in a position with no chance of escape. The fatal terrain tactic was intended to quickly stimulate the discipline and effort needed to survive the battle.
Graff used fatal terrain when he stacked the game against Ender. Faced with daily battleroom contests and twice the normal number of opponents, and students seeking to kill him on top of that, Ender had to quickly learn how to “swim.” The final product supported the thinking of both Graff and Sunzi when Ender showed himself a victorious commander. Commanding the fleet in attacking the bugger home world, Ender was thrown in the deep end, hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. But he called upon his resolve from his earlier “hopeless situations” and achieved total victory.
Another military theorist who wrote in the Seven Military Classics, Wuzi, said: The people do not take pleasure in dying, nor do they hate life, [but] if the commands and orders are clear, and the laws and regulations carefully detailed, you can make them advance. When, before [combat], rewards are made clear, and afterward punishments are made decisive, then when [the troops] issue forth they will be able to realize an advantage, and when they move they will be successful.
Conclusion: So we see that focal terrain requires cooperation among different commanders and a skillful maneuvering of the armies. Fatal terrain is used to enhance the effectiveness and moral of soldiers. Thanks for the question, I’m happy to help and ready to add any clarification if needed. I enjoyed putting this together, if anybody needs advice or consultation on military theory or Chinese military history I’m happy to help.
 Ralph Sawyer Trans. Sunzi’s Art of War, in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (New York, Westview Press, 1993)178, 450-451.
 See the Battle of Cross Shields and Port Republic towards the bottom of the page. Author, “Jackson’s Valley Campaign May 21- Jun 9 1862. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jackson%27s_Valley_Campaign_May_21_-_June_9,_1862.png
 Wang Qisheng, “The Battle of Hunan and the Chinese Military’s Response to Operation Ichigo” in The Battle for
China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945, eds Mark Peattie, Edward Drea, and Hans Van De Ven, (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2011) 414 (403-420).
 Morgan Deane, “Forming the Formless: Sunzi and the Military Logic of Ender Wiggins” in Ender’s Game: The Logic Gate is Down ed by Kevin Decker, (New York, Black Well Press, 2013), 81-82 (78-88).
 This is Graff’s translation of a key passage in Sunzi’s Art of War, David Graff, Medieval Chinese Warfare: 300–900 (New York: Routledge Press, 2003), 168-169.
 Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game (New York: TOR Books, 1991), 20.
 Ralph Sawyer trans., The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China
(New York: Westview Press, 1993) 245.