What do we see of the art of war? There are three main battles, all long set-pieces. We see formations & maneuvering; a lot of heroic fights, but few duels between heroes. We see a dramatic shift from one army to the other; maneuvering in a disciplined manner is a sign of victory; achieving tactical objectives is all in the doing. Slaughter ends up looking surprisingly reasonable…
Zhou Yu is the hero of this battle. He served the Sun clan faithfully & his peculiar achievements shine through the war. He saw through Cao’s boasts, including his victories, to the strategic situation: He saw which troops were reliable; which knew how to fight on land & which on water; which were rested; which were healthy. This is the same as seeing how a general rules his armies, learning his powers.
Zhou then betrayed a friend to sow discord in Cao’s camp, preying on the tyrant’s fears, leading him to vengeance against his own generals & advisers. Zhou was a better judge of character than the other heroes & the best general. He won by using Cao’s army against him, which compensated for his own small army. He was the most beautiful of the heroes; he knew both archery & music. He had a noble wife, who loved to see him dance with his sword.
Zhuge Liang is the other hero who teaches us about the art of war. He does not fight, but merely advises. A young man himself, he pays close attention to the land, whereas the captains pay attention to each other. He is also a chief diplomat. We have seen how he appealed to Sun’s nobility by first pointing out the limits of calculation. He knows that princes compete for greatness, which is the only way the state can hope to thrive, for it protects the people.
Zhuge we first see ear to the ground, listening to the sound of formations the poet shows us. He deceives armies twice. He turns shields into mirrors to blind horses, upsetting their riders; he uses fog to deceive people into shooting at strawmen. He uses men’s horses & arrows against them. He shows light & dark can both blind. He knows deception because he knows how things seem to people. He studies meteorology & medicine.
Zhou & Zhuge come to the same analysis of Cao’s temper. They know he is cruel because he fears treason. This is why he wants to unite the empire, to avoid the possibility of treachery. Cao is not a great deceiver; the other princes are. Both Liu & Sun pretended to serve Cao when it suited them. The heroes conceal themselves in their enemy’s enmity.