Clausewitz vs. Sun Tzu

Their is an old saying at West Point:  ‘beginners study tactics, amateurs study strategy, but only the best study logistics’.  Logistics being the formal study of how one achieves a goal.  Their is not always symmetry between these competing claims as witnessed throughout successful military officers who have studied war as strategy.

September 11 and the ‘long war’ has exacerbated an already long debate within military strategic craft who study the advantages and limitations of both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu.  The literature on both men is astonishing.  However, without studying how geography, politics, morale and psychology all interact to blunt the initiatives of warcraft it is pointless to study either men in isolation.  In the end, Clausewitz was wrong to ignore experience as a hermeneutic strengthening the impact of employing terrain to blunt an adversaries initiative.

This post will explore a biography of both men whose writings dominate the curriculum of War colleges and a brief synopsis outlining the weaknesses implicit in each strategist.

Clausewitz was a Prussian military officer (d. 1831) who began his text ‘On War’ in 1816, it remained unfinished upon his death and was published by his wife who assumed the imprimatur.  Clausewitz viewed war as a social act, an extension of political craft with moral and ethical consequences in both its construction and execution.

His philosophical antecedents were Kant, Hegel and a Romantic movement that dominated University life throughout Germany and Russia throughout the 18th & 19th century.  Both Kant and Hegel advance an idealism in respect to perspective.  This is an intrinsic weakness to Clausewitz for he ignores both the craft of intelligence and experience in the execution of war aims.  Both proposed to discover the ‘center of gravity’ in each engagement.  This is defined as an opponents operational, strategic and political power. Notice the use of Newtonian mechanics throughout the study of both Clausewitz and Jumini.

Clausewitz’s arch nemesis was Antoine Henri Jumini who dominated the military curricula in the American South immediately before the Civil War.  Jumini advocated the aphorism that a commander should put superior combat power at the decisive point in any engagement, he also stressed exclusive superiority of maintaing interior lines of communication, engagement and supply.  Still, the writings of Jumini were not adapted to the geography of the American South.  It is significant that neither man proposed to study the personality and command that provides superior craft in assessing when to apply the proponents of either text.

Both Jumini and Clausewitz stressed the social characteristic (class) of its troops and both domestic, international politics.  Both categories are no longer relevant in contemporary society.  Studying class orientation and Monarchy reveals the political limitations of both men’s capacity to access the rise of democracy in the west and the social impact implicit in democratic society.

The finest critic of Clausewitz was Raymond Aron’s text ‘Clausewitz:  Philosopher of War’ and Christopher Bassford ‘Clausewitz in English’.

Sun Tzu is considered the finest military strategist to ever fight throughout the Orient.  It is not possible to discover whether he is an actual person or a community of persons dedicated to studying the craft of war.  Nevertheless, he text is by far the single most significant study of military craft.  His study of war was crafted during the ‘Warring States Period’.   This was cultural anarchy among several provinces, each with equal weaponry and manpower.  Although Sun Tzu is a contemporary of Confucius he was not stimulated by the monolithic approach so characteristic of Confucius’ social endeavor to end anarchy.  Such a monolithic approach had its cultural response among the population as Taoism.

Taoism is not monolithic in either its approach or execution of any assessment of warcraft.  Sun Tzu approaches his study synoptically; nothing is treated in isolation. Aphorisms are used, not narrative.  He treats the use of intelligence with geography and supply lines together.  This gives his approach an easier grasp to the novice.  However, their are enormous problems implicit in Sun Tzu.  Problems that did not constrain Clausewitz.

Sun Tzu lived in an age of enormous anarchy, analogous to Mao Zedon’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ and ‘Great Leap Forward’.  Both Sun Tzu and Confucius never discovered the use of reason in warcraft.  Consequently, both Sun Tzu and Confucius neglected to develop politics as an equivalent discipline; a necessary appendage to consolidating victory.

Why is this so?

Sinic Civilization never developed an ethics outside its Confucian mandate.  Without recognizing the necessity of a moral foundation, Chinese culture was left to the single device of power alone, as demonstrated in its monolithic posture of rigid Confucian assimilation.  This means that Chinese Civilization never recognized the significance of the individual person.  The West’s development of reason in the Enlightenment, its ability to permit spheres of autonomy (Reformation) in its culture gave it an enduring strength that Chinese civilization did not possess. In a word, the west recognized the limits of both power and politics.  Sinic Civilization never did.

Does anyone think that the cruelty demonstrated as enforced solicitation of compliance among either Hannibal’s or Sun Tzu’s troops would be tolerated in the West?  Could Petraeus act like Gengis Khan, Mao, or even Vo Nguyen Giap and still retain command?  The west is superior because we believe and shape our warcraft from an informed Christian anthropology.  This is the most enduring quality to our warcraft.

Those interested in reading the world’s finest commentary on Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ should choose Mark McNelly’s ‘Sun Tzu & The Art Of Modern Warfare’.  Other posts in this blog to help the reader continue his/her interest in thoughts given here should read ‘The Specificity of Christian Ethics’ or ‘Christ or Kung Fu’ to understand how reason has significantly elevated the west, along with ‘Civilizational Growth & Decline’ for a study on discovering criteria to discern whether an Empire/Civilization is in growth or decline.

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
This entry was posted in Antiquity, Arnold Toynbee, China, Ethics, International Relations, Kant, Morality, Politics, Raymond Aron, Sun Tzu, Theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Clausewitz vs. Sun Tzu

  1. seydlitz89 says:

    Could you explain this?

    “Clausewitz was wrong to ignore experience as a hermeneutic strengthening the impact of employing terrain to blunt an adversaries initiative.”

    and this?

    “Studying class orientation and Monarchy reveals the political limitations of both men’s capacity to access the rise of democracy in the west and the social impact implicit in democratic society.”

    Jumbling Jomini with Clausewitz is counterproductive since their approaches are quite different.

    Sun Tzu’s perspective seems to better fit the “monarchy” and “class distinctions” you decribe as being Clausewitzian . . . Also the warring states period was more of balance between the competing states which would preclude one state dominating the others, that is a series of limited wars . . . How exactly would the product of that view fit with the last 200 years?

  2. Thanks for reading this post and the blog in general, I am most appreciative that informed readers actually appreciate the topic I propose. Forgive any confusion, the medium of blogging just dosen’t have the immediacy that a lecture has. Nevertheless, I hope you find my responses adequate to your needs.

    1. Clausewitz was primarily informed from Kantian apriori intutions devoid of experience. This had devastating consequences regarding the implementation of his strategy, he minimizes how geography can blunt both weaponry and initiative.

    You are correct in regards to differing approaches b/t Jomini & Clausewitz.

    2. I don’t think it wise to incorporate western feudal categories into any assessment of Sinic Civilization, although ‘class distinction’ and ‘monarchy’ are certainly analogous – the point is simple: Neither Jomini nor Clausewitz could anticipate the breech that became democracy, especially regarding the social and political impact of egalitarianism.

    3. I think your enlightened perspective regarding a balance of power; although historically accurate misses the more significant political, moral impact such a balance produced: namely anarchy.

    4. Last 200 years: China exhausted Herself and already began its Civilizational decline in never achieving sufficient growth to overcome the Western Challenge.


  3. seydlitz89 says:

    Thanks for your response.

    1. Clausewitz was influenced by Kant indirectly through Kiesewetter and perhaps more so by Schliermacher, but that does not mean that his theory is no rooted in experience, hence the fundamental interaction between theory and praxis . . . theory develops retroactively from experience. This is the basic Clausewitzian approach.

    2. Could Sun Tzu have anticipated democracy? I think not.

    Did not modern democracy already exist in Clausewitz’s time? He has the rational element of the “remarkable trinity” being the subordination to politics, what is more democratic than that?

    3. How would limited wars lead to anarchy? It is rather unlimited wars that do so. You seem to be mistaking Sun Tzu for Hobbes.

    4. You’re leaving out at least a couple of thousand years of Chinese history.

  4. I deeply appreciate your rigor, even if I find it a bit misplaced in the admonishment to referencing other great authors.

    1. Your reference to Schliermacher references the ‘Romantic’ movement, not apriori Kantian intuitions.

    2. I think we could agree that in referencing ‘experience’ I am referring to the intellectual antecedents that dominated curricula in both Prussian and French War Colleges.

    3. I admit to being a bit confused on your second point. I was not referring to Sun Tzu concerning democracy.

    4. Clausewitzian ‘trinity’ is correct, yet he personally harbored no love for egalitarian principals, I was making a biographical comment.

    5. As for ‘anarchy’, I would kindly ask that you consider any commentary. I was referencing Oriental commentaries of Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig’s voluminous undertaking as Chair’s of Harvard’s East Asia Studies Program.
    I think you will find the two authors I mentioned referencing Clausewitz are authoritative.

    I always remember the polygot George Steiner at Cambridge who once remarked that ‘a critic looks back and see’s a eunech’s shadow’ (lol). I’ve always loved that admonishment for those who seek refuge in the ‘jot & tittle’ of academia.
    I think you would agree that blogging is to open up more books than it covers!

  5. seydlitz89 says:

    I appreciate your attempt at Clausewitz as well, but I think you’re missing the point. You are attempting to put him in a box and seem to limit the range of influences to ones that you can readily catagorize: “Kant is this and Schliermacher is that” without realizing that Clausewitz took in these influences and proceeded to apply them in very different ways. Your argument is simply a statement, “apriori Kantian intuitions” but with not explanation or examples and honestly misses Clausewitz’s entire approach. As to “Romantic” and “Enlightenment”, Clausewitz fits in both.

    The comparision of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz is also skewed since the former is talking about state craft and the latter is talking about war, but not just war, actually two quite different types of strategic theory. Sun Tzu’s is more a list of stratagems, whereas Clausewitz is presenting both an art of Napoleonic warfare and a general theory of war. One could follow Sun Tzu in state policy, but then Clausewitz in war, but use both in tactics. Imo it is not a question of “versus”, but rather “and/or”.

    Clausewitz’s attitudes towards democracy is seen as negative, whereas Sun Tzu’s goes unquestioned; to be balanced would you not have to apply this to both? Yet Clausewitz would have seen it the responsbility of those in charge of the government to operate with the best interests of the state in mind, which is essentially in terms of the political community as a whole, which is well a democratic value, is it not?

    Happy trails.

  6. Paul says:

    1. What do you think the most important single lesson that both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu can teach the military strategist today?
    2. What can Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ add to our understanding of strategy today?

  7. Thanks for the questions, I do think you will find elaborate answers on my other earlier two posts, please read ‘Christ or Kung Fu’ for a definitive answer. Let me know what you think.

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