Clausewitz vs. Sun Tzu

  

This article at SWJ blog has stirred a lively debate in the comments section with some very able practitioner-scholars weighing in.

….Sun Tzu?s ancient military philosophy of indirectness and gradualism runs counter-culture with much of mainstream western military strategy. Western reliance on superior technology and firepower shaped American counterinsurgency doctrine to be largely lethal in nature and enemy focused. Clausewitz instructed generations of military officers that the destruction of the enemy?s army is the primary goal in all combat1; therefore, all political-military conflict results in offensive action where attrition of the enemy force becomes a universal requirement. Clausewitzian war theory „worked? in both world wars in that the Allies did accomplish their desired goals; however critics such as Israeli strategist Shimon Naveh raise valid questions on whether Clausewitz?s fixation on offensive action and attrition warfare helped or hindered the Allied causes2. Despite Clausewitzian strategy?s seemingly illogical structure, application of his theories in the major 20th century conflicts created an enduring military school of war strategy with „On War? taking a sacred position.

In fairness to Clausewitz, this is over the top.

The US military could use more Sun Tzu; it is far more Clausewitzian in the perspective of the officer corps than it is “Sun Tzuite”, but the armed services are not the Children of Clausewitz. Not even the US Army. We’d probably be better off if the American military was more thoroughly one or the other in terms of strategic culture than the industrial age, bureaucratic, ad hoc, legacy thinking non-strategic hodgepode that currently prevails.

I do not expect that to change. American military organizational culture is driven more by appropriations than by ideas.

Some Related Links:

Sonishi.com Interview with Martin van Creveld on Sun Tzu

Sonishi.com Interview with Chet Richards on Sun Tzu and Boyd

Christopher Bassford on Sun Tzu, Jomini and Clausewitz

Colin Gray on Clausewitz and the Modern Strategic World

The Clausewitz Roundtable

Strategy of the Headless Chicken

11 comments on this post.
  1. Joseph Fouche:

    Considering that Mao found both Clausewitz, a dead long nosed reactionary barbarian,and Sun-tzu useful, this sort of mindless pap makes no sense. It would be a useful exercise if more people read Michael Handel’s classic Masters of War which shows the many commonalities between Clausewitz, Sun-tzu, Mao, Jomini, Machiavelli, and Corbett. Handel, like Boyd, died at the beginning of the last decade and his loss is felt in contemporary strategic discourse.Masters of War.http://www.amazon.com/Masters-War-Classical-Strategic-Thought/dp/0714681326 

  2. Lexington Green:

    It is not either / or.  Why would it be either / or?  I wish Clausewitz himself had read Sun Tzu.  It was way too early.  No one at that point thought we (we Europeans and Euro-derived Americans) had anything to learn from the Chinese.  I need to read Handel.  But, what I "need to read" is of oceanic depth.  It also includes, near the front of the queue, oh, I guess, the new Illinois Rules of Evidence that take effect on January 1, 2010.   Handel has to get behind that.  Blast.  

  3. seydlitz89:

    Funny how we always come back to square one . . . if one can understand the distinction between strategic theory (Clausewitz), strategic doctrine (Douhet) and stratagems/an approach to strategy as opposed to just war (Sun Tzu) we could avoid a lot of confusion.  Zweibelson’s title says it all . . . he attempts to make Clausewitz into a guide for action, which Clausewitz says strategic theory can never be . . . Relying on Hart is also a bad idea.  Naveh of course is talking about "operational theory" in other words a component of strategic doctrine, so it’s obvious he would have problems with applying Clausewitz to that beyond the odd maxim.

    But is it so surprising that we seem unable to think clearly strategically?  Where exactly, in what field, is the West of today, with its collapsing epicenter in the USA, thinking "clearly"?  Economics?  Ethics?  Justice?  Intellect?  Politics?  How to identify core and existential requirements?  How to safeguard the community against the narrow interests of the powerful?   Our strategic confusion is simply one of many . . .

  4. T. Greer:

    "By separating indigenous moderate Taliban from "core Taliban? and foreign fighter Al Qaeda forces, Coalition Forces could utilize Sun Tzu principles through non-lethal means."

    .

    Wait – aren’t coalition forces doing that anyway?  Mr. Zweibelson destroys a straw man, nothing more.

  5. Joseph Fouche:

    This gets back to a point Charles has been making in his last few posts: models, mental or otherwise, that create a shared understanding between disparate individuals. I doubt everyone on this thread has a shared definition of what strategy is, for example.

  6. zen:

    Hi Gents,
    .
    "But is it so surprising that we seem unable to think clearly strategically?  Where exactly, in what field, is the West of today, with its collapsing epicenter in the USA, thinking "clearly"? "
    .
    Yes, I think there is, for lack of a better term, an "epistemic crisis" in Western civilization that is being manifested in a variety of ways and with a number of causes. Some symptoms are particularly acute in America and others moreso in Europe. It is a subject that would make a good post. Or more likely, a book.
    .
    Could these psychological-cultural trends be reversed? Sure. But it would take time, just as the mental rot did not accumulate and proliferate overnight. Reversal would also be bitterly opposed by vested interests who benefit from magical thinking, institutionalized irrationality and the establishment and defense of sacred cows.
    .
    "I doubt everyone on this thread has a shared definition of what strategy is, for example."
    .
    True enough, but this standard of mutual comprehension is also relative. Our shared understanding here of what strategy is and is not is probably far more congruent than that of 100 Americans chosen at random. Or even 100 MBAs or 100 PhDs selected at random.

  7. Jeb:

    Well, since most of the people in the country would probably mellow out if they had a couple of McDonald’s Hamburgers and maybe a tv that gets The Sopranos nice and clear, maybe our best bet is to build some malls and some fast food joints instead of bombing?  That is probably more Lao Tzu than Mao or any of those other wierdos.

  8. Lexington Green:

    Seydlitz89 asks the right question: How to identify core and existential requirements? 
    If strategy is bringing ends and means into alignment, then you need clarity about ends.  If you are the British in Victorian times, there is a lot of congruence about what the ends are: your own power, wealth and prestige, if necessary at the expense of others you can compel to accept your rule or rule by your proxies.  The means available are whatever you can get Parliament to provide in terms of men, ships and money, and there are few limits on what you are allowed to do to get your way.   The elite accepted this, and the elite made policy.  America has a more grand but more difuse notion of itself and its interests, and a much broader set of constituencies who decide what ends they want served, so the "ends" part of the equation is hazy.  The means to be employed are also far more limited in terms of public acceptability, treaty commitments, and publicity.  It is very difficult to formulate and execute strategy in this setting, even if you can agree what it means below the level of my extremely general articulation (plans and acts taken to achieve desired ends with available means.)

  9. Larry Dunbar:

    "Handel has to get behind that.  Blast." You are probably right, after Bush and Blair destroyed the grand strategy, the only ones reading Handel are the Swiss.

  10. John and Carl, Sittin’ Under a Tree… « The Committee of Public Safety:

    […] Carl von Clausewitz, KPB and advocates of Col. John Boyd, USAF (ret) coincided with other outbreaks between supporters of Sun Wu and Clausewitz. Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray that all such […]

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