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Soviet-Afghan War Origins

Ireland & England

Clausewitz vs. Sun Tzu

March 13, 2008 by Ando

This was orignially an essay written for my War and Diplomacy class.

When one thinks of war and of those who fight it, many names may come to mind.
Patton, Rommel, Montgomery, Zhukov would certainly be mentioned in any
conversation about World War II. Certainly Napoleon and Frederick the Great would be
spoken of from wars of an earlier time. The list of notable warriors from history would
be endless. But more than any two individuals, the words of Karl von Clausewitz and
Sun Tzu in their works On War and The Art of War, respectively, have influenced the
study of the conduct of wars. While these two men, separated in history by over two
thousand years, are both thoroughly studied and praised for their council on war
fighting, and, indeed, share many ideas, that does not mean that they are in total
agreement. Their theories do diverge in certain areas.

Perhaps the most striking contrast between the two is in their separate means in
reaching the end of victory. Sun Tzu advocates that the best way to achieve victory is
to do so without fighting at all. He declares, To subdue the enemy without fighting is
the acme of skill. The thwarting of the enemy through the defeating of his strategy
before the fighting actually begins, and separating him from his allies is the best course
of action. The preferred methods for success in these matters would be the use of
diplomacy, propaganda, and secret agents. By undermining the enemys plans and
allies in this way, the need for actual battle became unnecessary for victory. Clausewitz
would disagree.

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One of the key, if not the most integral, of Clausewitzs concepts was that of the center
of gravity; the attacking of the enemys army, capitol, or ally. Essentially whatever it is
that is the main hub of his power. Clausewitz said that the enemys center of gravity is
the point which all our energies should be directed. He also stated that only by
daring all to win all, will one really defeat the enemy. Michael Howard has noted that
Clausewitz may have, when asked, insisted that work of diplomacy and spying was
better left to the political leaders, not military. But it is surprising he would not give
more credence to these ideas like Sun Tzu did, especially since he clearly realized the
close relationship between politics and war. So in contrast to Sun Tzus idea of winning
the victory without a fight, Clausewitz stresses the fight as the key to success.

Another diverging area of these two war theorists is the notion of the predictability of
war. Through Sun Tzus words one can make the assumption that he saw war as a
rather predictable event. He goes as far to say that if a commander is able to follow his
instructions, I will be able to forecast which side will be victorious and which
defeated. Even from an expert whose counsel has endured for centuries, this is a bold
claim! Clausewitz saw things very differently. Having been a soldier since his early
teens, he no doubt knew firsthand the confusion of the battlefield. A commander may
have the best laid plans, but the fog of the battlefield can prevent the enemy from
being seen in time, a gun from firing when it should, a report from reaching the
commanding officer. There are uncontrollable factors that render plans, often times,
mostly useless.

A third difference of opinion between Sun Tzu and Clausewitz is the goal when engaging
the enemy army. As we have seen, Sun Tzu praised victory without fighting as the
acme of skill. It stands to reason then that he would also favor the taking of an enemy
army intact. This is done, as we have seen, most successfully by not having to fight to
achieve victory. In this way, Sun Tzu says, your troops will not be worn out and your
gains will be complete. In Clausewitzs mind, the goal of the engagement was to
destroy the enemys army. As weve seen already, by daring all to win all is the only
way to have total victory.

Despite these differences, Sun Tzu and Clausewitz do have much in common. Both put
a premium on the importance of morale, both for the commander armies and the home

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They understood that giving the men a reason to fight, and keep on fighting is critical.
They also would agree that in the best cases wars should be short. Sun Tzu says that,
there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited. This idea
is directly related to that of morale. The longer the fight, the more it taxed not only the
fighting man, but the home front as well, as more conscripts would be needed and
more taxes levied to pay for them. Clausewitz recognized the importance and
expressed it by saying, to paraphrase, a good general can give the orders, but the
soldier must have the wherewithal to follow them.

A third area in which they would agree is the idea of strength. Not just strength in the
general sense, but specifically at the decisive point. As Sun Tzu stated, Thus a
victorious army is as a hundredweight balanced against a grain. Essentially, it is a pre-
Powell doctrine of overwhelming force. This is echoed in Clausewitz when he claims,
The best strategy is always to be very strong.

Choosing between these two is difficult because they both have strengths and
weaknesses. If pinned down to make a decision, which I am, I would probably agree
more with Clausewitz mainly because of his recognition of the friction that occurs on the
battlefield. Though Sun Tzus words of, a victorious army wins its victories before
seeking battle are crucial to successful war planning, Clausewitzs practicality
ultimately wins out.

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