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Sun Tzu Versus Carl Von Clausewitz

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Robert S. Henzerling
Strategy and Tactics
Henley-Putnam University

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This paper was prepared for HIS 350, Open Sources Research, taught by Leland Erickson

"Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war."
-Carl von Clausewitz

When one talks of those who fought in war, names like Patton, Churchill, Napoleon, and Gallic comes to mind. But the words and strategy of Sun Tzu, and Carl Von Clausewitz works appear more than anyone in history of war. Although separated by centuries between them, their principles, ideas, and theories are studied thoroughly by militaries across the world. Although they shared many of the same ideas, does not mean they were in total agreement. In fact their theories diverge in certain areas. The most diverged area amongst the two was their idea of reaching the end of victory. Sun Tzu defines victory as taking a state intact. He says it is better to capture the enemy then to destroy them. “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme skill.” Sun Tzu also states that you should not allow your enemies to come together; you should severe and destroy your enemies’ alliances. The preferred methods for success in these matters would be the use of diplomacy, propaganda, and secret agents. By undermining the enemy’s plans and allies in this way, the need for actual battle became unnecessary for victory (Sun Tzu, The Art of War, p. 78). Carl Von Clausewitz view on this is in total disagreement. He believes in the destruction of the enemies’ army, the conquest of his territory, and the breaking of the enemies’ wills (Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, p. 102-105). “Kind-hearted people might of course think that there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed....mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst” (Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, p. 83-84).
Sun Tzu, however, only advises to destroy the enemy’s army after attacks on the opponent’s strategy and diplomacy in order to destroy its alliances have failed (Sun Tzu, The Art of War, p. 78).
Another argument was the differences in the predictability of war. Sun Tzu said war was a rather predictable event. He even 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 (Sun Tzu, The Art of War, p. 66).” This is a bold claim, from an expert whose work has endured for centuries! Clausewitz saw things differently. Having been a soldier himself since his early teens, he seen firsthand the confusion of the battlefield. A commander may have the best laid plans, but the “fog of war” can “prevent the enemy from being seen… a report from reaching the commanding officer.” There are uncontrollable factors that render plans, often times, and mostly useless (Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, p. 139).
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 defeated (Sun Tzu, The Art of War, p. 77).” 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 (Sun Tzu, The Art of War, p. 79).” In Clausewitz’s mind, the goal of the engagement was to destroy the enemy’s army. As we’ve seen already, “by daring all to win all” is the only way to have total victory (Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, p. 720).
The fourth contrast between the two authors is their views of intelligence. Sun Tzu says that, if a leader fully assesses the situation the outcome of war can be foreseen. “To gauge the outcome of war we must compare the two sides by assessing their relative strengths. … by comparing I will be able to forecast which side will be victorious and which defeated (Sun Tzu, The Art of War, p. 66).” Sun Tzu writes that it is important to gather as much information about your enemy as possible to get a full analysis of his strengths and weaknesses and gain a comparative advantage. “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be defeated (Sun Tzu, The Art of War, p. 84).” There has been several times in history in which if we followed this example from Sun Tzu, the outcome would have been different. Al-Qaeda’s plans to attack us on 9/11 were forewarned and ignored, if our intelligence community analyzed all possibilities and gathered the enemy’s information of their strength and weaknesses, I believe 9/11 would not have happened. If the Great Powers of the world in 1914 properly gathered intelligence on Germany, they would have known that the First World War was going to be long and destructive. Clausewitz claims the characters of war is determined by the three tendencies or paradoxical trinity, this is comprised of primitive violence, hatred, and hostility, all to be regarded as blind natural force, which generally correspond to the people, the military, and the government (Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, p. 101). People are driven by passion and hatred can move states to fight, soldiers must often face uncertainty and friction and rationale are what governments base their decisions on (T.G, Mahnken, Strategic Theory, p. 72). The trinity can still help us understand relevant conflicts and the issue of “winning hearts and minds” combining passion and reason. Clausewitz views the nature of a war as a necessary preconception in order to develop a strategy. “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…” (Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, p. 101). There are three broad objectives which cover everything and that is, the destruction of the enemy’s forces, the conquest of the enemies territory, and the breaking of the enemies will (Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, p. 102-105). Finally there are many roads that lead to success, and it does not necessarily mean the opponent’s outright defeat. They range from defeat of the enemies forces, to conquest of his territory, to occupation or invasion, to projects of political purpose, and finally passively awaiting the enemy’s attacks. In 1991, Iraq’s military was seen as the centre of gravity, when in fact the power laid with Saddam Hussein’s government (T.G, Mahnken, Strategic Theory, p.74).
Moreover, Clausewitz distinguishes between two fields of strategic and tactics. Tactics is virtually limited to material factors “to occupy some of the enemy’s districts” (Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, p. 171), whereas strategy is unlimited factors such as “to overthrow the enemy”(ibid). The difference is illustrated by the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War. In 1991, the US-led coalition tried to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, but in 2003 there ensued an unlimited aim to overturn Saddam Hussein’s regime (T.G, Mahnken, Strategic Theory, p.74). Clausewitz argues the need for a mutual agreement between the occupying army, and the host country, to make peace on the efforts that has already been made, and what is yet to come. “…the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration…” (Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, p. 104). This may explain the U.S. presence in Korea despite the numbers of casualties, but pulled out of Somalia after just eighteen deaths (T.G, Mahnken, Strategic Theory, p.75). A further concept Clauswitz talks about is friction. Friction makes the simplest things difficult, “…more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from…” (Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, p. 138). Friction refers to the dangers faced on the battlefield, and what is expected and asked of one’s own forces, uncertainty is realizing rational and non-rational elements, physical (or material) and moral (or spiritual, non- material) factors, planning, and control, as well as uncertainty, friction, and chance. Such a framework is eternal because all of these complementary and at times seemingly contradictory elements deal with every dimension of warfare. The fog of war is the uncertainty and confusion that occurs when information provided to any level of command is incomplete, inconsistent, late in arriving, difficult to manipulate, or hard to visualize. It’s caused by too much information as well as by too little. Even perfectly accurate and up to-date information can thicken the fog of war if it’s presented to someone who needs it quickly, in hard-to-understand or poorly organized formats. Finally friction in war is, Difficulties accumulating and creating a friction that is unconceivable unless one has experienced war (ibid, p. 138-140). In Vietnam as well as Afghanistan, friction happened because of the wild physical environment.
Relevance of strategic theory is consistently questioned by scholars more and more, they claim that technology has changed, and that the ways we have historically performed combat along with it. Technology has greatly changed the face of warfare. Our war on terror has undoubtedly shown us that even the strongest technology, cannot help win wars, because there is no alternative to strategic theory. Clausewitz may have talked about a different type of war, one on the battlefield between two entities, but essentially war is still the same today. Thus, Clausewitz concept of friction certainly has enduring value and can be applied to our wars today (T.G, Mahnken, Strategic Theory, p.79). In addition Sun Tzu has been used by the United States and it allies during the Gulf War (R.M. McNeilly, Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare, p. 3), and has also be known to be used by Al-Qaeda supporters for guidance (A.U. Qurashi, Al-Qaeda and the Art of War). It is very important to understand that one cannot expect to find all answers within Clausewitz and Sun Tzu’s theories, especially with the handling of modern technology in a contemporary armed conflict.
Sun Tzu and Clausewitz have their stronger and weaker points. Clausewitz has more influenced Western strategy with several aspects, such as paradoxical trinity, concepts of limited and unlimited wars, as well as rational calculation and friction, all which fits into the picture of today’s wars. Sun Tzu on the other hand has been more useful in the study of conflicts involving Non-Western actors and asymmetrical tactics, as they are based on tactics different to those used by the west. Clausewitz definition of war was “war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument…”(Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, p.99). This definition has tremendous meaning with the conflict we have been facing with Al-Qaeda, in which a clear political goal is necessary to achieve an end, through political tools, not just mere force. Sun Tzu’s theories may once again gain important value with the advancement of the rising superpower of China (R.M. McNeilly, Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare, p. 7). The Western world should study Sun Tzu, not necessarily to use the tactics, but to gain a better understanding of their adversary whom might be using them (D.M. McCready, Learning from Sun Tzu). Sun Tzu has been helpful in, understanding the skilful use of deception and secrecy, used during both of the world wars, by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, and the Allies misleading the Germans on the invasion of France (ibid).
In conclusion, Considering all this, rather than perceiving one as more relevant than the other, it is wiser to realize that both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz teach lessons that can be applied to our time. Both offer interesting and yet at times, very different aspects on how to analyze wars of the twenty-first century. Sun Tzu will be more enlightening when it comes to asymmetrical conflicts, with Non-Western actors, due to their different views and tactics of war. However do not render Clausewitz as irrelevant. Some of his concepts, such as friction, are of tremendous importance in contemporary conflicts often fought in difficult terrains. Although many scholars to this day challenge the relevance of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, we must remember that there is no strategic theory that can fully replace the classical strategists Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. As long as the nature of war remains unchanged, it will still be the same conflicts that Sun Tzu theorized on millennia ago and that Clausewitz studied in the nineteenth century.

Carl Von Clausewitz, (1993) On War, ed. And tr. Howard, M. and Peter Paret (London: Everyman’s Library).
T.G. Mahnken, (2007) “ Strategic Theory“ in Baylis, J. and James J. Wirtz (eds.) (2007) Strategy in the Contemporary World 2nd edn (New York: Oxford University Press).
D. M. McCready, (2003) “Learning from Sun Tzu”, Military Review, Available:, [Accessed: 6 February 2012].
R. M. McNeilly. (2001) Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare (New York: Oxford University Press).
A. U. Qurashi, (15 January 2002), “Al-Qaida and the Art of War,” al-Ansar Magazine
Sun Tzu, (1963) Art of War, [translated by Samuel B Griffith, with foreword by B. H. Liddell Hart] (New York: Oxford University Press).

Written by: Robert S. Henzerling
Written for: Leland Erickson, Henley-Putnam University
Date written: February 2012

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