Sun Tsu composed what is the historic treatise, The Art of War, some two millennia ago, and in a world vastly different than what is known to military commanders in the present day. His prescriptions on the purpose and conduct of war, however, continue to have application even as the very framework of modern wars is still so quickly evolving. Tsu describes war as “a matter of life and death” and “a road to either safety or ruin.” In such a way, it is easy to view war as the single most relevant thread that connects together various eras of the history of man.
The five constant factors that Sun Tsu uses to describe the art of war are more philosophical than concrete, but he uses metaphorical classifications that connect them to very real and relevant elements that affect battle. Tsu then describes seven considerations, or comparisons between warring factions to determine victory or defeat. They include examining the side with the most discipline, determining the stronger of armies, and looking to the higher extent of training amongst warriors.
After describing the framework of war, Sun Tsu goes on to give specific advice for preparing for and engaging in battle, covering areas including what supplies to bring versus forage for and how long a fight should last. His treatise also goes on to describe the handling of situations from encamping an army to dealing with difficult terrain. Although Sun Tsu’s writing deals primarily with the conduct of war, he does devote recommendations at the end to effective spying, as means of drawing together a body of foreknowledge on the enemy before going to war. It is clear, through his manuscript, that Sun Tsu believes that “the art of war is of vital importance to the State.”
While Sun Tsu strives to cement the importance of war to a society, some of Clausewicz’s first words seem to de-emphasize the place of war in society, describing war as “nothing but a duel on an extensive scale.” His further stark description of war is that it is “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” Whereas Sun Tsu devotes much attention to the five factors of war, Clausewitz devotes that same time to the two major motives of war: instinctive hostility and hostile intentions.
Where Sun Tsu gives directions on how to combat the enemy, Clausewitz explains that “the aim of all action in war is to disarm the enemy.” Sun Tsu and Clausewitz both take a pragmatic approach to war, however, with Tsu painting stark pictures of necessary undertakings and Clausewitz reminding that results are never absolute. While Clausewitz, however, refers to war as a game, Sun Tsu again reminds of the absolute importance of warfare on society.
Clausewitz describes war as “a mere continuation of policy by other means,” detailing it as a “real political instrument.” While Sun Tsu may have been of the same mind, the correlation between the affect of war and the impact of politics never becomes an overt subject in his writing. The two military theorists, separated by more than two thousand years in their writing, both acknowledge the place of danger within war. Clausewitz speaks to the importance of having good information while fighting, which is a direct tie-in to Tsu advocating the use to spies to find out every relevant and necessary piece of information prior to entering battle.
Although Sun Tsu and Clausewitz seem to advocate operations, tactics, motivations and consequences that are more different than similar, they still share many like viewpoints, such as the impact of war on society as a whole and diplomacy in general. The Foreign Policy Research Institute describes that “by their very nature, diplomacy and military force are means to the ends of statecraft.” (Codevilla, 2008) The same writing reminds that “diplomacy serves to prepare as often as to avoid war.” Sun Tsu and Clausewitz both demonstrate in their writing a belief that when necessary, the act of war is hugely impactful on society and provide a framework to engage in war using not only military might but also diplomatic strength.
- Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Translated by J. J. Graham, 1874. Project Gutenberg, 2006.
- Codevilla, Angelo. Tools of Statecraft: Diplomacy and War. Foreign Policy Research Institute: 2008.
- Tsu, Sun. The Art of War. Translated by Lionel Giles, 1910. Project Gutenberg, 2005.