Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz

Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz both theorized on the strategies, influences, and effects of war. Sun Tzu sees it with an idealistic outlook, believing that war has requirements and predictable outcomes.

Clausewitz, on the other hand, thinks that war is more enigmatic and susceptible to chance and happenstance. Both realize that war is a political action of the state with a political purpose. Clausewitz states that “war is an extension of politics by other means.” As in politics, the outcome is not always certain; there is a sort of enshrouding “fog” that always conceals the exact characteristics of a situation.

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This element of uncertainty is key in Clausewitz’s philosophy; he believes strongly that war is in large part determined by chance and possibility, that the individual nature of war makes it inherently unpredictable. Clausewitz feels that war is at its most basic level, an individual activity. The commander is obviously the lead individual in an army, and it is often a question of his moral, physical, and psychological capacities as to whether an army can be victorious. These qualities must also trickle down through the ranks to the corpsman, for they are the ones who fight.

These military virtues of an army are all-important, whether a nation wins or loses if often determined by the spirit of the army. If morale is low, a force cannot win. A defeat causes a loss of self-confidence, and this in turn leads to fear, a horribly destructive element for an army to have. Thus it is the morale of the troops that greatly affects their performance.

The commander’s skill is also of paramount significance. A general cannot be weak, he must be strong for to lead the troops into battle; he must present an air of confidence that inspires the army. The general, as well as the troops, must be experienced. The commander must be intelligent and knowledgeable of the terrain, weather, the enemy, every aspect of the engagement.

A commander’s most dangerous weakness is cowardice, for this gives way to rashness, foolishness, and vanity. Thus Clausewtitz believes that war is greatly dependent on the individual. While Clausewitz stresses the individual, the most important element of war is chance. There are always uncertainties in war which cannot be accounted for and must be handled.

If a commander or army lacks some of the military virtues, it must make up for them in other ways: simplicity or size. When an army cannot fulfill all of these virtues, it must rely somewhat on chance to swing in its favor. Clausewitz says that there is a fog in war which covers the predictable situation and conceals some influencing elements. If a commander is to win a war, this fog must lift, so that he can view the situation with perfect clarity, or he must be able to adapt to an unexpected situation that may arise.

The interaction between all of the individuals in a force is a breeding ground for chance. Disease may suddenly spread throughout the army, or a fight may break out between two people or two factions within the army. Or something may occur which serves to lifts the troops’ spirits and helps them win an important battle, thereby turning the war. Chance is also revealed in the structure of alliances.

As Clausewitz believes that war is a means to a political end, he knows that an alliance is really an agreement between nations for the protection of self-interests. A country will pledge no more than the bare minimum of troops or supplies when its own interests are not at stake. Only when two nations share a common interest, will an alliance succeed to its fullest potential. Chance is an extremely important element of war.

Clausewitz believes that not all events can be anticipated and that there is a general disorder in war which must be expected. When the fighting becomes most severe, communication lines will be severed, between an army and a nation, or between a general and his troops. In such situations, only the intellect and experience of the individual will aid victory. Clausewitz states that there are certain elements that a commander must understand if he is to be successful.

A battle depends on four characteristics of war: first, the tactical planning according to which battle must be fought. This is something that must be done ahead of time, and then must be adapted to fit a changing situation of battle. Second, terrain must guide a commander as to the nature of an attack or withdrawal. Terrain dictates what kind of force must be used, whether it be a siege or a surprise attack, two thousand men on horses or fifty thousand foot soldiers.

The composition of forces on both sides must be taken into account at all times. Armament, manpower, transportation, and morale must all be considered for planning an attack. When all of these aspects have been considered, an attack may be made that is the most promising attempt at victory. Complete destruction of the enemy’s forces is the principle goal of war.

Clausewitz believes in total war: a victory must be absolute; the enemy must be completely beaten to the point that retaliation is not possible. When a country cannot win the war, it should at least try to do as much damage as possible against its enemy. Because of this “fight to the death” mentality, Clausewitz warns to never trap a losing army. The enemy should always be given a way out, a means of escape, for men on the losing side would rather retreat then be slaughtered.

War is an experience that requires infinite patience, effort, and trouble. While Clausewitz says that war itself requires hearty reserves of strength and perseverance, he claims that often times a war is decided in a single battle. When large forces meet in a great battle, the victor will usually win the war. A major battle that involves the coming together of great forces from all sides has not only a physical effect, but a psychological effect on both the defeater and the defeated.

The victor leaves the battlefield with an incredible spirit of confidence, while the beaten army, if still remaining, is left with hopelessness and a crushed spirit. Clausewitz believes that war is greatly influenced by the individuals fighting it, and by chance occurrences that may sway it. He believes most fundamentally that war, at its highest level, is policy; it is an instrument through which a nation achieves it political goals. Sun Tzu also believes that war is a tool of the state, but he calls war more of an art form than anything else.

Sun Tzu’s view of war is incredibly idealistic. He envisions war as an event that should occur with minimal fighting, most ideally as a series of strategic political, non-military attacks. He believes that war is a grave concern of the state, but one which can be well-prepared for and won. He describes requirements that, if met, will guarantee success.

Sun Tzu feels that the commander is an extremely powerful and deciding force in the war, and also that deception must be an element fully exploited. Deception is a means which must be used at all times of war. An army must never let the enemy know the truth. If an army is near, the enemy commander must think it far.

If an army is strong, it is better to appear to be weak and lure the enemy into ambush. An army should use spies to disrupt an enemy’s plans and create subversion within the ranks. Sun Tzu outlines the steps necessary to take when preparing for war with scientific rigor. Attacking the enemy without actually fighting should be the aim of an army.

Espionage should be employed to gather information about the enemy, to create havoc within the ranks of the enemy’s army, to break up the enemy’s alliances, and to generally isolate and demoralize the enemy. Sun Tzu believes that espionage is a powerful tool in war, and more so, that the overall practice of deception is incredibly influential in a war. These steps can yield a victory without a battle, if properly employed. If not, then an army should resort to force an achieve victory in the least possible time, with the least possible loss of lives on both side, and the least amount of effort.

Sun Tzu favors efficient war over Clausewitz’s total war. Sun Tzu states that the people of a nation are burdened by inflation, increased waste, difficulties of supply, and psychological stress when at war, so wartime expenditures should be limited. Casualties should be kept low, monetary contribution should be minimal, and strain on alliances should be as modest as possible by not requesting outside help. Sun Tzu stresses that a nation should fight a reserved war, not a total war.

“Weapons are ominous tools to be used only when there is no alternative.” If the war cannot be won before the battlefield, then Sun Tzu makes further requirements for victory. First of all, a nation must have a capable commander. He declares a general must be able to understand a battle before he gets there.

A commander must know the terrain and use it to his advantage to draw the enemy towards him. He strikes only when he is assured of a victory, and falls back in an offensive manner, enticing the enemy to follow. The competent commander hates a static situation; he attacks a city only when there is no other alternative. A siege is the worst possible form of battle; it is expensive for both nations in terms of money, men, and supplies.

Sun Tzu advises that a commander should “shape” his enemy to the form he wants, rather than be shaped by the enemy. A general, once at war, is not bound by the orders coming from the ruler at home who is removed from the battle. Just as Clausewitz described four characteristics or war, Sun Tzu names five factors that control a battle. He believes “moral balance” between the troops and the commander is vital for victory, as well as the capacity of the general to command and lead.

Terrain and weather are imperative for a leader to understand if he is to control both his army and the enemy’s. Lastly, there is a doctrine or method of war that must be learned from experience. When an army possesses all of these qualities, Sun Tzu says it is assured of victory. Once these requirements are met, and the army is entrenched in battle, Sun Tzu offers guidelines for fighting.

He says when an army outnumbers the enemy ten to one, they should surround the victims; when it is five to one, they should attack from all sides; when they are twice the enemy’s numbers, they should divide the enemy. When two armies meet in equal numbers, the victor will engage the enemy on his own terms. When the army is outnumbered, they should be able to withdraw and elude the enemy. Knowledge of one’s self is just as important as the sizes of two armies.

Sun Tzu says an army will be successful if it knows when it can and cannot fight, when it should use large or small forces, how to lie in wait for an approaching enemy. It must have united ranks and a strong and able general. Sun Tzu predicts the following situations: if an army knows itself and the enemy, it will be victorious; if it knows only itself, but not the enemy, then it has a fifty percent chance of winning; if it knows neither itself nor the enemy, it will most definitely lose. Sun Tzu has a very idealistic, rational outlook of war, where the victor can be predicted based on a set of met requirements.

Clausewitz, on the other hand, sees war as an uncertain, foggy event. While they have different perspectives on war, do agree on some strategies. Both realize that a strong leader is necessary for victory. They both agree that war is a short, concentrated effort, but in slightly different ways.

Sun Tzu says that resources and money should be conserved in war, that war should take as little time as possible. Clausewitz states that war is an effort that requires infinite patience and strength, but is usually decided in a major battle. They both also maintain that the enemy should always be left an avenue of escape so that a fight to the death does not occur. It is their differences that make the two military strategists so distinct.

Sun Tzu sees war as a small-scale operation, while Clausewitz believes that it is an all-encompassing act which requires the efforts or an entire nation. Sun Tzu advocates the use of deception, while Clausewitz warns to be suspicious of the enemy in all respects. Ultimately, it is their views on chance that separate them best from each other. Clausewitz sees war as an unpredictable occurrence that is entwined in chance.

Sun Tzu, on the other hand, maintains that chance does not play a role in war, that the victor can be predicted based on a number of characteristics of both sides.

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Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz. (2018, Aug 23). Retrieved from