Sun Tzu and Clausewitz

I mentioned a few times before about the differences and similarities between Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. Here is a good example

Courtesy of Jeffrey Car from Grim’s post at Blackfive on this same subject.  Below is a preview given that the link is in pdf form. If you are interested, just read the pdf, since the format here is a little bit weird.

Sun Tzu said:
Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in
peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of
winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you
are certain in every battle to be in peril.

This deceptively simple instruction, properly applied, is at the essence both of
making a sound decision to go to war and of strategic and tactical planning once that
decision has been made. Clausewitz further developed this instruction. The purpose
of this essay is to apply Sun Tzu’s instruction, drawing on similar principles as
articulated by Clausewitz, to determine what, in the modern era, knowing oneself and
one’s enemy requires at the national strategy, national military, and operational levels.
I will then demonstrate that in Vietnam and Somalia, the United States let itself get
into situations where it knew neither itself nor the enemy, while in Desert Storm, we
succeeded because we knew both. Finally, the essay will assess at which level
knowledge of oneself and one’s enemy is most important.
Sun Tzu instructs us that in order to succeed one must know oneself and one’s
enemy. This dictum is reflected in Clausewitz’s statement that “War is thus an act of
force to compel our enemy to do our will.” (Paret, pg 75) To accomplish the purpose
of war, then, we must know both our own will and how to compel our enemy.
The will of a nation is a complex matter. While never completely “knowable,”
the will of one’s own nation can perhaps be best ascertained by seeking to understand
who we are as a nation. Is the nation, for example, poor or wealthy? Do it have
commonly shared beliefs from which interests logically derive? How are those
interests defined? What costs and risks is the nation willing to accept to attain its
interests? Within the picture formed by its defined interests, can it also define a
specific set of objectives with respect to the subject of the conflict? The necessity of
defining these objectives is highlighted by Clausewitz:
No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without
first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he
intends to conduct it. The former is its political purpose; the latter its
operational objective. (Paret, page 579)
But even if objectives are identified, these objectives must be translated by the
political leadership into a corresponding national will. If the objectives cannot be or
are not translated into a national will, then the nation will lack the moral strength and
staying power to make another nation comply with its will. This requires determined
and clear-headed thinking at the level of political leadership — where “will” is politically
determined. If interests and objectives are not clear, and if no national will can be
identified or created, a realistic self assessment would lead to the conclusion that
embarking on war is foolhardy. If, on the other hand, the interests and objectives are
clarified, and national will is identified or created, then the nation has a reasonable
chance of success. As stated by Sun Tzu, however, knowing only yourself does not
ensure victory. The enemy must also be known.
While Sun Tzu identified the need to know the enemy, the assessments
prescribed focused largely on the enemy’s military capability. Clausewitz was more
specific regarding the knowledge of the enemy required and also added the critical
factor of the enemy’s will:
If you want to overcome your enemy you must match your effort against his
power of resistance, which can be expressed as the product of two inseparable
factors, viz. the total means at his disposal and the strength of his will. The
extent of the means at his disposal is a matter — through not exclusively — of
figures, and should be measurable. But the strength of his will is much less
easy to determine and can only be gauged approximately by the strength of the
motive animating it. (Paret, page 77)
Since the purpose of war is to compel the enemy to do one’s will, almost certainly not
in a manner not considered to be in the enemy’s interests, the purpose of war cannot
be effectively attained without a clear idea of what it will take to compel that nation.
Can economic or diplomatic action compel the enemy to do one’s will? If not, what
level of military action will be sufficient to compel them? Will, for example, a limited
show of force be sufficient to compel them or are they prepared to fight indefinitely
with an indefinite set of losses? Such knowledge of the enemy would facilitate the
development of national political objectives that are more likely to be attainable at a
reasonably understood level of cost.

Explore posts in the same categories: Unconventional Warfare, War

2 Comments on “Sun Tzu and Clausewitz”

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  2. dummiped Says:

    If Sun Tzu’s Art of War is so potent, why is it even published? Shouldn’t it be kept a national secret? Whoever published it must have within their contemplation realized that the book would also be read by their enemies. Why then was The Art of War published? What was the MOTIVE of those who published the book, hailed as one of the greatest book on military strategy in the world? Why would they want to put their army and their kingdom at risk? More at

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