Sun-Tzu & Clausewitz: A Comparison

Both Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz have something to offer for the serious student of warfare.   The biggest distinction between the two seems to be their different approaches to the art of war.   Sun-Tzu advocates a more subtle and indirect approach to the art of war while Clausewitz advocates a more direct approach.

The essence of Sun-Tzu’s philosophy seems to be winning through superior generalship.   He almost seems to advocate a type of warfare by superior maneuver similar to that practiced in Renaissance Italy.   He preaches the avoidance of pitched battles unless the attacker is assured of winning.   This view is summed up in chapter III verse 3: “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill.   To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

Clausewitz, on the contrary says that in war the combat or battle is everything.   He regards armies as tools to be used for their intended purpose, waging war.   Clausewitz makes the argument that combat occurs even if the opposing armies don’t meet; if a general forces his opponent out of position through maneuver a combat has still occurred though only potentially.   Clausewitz also makes a large distinction between tactics and strategy, a distinction that seems to be somewhat missing in the philosophy of Sun-Tzu.

Personally, I think the Clausewitzean model is more applicable to modern warfare though his theory is more limited to actual warfare than that of Sun-Tzu.   Sun-Tzu presents a more unified theory, which takes more account of political and societal factors than Clausewitz does.  The philosophy of Clausewitz seems truer to me because I believe, as he does, that the objective in war is to dominate your opponent and the only sure way to do that is to force him prostrate.   I would say that my views reflect not only my European heritage but also my own combat experience and frustrations with the eastern way of war.   It seems to me that the avoidance of combat unless on favorable terms is the weasels way of war, though recent American experiences in Asia over the last forty years have proven its effectiveness.   While I think there are compelling lessons to be learned from the study of both philosophers, Clausewitz offers the more cohesive theory with a decisive conclusion.

8 thoughts on “Sun-Tzu & Clausewitz: A Comparison”

  1. If you require elaboration and extrapolation on Sun Tzu, you may refer to Han Fei Tsu or any of the myriad commentaries published at or after his era. I believe the immortality achieved by this work was due precisely to its abbreviation. CvC goes on and on for pages and pages allowing himself to be misquoted. I believe Sun Tzu understood the power of the “sound bite”. Picture him in a TV interview as one of the octoheads during the recent North African adventure. He would be wiping the floor with his puthy sayings an making eyes at the blonde reported while CvC went on and on about this and that and lost the atention of the typical viewer. Thats where the power is.

  2. I’ve studied Sun Tzu extensively. I think there’s a large culture gap which makes it hard to appreciate some aspects. When he says subduing the enemy without fighting is the acme, he is stating an ideal. That outcome is very, very unlikely, particularly for the war-fighting general. Heads of state try to do these things but, obviously, the enemy tends not to cooperate.

    The goal, then, is to get as close to this ideal as possible. That means to resoundingly defeat the enemy with a minimum of fighting. Prolonged combat is a dangerous waste. Long campaigns are a dangerous waste. Wars without end are absolutely ruinous to the nation. All these things should be taken into account in strategy, because the general ought to have the best interests of his nation in mind, not just the body count. That’s fair. The rest is about how to achieve victories, with your thumb on the scale to skew the outcome as much as can possibly be done.

    Finally, Sun Tzu worked for a nation that had a manpower disadvantage vs. its major rivals. A fair fight would have meant Pyrrhic victories. His philosophy reflects that.

    • I can’t really argue with any of your points, the are well made, they are not what I am getting at in my post However. The heart of Sun-Tzu’s military “advice” is victory with minimum effort. That is not necessarily a bad thing. What gets me about the philosophy of Sun-Tzu is the lengths to which tells us to go to achieve victory without fighting. Perhaps it is my western heritage and upbringing that make me uncomfortable with his philosophy. Sun-Tzu has always struck me as being somewhat one-sided while Clausewitz seems to present a more rounded theory. I don’t disagree with everything Sun-Tzu has to say, I just think that he should be taken with a grain of salt. It is obvious that there is good advice within Sun-Tzu and even some universal truth, the work’s survival for 2000+ years is testament to that.

    • I don’t know if it’s a language barrier problem or what, but the hype around “victory without fighting” manages to drown out Sun Tzu’s voluminous advice on victory with fighting; indeed, a great deal of fighting. That’s certainly how things were settled in ancient China.

      In that context, a strategy for preserving the integrity of one’s own fighting force had its merits. Armies in that era were perishable and fragile entities that were held together through the personal leadership of generals more than any other factor. Furthermore, when you are numerically inferior, a fair fight promises, at best, a Pyrrhic victory; so, Sun Tzu developed a philosophy about not fighting fair. But this was all for the preservation of the army as a fighting force, and ultimately, preservation of the nation state itself.

      Bloodshed was not at all “minimal” when all this worked properly. If he had to fight, Sun Tzu wanted one-sided victories, not glory. This anti-glory stance probably won him few friends, but still, the core is very Napoleonic calculation: what do I get out of this? How much damage will I inflict against what losses? Which side prospers when the dust settles? But, yes, a grain of salt is just fine with me. Sun Tzu just assumes that the broad nature of war stays the same, even as tactics and technology changes. (They change a lot.)

      It’s been a challenge to keep this concise, but one last thing to toss in: Sun Tzu’s theories mixed with Japanese samurai in the Warring States Period produced some really fascinating results. The tactical sophistication was far greater than Japan’s post-Meiji military. Hardcore, disciplined professionals with high cohesion and strong leadership led them to maximize their odds while cultivating far greater aggressiveness. The writings of Miyamoto Musashi reflect this. …Anyway, that’s it. I enjoyed your post and have been reading other posts of yours on this blog. – J

  3. Hi Patrick,

    Excellent and concise summary of both theories. Sun Tzu’s refusal to engage isn’t avoidance but rather a deliberate decision to not engage due to cost-benefit analysis.

    Thomas Huynh, founder

    • Sun-Tzu does in fact advise avoidance of battle unless one is forced into it or assured of victory. There is certainly an element of some sort of rudimentary cost-benefit analysis in there but the heart of it is that he says not to fight unless you are going to win. Sun-Tzu’s theory of war is much like the sure-thing theory of gambling as in “I only bet on a sure thing.” There is a place for that thinking in warfare but it is not universally applicable. Clausewitz with his acknowledgment of the risk inherent in warfare presents a truer picture of the reality of combat and war. Sun-Tzu is a Go player while Clausewitz is the chess master. There is no such thing as a sure thing in war, Sun-Tzu does not seem to acknowledge that.

      Thanks for the comment as well.

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