“On War” by Clausewitz and “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu are two classic military treatises that profoundly influenced the history of military thought. They offer valuable insights into warfare strategy, military philosophy, and the art of leadership. We have delved into these two works and compared their significant differences in discussing strategies of war, military principles, and tactics.
1. Different creative backgrounds and cultural environments
“The Art of War” was composed in the 5th century BC (over 2,500 years ago) during China’s Spring and Autumn Period as well as the Warring States Period. China was undergoing a tumultuous era marked by frequent military conflicts and diverse philosophies. Its author, Sun Wu (Sun Tzu), utilized his military wisdom to aid the state of Wu in achieving a series of crucial victories.
On the other hand, “On War” was written by the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in the early 19th century, a period closer to our own. Clausewitz was a military man who fought in the Napoleonic wars and served in the army, and his work reflects the war and battlefield experience he experienced firsthand.
2. Different Views on Warfare and Strategic Positioning
Clausewitz distinguishes between two types of warfare: absolute war and real war. Absolute war is an idealized form where political and diplomatic efforts are ineffective, international law holds no sway, and the aim is the complete annihilation of the enemy through unrestrained violence. Real war, on the other hand, is a compromise, driven by various limited objectives, necessitating a downgrading of the conflict. He disbelieves that calculations on paper can replace actual combat; only by utterly defeating the enemy can fundamental problems be resolved.
In contrast, Sun Tzu advocates for the ideal state of “winning without fighting,” using force as a last resort and considering the destruction of the enemy state and army as a final necessity. The complexity of real-world situations gradually escalates warfare.
Their understandings are diametrically opposite. Sun Tzu employs diplomacy before resorting to warfare, escalating gradually when necessary, while Clausewitz suggests engaging militarily first, achieving dominance, and then negotiating, gradually deescalating. The former is more political, while the latter is more focused on military strategy.
3.Different emphasis on the importance of wisdom and courage in war
Clausewitz, in “On War,” highlights the peril, fatigue, uncertainty, and contingency inherent in warfare, likening it to a gamble where intelligence is challenging to grasp, and various impediments remain unpredictable. On the battlefield, military genius encompasses a blend of both intellect and bravery. It often relies not on extensive contemplation but on a unique form of wisdom and courage – the ability to discern faint glimmers in the darkness and the resolute pursuit of these cues.
Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” on the other hand, prioritizes intellect, stressing the role of sagacity, strategies, and the application of wisdom. Valor is positioned as the fourth of the “five constant virtues.” In contrast, “On War” places courage ahead of wisdom.
Their emphasis diverges: Clausewitz leans toward courage being of paramount importance, while Sun Tzu prioritizes intelligence and strategy.
4. The difference between elements of war and military strategy
“On War” emphasizes various aspects of warfare, ranging from strategic elements (spiritual, material, mathematical, geographical, and statistical factors) to specific discussions on combat, armies, defense, and offense. Clausewitz attempts to dissect the different elements of warfare, discussing their significance and interrelations. He leans towards straightforward actions, deeming deceptive tactics with low cost and high risk, such as false intelligence or feints, as seldom effective.
In traditional Chinese strategy, the emphasis lies in strategizing over exerting force. “The Art of War” focuses more on war strategy and tactical maneuvers, emphasizing gaining advantages through stratagems, the utilization of forces, and battlefield arrangements.
5. The difference between supply and maintenance issues
The logistical support generally encompasses four methods: relying on local villagers for supply, forced requisition, regular requisition, and warehouse reserves. In swift decisive battles, the preference tends toward the former two methods, while prolonged conflicts lean toward the latter two. Napoleon advocated for pillaging enemy resources to sustain his troops during combat, a notion also touched upon by Sun Tzu. However, Clausewitz doesn’t entirely agree with this approach; he exhibits a deeper understanding of the defensive stance.
6. Attitudes towards offense and defense
Combat can be divided into two modes: offense and defense. Strategically, offense signifies an inward push from the exterior, while defense involves an inward resistance against external forces. The common perception tends to view the defensive side as weaker and passive, with the attacking side being stronger and more proactive, hence considering offense as the primary means of warfare. However, Clausewitz contends that defense is more potent than offense due to its diverse means and a more intricate strategic system. Defense can utilize various methods such as fortifications (including castles and fortified cities), entrenchments, fortresses, and diverse terrains, causing the attacking side to incur substantial costs, including time, territory, and manpower, which favors the defensive side.
Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” emphasizes an offensive strategy, focusing on attack. Clausewitz, on the other hand, provides a more comprehensive view but dedicates more space to discussing defensive strategies.
To sum up, The Theory of War emphasises the substance and wholeness of war, and focuses on the political nature of war as well as its uncertainty; whereas The Art of War focuses on flexible strategies and tactics, and emphasises the importance of intellect and strategy in war.
Despite the many differences, The Doctrine of War and The Art of War are important in the dialectical symbiosis of the philosophies of war. These different perspectives and strategies all serve the same goal – to gain an advantage in war and achieve victory. Both the hard-line political goals advocated by Clausewitz and the wisdom and resourcefulness emphasised by Sun Tzu are aimed at gaining advantage on the battlefield and succeeding in conflict.
Both are important chapters in the theory of war and have provided a rich source of ideas for military leaders and scholars of different eras. They provide us with different and rich perspectives for understanding war and military behaviour, and offer us a wide range of space for reflection, enabling us to understand and study the complex phenomenon of war in a more comprehensive manner.