Clausewitz or Sun Tzu – Paradigms of warfare for the 21st century

Posted in Other | 06-Dec-06 | Author: Andreas Herberg-Rothe

Andreas Herberg-Rothe

The interval between the first and second wars in Iraq (1991 and 2003) have seen a remarkable shift from Clausewitz to Sun Tzu in the discourse about contemporary warfare. Clausewitz enjoyed an undreamed of renaissance in the USA after the Vietnam War and seemed to have attained the status of master thinker.2 On War enabled many theorists to recognise the causes of America’s traumatic defeat in Southeast Asia, as well as the conditions for gaining victory in the future. More recently, however, he has very nearly been outlawed. The reason for this change can be found in two separate developments. First of all, there has been an unleashing of war and violence in the ongoing civil wars and massacres, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, in the secessionist wars in the former Yugoslavia, and in the persistence of inter-communal violence along the fringes of Europe’s former empires. These developments seemed to indicate a departure from interstate wars, for which Clausewitz’s theory appeared to be designed, and the advent of a new era of civil wars, non-state wars, and social anarchy. Sun Tzu’s The art of war seemed to offer a better understanding of these kinds of war, because he lived in an era of never ending civil wars.3

The second reason for the change from Clausewitz to Sun Tzu is connected with the ‘Revolution in military affairs’ (RMA). The concepts of Strategic Information Warfare (SIW) and 4th generation warfare have made wide use of Sun Tzu’s thought to explain and illustrate their position. The ‘real father’ of ‘shock and awe’ in the Iraq war of 2003 was Sun Tzu, argued one commentator in the Asia Times.4 Some pundits even claimed triumphantly that Sun Tzu had defeated Clausewitz in this war, because the US army seemed to have conducted the campaign in accordance with principles of Sun Tzu, whereas the Russian advisers of the Iraqi army had relied on Clausewitz and the Russian defence against Napoleon’s army in his Russian campaign of 1812.5 The triumphant attitude has long been abandoned, since it is now apparent that there is much to be done before a comprehensive approach of the Iraq War will be possible. Yet it seems fair enough to say that, if Sun Tzu’s principles are seen to have been of some importance for the conduct of the war, he must also share responsibility for the problems that have arisen afterwards.

And this is exactly the problem. Sun Tzu’s The art of war, as well as the theoreticians of Strategic Information Warfare and 4th generation warfare, lack the political dimension with respect to the situation after the war.6 They concentrate too much on purely military success, and undervalue the process of transforming military success into true victory. The three core elements of Sun Tzu’s strategy could not easily be applied in our times: a general attitude to deception of the enemy runs the risk of deceiving one’s own population, which would be problematic for any democracy. An indirect strategy in general would weaken deterrence against an adversary who could act quickly and with determination. Concentration on influencing the will and mind of the enemy may merely enable him to avoid fighting at a disadvantageous time and place and make it possible for him to choose a better opportunity as long as he is in possession of the necessary means – weapons and armed forces.

One might win battles and even campaigns with Sun Tzu, but it is difficult to win a war by following his principles. The reason for this is that Sun Tzu was never interested in shaping the political conditions, because he lived in an era of seemingly never-ending civil wars.7 The only imperative for him was to survive while paying the lowest possible price and avoiding fighting, because even a successful battle against one foe might leave one weaker when the moment came to fight the next one. As always in history, if one wishes to highlight the differences to Clausewitz, the similarities between the two approaches are neglected. For example, the approach in Sun Tzu’s chapter about ‘Moving swiftly to overcome Resistance’ would be quite similar to one endorsed by Clausewitz and was practised by Napoleon.

But the main problem is that Sun Tzu is neglecting the strategic perspective of shaping the political-social conditions after the war and their impact ‘by calculation’ (Clausewitz Vom Kriege, p. 196)8 on the conduct of war. As mentioned before, this was not a serious matter for Sun Tzu and his contemporaries, but it is one of the most important aspects of warfare of our own times.9 If one wanted to incorporate thoughts from Chinese military culture and especially Taoist theorists into one’s own strategic thinking, one would be better served for example by the Book of leadership and strategy of the ‘Masters of Huainan’, because the purpose of its implicit strategy is much more relevant to the needs and tasks of our times than that of Sun Tzu.10

Finally, one has to take into account the fact that Sun Tzu’s strategy is presumably successful against adversaries with a very weak order of the armed forces or the related community, such as warlord-systems and dictatorships, which were the usual adversaries in his times. His book is full of cases in which relatively simple actions against the order of the adversary’s army or its community lead to disorder on the side of the adversary, to the point where these are dissolved or lose their will to fight entirely. Such an approach can obviously be successful against adversaries with weak armed forces and a tenuous social base, but they are likely to prove problematic against more firmly situated adversaries.

Clausewitz – a new interpretation

Nearly all previous interpretations have drawn attention to the importance of Napoleon’s successful campaigns for Clausewitz’s thinking. In contrast, I wish to argue that not only Napoleon’s successes but also the limitations of his strategy, as revealed in Russia and in his final defeat at Waterloo, enabled Clausewitz to develop a general theory of war. Clausewitz’s main problem in his lifelong preoccupation with the analysis of war was that the same principles and strategies that were the decisive foundation of Napoleon’s initial successes proved inadequate in the special situation of the Russian campaign and eventually contributed to his final defeat at Waterloo. Although Clausewitz was an admirer of Napoleon for most of his life, in his final years he recognised the theoretical significance that arose from the different historical outcomes that followed from the application of a consistent, but nevertheless single military strategy. He finally tried desperately to find a resolution that could reconcile the extremes symbolised by Napoleon’s success at Jena and Auerstedt, the limitations of the primacy of force revealed by the Russian campaign, and Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo.

Therefore there can be found four fundamental contrasts between the early and later Clausewitz that need to be emphasised, because they remain central to contemporary debates about his work:

a. The primacy of military force versus the primacy of politics.

b. Existential warfare, or rather warfare related to one’s own identity, which engaged Clausewitz most strongly in his early years, as against the instrumental view of war that prevails in his later work.11

c. The pursuit of military success through unlimited violence embodying ‘the principle of destruction’, versus the primacy of limited war and the limitation of violence in war, which loom increasingly large in Clausewitz’s later years.

d. The primacy of defence as the stronger form of war, versus the promise of decisive results that was embodied in the seizure of offensive initiative.

Clausewitz’s final approach is condensed in his Trinity, which comes at the end of the first chapter of book I. The Trinity, with all its problems by its own, is the real legacy of Clausewitz and the real beginning of his theory, as he emphasised himself: ‘At any rate, the (…) concept of war [the Trinity, AH-R] which we have formulated casts a first ray of light on the basic structure of theory, and enables us to make an initial differentiation and identification of its major components.’

Clausewitz describes the trinity as follows: ‘War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical Trinity – composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probality within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason.’

The first chapter of On War, and the Trinity as Clausewitz’s result12 for theory at its end, are an attempt to summarise these quite different war experiences, and to analyse and describe a general theory of war on the basis of Napoleon’s successes, the limitations of his strategy, and his final defeat.

Clausewitz’s Trinity is quite different from so-called ‘trinitarian war’. This concept is not derived from Clausewitz himself but from the work of Harry G. Summers Jr. Although Summers referred to Clausewitz’s concept of the Trinity in his very influential book about the war in Vietnam, he falsified Clausewitz’s idea fundamentally. Clausewitz explains in his paragraph about the Trinity that the first of its three tendencies mainly concerns the people, the second mainly concerns the commander and his army, and the third mainly concerns the government.13 On the basis of this ‘mehr’ (mainly), we cannot conclude that ‘trinitarian war’ with its three components of people, army, and government is Clausewitz’s categorical conceptualisation of how the three underlying elements of his Trinity may be embodied.

Since Summers put forward this conception it has been repeated frequently, most influentially by Martin van Creveld.14 On the contrary, it must be concluded that these three components of ‘trinitarian war’ are only examples of the use of the more fundamental Trinity for Clausewitz. These examples of its use can be applied meaningfully to some historical and political situations, as Summers demonstrated for the case of the war in Vietnam with the unbridgeable gap between the people, the army and the government of the USA. Notwithstanding the possibility of applying these examples of use, there can be no doubt that Clausewitz defined the Trinity differently and in a much broader, less contingent and more conceptual sense.

Clausewitz’s concept of the Trinity is explicitly differentiated from his famous formula of war, described as a continuation of politics by other means (87). Although Clausewitz seems at first glance to repeat his formula in the Trinity, this is here only one of three tendencies which all have to be considered if one does not want to contradict reality immediately, as Clausewitz emphasised (89). Looking more closely at his formula, we can see that he describes war as a continuation of politics, but with other means than those that belong to politics itself (87). These two parts of his statement constitute two extremes: war described either as a continuation of politics, or as something that mainly belongs to the military sphere. Clausewitz emphasises that policy uses other, non-political means. This creates an implicit tension, between war’s status as a continuation of policy, and the distinctive nature of its ‘other’ means. Beatrice Heuser has demonstrated in her overview of Clausewitz’s ideas and their historical impact, that resolving this tension in favour of one side has always led to a primacy of the military.15 This implicit tension is explicated in the Trinity.16

It is not accidental, and is indeed a characteristic feature of both of the most emphatic critiques of Clausewitz published in the 1990s by Martin van Creveld and John Keegan, that they nearly always quote only half of the formula, the part in which Clausewitz states that war is a continuation of politics. Their interpretations suppress, often explicitly and always implicitly, the second part of Clausewitz’s determination that politics in warfare uses ‘other’ means. The paradoxical aspect of the criticism of Clausewitz is that Clausewitz himself is well equipped to respond to it. Keegan is obviously criticizing the early Clausewitz, the supporter of Napoleon’s strategy and of the destruction principle as a military method. Van Creveld, on the other hand, is attacking the later Clausewitz,17 who emphasized the anti-thesis between limited and unlimited warfare, which became the critical point of his intention to revise his whole work. In this respect, Keegan’s criticism could be answered with reference to the later Clausewitz, while the early Clausewitz can respond to van Creveld’s criticism. But both critiques show how current attempts to develop a non-Clausewitzian theory of war move within a field of antitheses, the bounds of which were set out by the early and later Clausewitz himself.18

One of the most common criticisms is that Clausewitz’s theory only applies to state-to-state wars. Antulio Echevarria, to the contrary, stated that “Clausewitz’s theory of war will remain valid as long as warlords, drug barons, international terrorists, racial or religious communities will wage war.”1 In order to harmonize this position with Clausewitz’s very few statements concerning state policy, his concept of politics must be stretched a long way. In this interpretation, it must mean something like the political-social constitution of a community. This interpretation is based on an often-neglected chapter in On War, in which Clausewitz deals with the warfare of the “semibarbarous Tartars, the republics of antiquity, the feudal lords and trading cities of the Middle Ages, 18th Century kings and the rulers and peoples of the 19th Century.” All these communities conducted war “in their own particular way, using different methods and pursuing different aims” (Clausewitz 1976, p. 586, Clausewitz 1991, p. 962). Despite this variability, Clausewitz stresses that war is also in these cases a continuation of their policy by other means.

However, this makes it impossible to express the difference between the policy of states and the values, intentions and aims of the various communities waging war. Therefore, it would make sense to supplement the primacy of politics as a general category by the affiliation of the belligerents to a warring community. If these communities are states, one can speak of politics in the modern sense; if they are racial, religious or other communities, the value systems and goals of these communities (i.e. their “culture”) are the more important factors. Based upon this proposal, we could replace Clausewitz’s meaning of state with the notion of it being that of the intentions, aims or values of the “warring community,” thus remaining much more faithful to his understanding of what a state embodies. Otherwise, we would implicitly express a modern understanding of Clausewitz’s concept of state.

Taken into account this small change in understanding what Clausewitz was endorsing when speaking of “state policy” his trinity is the starting point for a general theory of war and violent conflict.20 Whereas Sun Tzu was generalising strategic principles for use against weak adversaries, which may lead to success in particular circumstances, Clausewitz developed a wide-ranging political theory of war by reflecting on the success, the limitations, and the failure of Napoleon’s way of waging war. Although he might have reflected merely a single strategy, he was able by taking into account its successes, limits, and failure to develop a general theory of war, which transcended a purely and historically limited military strategy.


1 This text is compiled from the prologue of my book: Herberg-Rothe, Andreas, Clausewitz’s puzzle. The Political Theory of war. Oxford University Press: Oxford 5. February 2007 and reproduced here with the permission of OUP – www.oup.com/uk/catalogue/?ci=9780199202690
2 Clausewitz, Carl von, On War. Translated and edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1976, 1984 For further reading see:
Herberg-Rothe, Andreas/Strachan, Hew, Clausewitz in the 21st century. Oxford University Press: Oxford 2007 (Forthcoming).
Herberg-Rothe, Andreas, Das Rätsel Clausewitz. Fink publishers: Munich 2001.
3 Kaplan, Robert D., Warrior Politics. Vintage books: New York 2002.
4 Macan Marker, Marwaan, Sun Tzu: The real father of ‘Shock and Awe’, Asia Times, 2, April 2003.
5 Peters, Ralph, A New Age of War, New York Post, 10 April, 2003. But nevertheless, one could argue as well that Rumsfeld's campaign was a classic example of Napoleonic/Hitlerian conventional Blitzkrieg against an enemy vastly inferior in mobility, firepower, and C4 (comment by Christopher Bassford)
6 Echevarria, Antulio II, Fourth-generation warfare and other myths. Carlisle 2005; Lonsdale, David, The nature of war in the information age. Clausewitzian future. Frank Cass: London 2004;
7 See footnote 10
8 Clausewitz: ‘und nicht der politische Zustand, welcher ihm (dem Krieg, Herberg-Rothe) folgen wird, durch den Kalkül schon auf ihn zurückwirkte.’ Clausewitz, Carl von, Vom Kriege. 19th edition. Edited by Werner Hahlweg. Duemmler: Bonn 1980, p. 196.
9 McNeilly, Mark, Sun Tzu and the Art of Modern Warfare. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001.
10 Huai-nan tzu, The Book of leadership and strategy. Translated by Thomas F. Cleary. Shambala: Boston 1990.
11 This differentiation is derived from Muenkler, Herfried, Gewalt und Ordnung. Fischer: Frankfurt 1992 (cited as Muenkler, Gewalt und Ordnung).
12 In German, Clausewitz uses the term ‘Resultat’, which is a little stronger than ‘consequence’; Vom Kriege, p. 212.
13 Summers, Harry G. Jr., On Strategy: A critical analysis of the Vietnam War, Novato 1982; see for the contrary position: Bassford, Christopher/Villacres, Edward J., Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity. In: Parameters, 1995, pp. 9-19. In German, Clausewitz uses the word ‘mehr’ (more or mainly in English), for each part of these examples of use of the Trinity, whereas in Howard’s and Paret’s translation it is only mentioned once (89); Vom Kriege, p.213.
14 Creveld, Martin van, Die Zukunft des Krieges. Gerling: Munich 1998, chapter Der trinitarische Krieg; cited as van Creveld, Zukunft des Krieges.
15 Heuser, Beatrice, Reading Clausewitz. Pimplico: London 2002.
16 It may be that the relationship between war as a continuation of politics, but with other means, could be best described as a non-linear correlation. This assumption is derived from a suggestion made by Alan D. Beyerchen in Clausewitz in the 21st century.
17 Keegan, John, A History of Warfare. Alfred E. Knopf: New York, 1993 (cited as Keegan, History of Warfare); Creveld, Martin van, The transformation of war. The Free Press: New York 1991.
18
19 Echevarria 1995 a; see also Duyvesteyn, Clausewitz and African Wars. Frank Cass:London 1995.
20 Herberg-Rothe, Andreas, Clausewitz’s wondrous trinity as general theory of war and violent conflict. In THEORIA (South Africa), Nr. 113, August 2007 (forthcoming).

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