Masters of War
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Masters of War

Classical Strategic Thought

Michael I. Handel

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Masters of War

Classical Strategic Thought

Michael I. Handel

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About This Book

This is the first comprehensive study based on a detailed textual analysis of the classical works on war by Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Mao Tse-tung, and to a lesser extent, Jomini and Machiavelli. Brushing stereotypes aside, the author takes a fresh look at what these strategic thinkers actually said—not what they are widely believed to have said. He finds that despite their apparent differences in terms of time, place, cultural background, and level of material/technological development, all had much more in common than previously supposed. In fact, the central conclusion of this book is that the logic of waging war and of strategic thinking is as universal and timeless as human nature itself.

This third, revised and expanded edition includes five new chapters and some new charts and diagrams.

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Publisher
Routledge
Year
2005
ISBN
9781135776527
Edition
3
1
Strategy: Past Theories, Modern Practice
In some professions, a single classical work has long served as the cornerstone upon which later generations of scholars and practitioners could build their own theories. For novices, such classical treatises provide an insightful point of departure and help to define an area of study; for experts, they represent a standard for the evaluation of all other studies in the field. Examples of such treatises are Machiavelli’s The Prince in the study of politics; Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War in history; Newton’s Principia in science; and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in economics.
Some works—particularly those on the natural sciences or in fields that lend themselves to a more rigorous quantitative analysis (such as economics)—are eventually either subsumed into, or discredited by, later studies, while many others in the humanities will always be as valuable as the day they were written. The study of warfare represents neither extreme, for it examines the immutable qualities of human nature as well as the constantly changing material and technological dimensions of military conflict. Strategists are therefore fortunate to have at least two enduring classical texts: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Clausewitz’s On War.1
Imagine what it would be like if scientists, physicians, or even economists were to rely on a text written over 150, let alone 2,000, years ago as the most valuable source of instruction in their profession. Yet this is precisely the case in the study of war, a fact that is especially ironic because no other area of human activity—the better understanding of which could determine the future of the human race—has been so transformed by rapid technological advances.
The longevity and pre-eminence of The Art of War and On War may be attributed to two main factors. The first, already mentioned, is that the underlying logic of human nature, and by extension of political action, has not changed throughout history. Although undoubtedly valid, this explanation does not account for the revolutionary changes that have occurred in the material environment of war, in which the world can now be destroyed in a matter of minutes; victory is often impossible and meaningless; the range of weapons is the entire globe; the relationship between the offense and defense continuously shifts; no two wars are ever alike, at least materially; and the involvement of whole populations has become unavoidable. All of these material—and consequently social and political—changes cannot be ignored and should therefore be incorporated into a new comprehensive theory of war. The second factor is the greatly increased complexity of modern warfare. Sun Tzu and Clausewitz already viewed war as infinitely complex in their own times, but modern technological developments have added an entirely new dimension of uncertainty; and this has so obfuscated the fundamental principles of strategy that constructing the type of relatively simple framework which sufficed in the pre-industrial age is now impossible.
The technological revolution in war that began to accelerate at a geometric pace after the mid-nineteenth century created a situation not unlike that facing scholars in the natural sciences: that is, the proliferation of specialized fields of research and the exponential growth in knowledge made it extremely unlikely that a single expert could cultivate an in-depth understanding of all the developments taking place. Just as it would hardly be possible to write one book encompassing the whole of modern science, it would be exceedingly difficult to compress all that is known and relevant about war into a single tome. And although no one has yet succeeded in writing a new, comprehensive study of war—despite a number of heroic attempts—such an undertaking nevertheless poses a worthy challenge.
* * *
Renewed interest in Sun Tzu and Clausewitz in recent years has yet to result in the publication of a detailed comparison of their writings. It is, however, easy to understand why strategists might be reluctant to embark on such a task. After all, few scholars are equally accomplished in the fields of Chinese history, culture, and language as well as European history at the turn of the nineteenth century. Since I am neither a sinologist nor an expert in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Euro-pean history, this book specifically examines the ideas developed by Sun Tzu and Clausewitz; it is based on a content analysis of The Art of War and On War that does not include a more general historical, philosophical, cultural, or linguistic study. As a result, these two texts are quoted extensively in the interest of allowing their authors to speak for themselves.
In modern works on strategy, the prevailing perception of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz is that they epitomize opposing, culture-bound approaches to the study and conduct of war. While The Art of War and On War certainly reflect their cultural and historical contexts, this study concludes that the extent of the differences hitherto assumed to exist between the two has been exaggerated. Ultimately, the logic and rational direction of war are universal and there is no such thing as an exclusively ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’ approach to politics and strategy; there is only an effective or ineffective, rational, or non-rational manifestation of politics or strategy.
This edition also includes a number of references to Jomini’s The Art of War. Jomini has traditionally been assumed to represent the positivistic if not mechanical approach to the study of warfare, but a careful comparison of Jomini’s work with those of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz indicates that these three strategists are mostly in agreement on the fundamental issues. When Jomini asserts that military success can be achieved through the proper understanding and accurate application of three or four general principles, he is referring to the lower operational level alone; he makes it clear that on the highest levels, the conduct of war ‘far from being an exact science, is a terrible and impassioned drama
’ (Jomini, The Art of War, p. 344).2 Indeed, closer scrutiny of Jomini’s treatise reveals the tension in his work between the non-scientific nature of the conduct of war on the higher level, and his attempt to demonstrate that war can be directed scientifically on the lower levels. But even Jomini, to reconcile this tension, insists that it is crucial to find an inspired commander whose intuition or coup d’oeil (as he, like Clausewitz, calls it) will ensure the correct application of his principles of war. And since the proper application of these principles ultimately depends on the intuition of a gifted individual, this indicates that even for Jomini, war is and will forever remain an art.
This edition also incorporates extensive references to Machiavelli’s thoughts on war.3 The concepts and observations that he developed early in modern European history serve as a ‘bridge’ between earlier works on war such as those by Sun Tzu, Thucydides, or Polybius on the one hand, and Clausewitz and Jomini on the other. Machiavelli’s work is also important because it illustrates the similarities, conceptual unity, and universality of strategic thought. Thus Machiavelli’s emphasis on the central role of deception in war is very close to that of Sun Tzu, while his insistence on the primacy of politics as the driving force of war is identical to that of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. In addition, the inclusion of Mao Tse-tung’s military writings in this edition further emphasizes the universal logic of strategic theory. As will be demonstrated, the strategic theory of Mao is actually much closer to that of Clausewitz than to that of Sun Tzu.
The value of a comparative analysis is that it demonstrates the basic unity of the study of strategy and war, and also allows us to better understand these works on their own terms: each can be viewed from a broader perspective, and issues that would otherwise be obscured can be clarified. As explained in the text below, for example, Sun Tzu greatly values deception and surprise while Clausewitz regards them as largely impracticable; but a comparison of Clausewitz and Jomini on the same issue shows that both believe surprise is difficult to achieve and that deception is almost always a waste of time and resources. This indicates that Clausewitz’s opinion on these matters is not so much idiosyncratic as a reflection of the general experience at the turn of the nineteenth century, when tremendous growth in the size of military formations had not yet been supported by corresponding improvements in mobility or communications. As a result, the effectiveness of deception and surprise was reduced for a time; but subsequent technological advances soon fundamentally altered the specific circumstances that had caused Clausewitz and Jomini to form negative opinions of surprise and deception. Moreover, the stalemate, immobility, and senseless carnage of the First World War eventually prompted a search for new solutions and ‘force multipliers’. By the Second World War, Sun Tzu’s (and Machiavelli’s) assertion that ‘all warfare is based on deception’ indicated that his positive conclusions on this subject were more relevant to our own time as well as to a general theory of war.
Significantly, Jomini does differ from Clausewitz in his acute awareness of the actual and potential importance of modern weapons technology; in a sibylline passage, he predicts that the weaponry of the future is likely to have a more decisive impact on the outcome of war.
The superiority of armament may increase the chances of success in war: it does not, of itself, gain battles but it is a great element of success
 The armoment of armies is still susceptible of great improvements; the state which shall take the lead in making them will secure great advantages
 The new inventions of the last twenty years seem to threaten a great revolution in army organization, armament, and tactics. Strategy alone will remain unaltered, with its principles the same as under the Scipios and Caesars, Frederick and Napoleon, since they are independent of the nature of the arms and the organization of the troops
 The means of destruction are approaching perfection with frightful rapidity. The Congreve rockets
the Perkins steam-guns, which vomit forth as many balls as a battalion,—will multiply the changes of destruction, as though the hecatombs of Eylau, Borodino, Leipsic, and Waterloo were not sufficient to decimate the European races.
If governments do not combine in a congress to proscribe these inventions of destruction, there will be no course left but to make the half of an army consist of cavalry with cuirasses, in order to capture with great rapidity these machines; and the infantry, even, will be obliged to resume its armor of the Middle Ages, without which a bottalion will be destroyed before engaging the enemy.
We may then see again the famous men-at-arms all covered with armor, and horses also will require the same protection.
(Jomini, The Art of War, pp. 47–49)
What Jomini perceived as the quickening pace of technological evolution was in fact the nascent Industrial Revolution. By discerning the dynamic nature of military inventions and its influence on the shape of battle, Jomini in some respects grasps the essence of technological changes that were only fully discussed after the First World War by experts such J.F.C.Fuller and Tom Wintringham; in other respects, however, his vision of future technology is grafted to, hence bound by, the military capabilities of his own time. Nevertheless, Jomini provides us with a link between earlier classical strategic theory as represented by Sun Tzu and Clausewitz on the one hand—and that of the modern world on the other.
As partial and fragmented as Jomini’s vision of the future of military technology may have been, it was prophetic in comparison with Clausewitz’s seemingly static view of the material world. Clausewitz believed, perhaps correctly for his own time, that the most profound changes in war were political and social, not material:
Very few of the new manifestations in war can be ascribed to new inventions or new departures in ideas. They result mainly from the transformation of society and the new social conditions.
(Clausewitz, On War, p. 515)
Clearly the tremendous effects of the French Revolution abroad were caused not so much by new military methods and concepts as by radical changes in policies and administration, by the new character of government, altered conditions of the French people, and the like.
(Clausewitz, On War, p. 609)4
Writing well into the industrial age, Mao Tse-tung had to warn the military about the dangers of overreliance on material and technological factors in war:

this is the so-called theory that ‘weapons’ decide everything’, which constitutes a mechanical approach to the question of war and a subjective and one-sided view. Our view is opposed to this; we see not only weapons but also people. Weapons are an important factor in war, but not the decisive factor; it is people, not things that are decisive. The contest of strength is not only a contest of military and economic power, but also a contest of human power and morale. Military and economic power is necessarily wielded by people.
(Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings, pp. 217–218)
In a time when many military men and strategists tend to regard material and technological factors as a panacea, Clausewitz’s and Mao’s observations serve as increasingly important caveats.
The staggering complexity of military conflicts has also made it impossible to avoid numerous internal contradictions—whether real or apparent—in formulating a general theory of war. The works of Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and Jomini are certainly not devoid of such internal contradictions, tensions, and inconsistencies, the identification of which shows that the paradoxical nature of war defies complete understanding or ‘final’ codification. In many ways, the contradictions within each of these works are more interesting than the contradictions between them. The strategist’s objective is not necessarily to resolve or eliminate every anomaly, but rather to understand why wrestling with these questions can bring better insight into the nature of war. (See Appendix A.)
Sun Tzu, for example, relies heavily on deception as a ‘cheap’ solution, if not a panacea, for many of the problems encountered in warfare. But deception is not as decisive as he assumes, for he seems to ignore the fact that there is no monopoly on the art of deception which, like the proverbial two-edged sword, can cut both ways. Sun Tzu then extols victory without bloodshed as an ideal, yet disregards the fact (which is central to Clausewitz’s theory) that a reluctance to shed blood may cause one side to play into his opponent’s hands; that is, knowledge of the other nation’s reticence to ‘come to blows’ might impel such an opponent to bluff by either pretending that he is prepared to make a greater sacrifice or apply even more force to effect a decisive victory.
Both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz insist that, for war to be conducted on a rational basis, politics must be in command; at the same time, they emphasize that the field commander must be afforded sufficient freedom of action to exploit local opportunities to the greatest advantage. Neither strategist, though, develops criteria to indicate the type of circumstances under which the field commander could justify disregarding orders. Admittedly, it would be impossible to establish unequivocal criteria applicable to every situation, but this does not obviate the necessity of attempting to do so.
Clausewitz discusses at length the tendency of war—in theory and in practice—to escalate to the extreme, yet he also identifies contradictory trends that limit war and attenuate its violence. Still, the relative strengths and relationships of these trends are not explained in an entirely convincing manner. Clausewitz on the whole emphasizes the superior strength of the defense although he admits that in the opening phases of a war, the attacker may enjoy a considerable advantage. He does not, however, provide a definitive answer as to whether war can be won by the defense alone or if a counterattack is always required. Such ambiguity is not a flaw as some might assume, for a realistic theory of war can never be streamlined and perfectly consistent. As Clausewitz recognizes, the art of command is to make choices in the midst of ambiguity. Those seeking to extract simple, unalterable, and universally applicable scientific principles from the complexity of war are bound to be disappointed when they encounter its inevitable paradoxes, contradictions, and tensions. To take an example from the Freudian theory of psychoanalysis, Freud’s identification of the two coexisting but opposing instincts of Eros (the pleasure-driven life instinct) and Thanatos (the death instinct) in no way detracts from or invalidates his theory.
Jomini, as we have seen, believes that war on the operational level can be waged as a ‘scientific activity’ guided by a few basic principles; yet he also points out (without being aware of or simply ignoring the contradiction) that their consistently successful application hinges on the role of the military genius.
Some of the co...

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