Clauswitz vs. Sun Tzu: Who wins?

Here’s one for ya: which theory of warfare is better in your opinion, Von Clauswitz’s or Sun Tzu’s?

Feel free to provide real world examples–you know I love 'em.

could you tell me where I can read up on Von Clauswitz? I do like Sun Tzu though- live by some of the principles, (well, you know, as much as anybody can incorporate principles into their lives…)- I don’t viscerally understand lots of it though.

All I know about Clauswitz is that he supposedly said that warfare is an extension of policy, or something like that. Sun Tzu wrote a treatise on generalship. Where’s the conflict between them?

Personally, I think the best theory of tactics, if not overall strategy, was summed up by Nathen Bedford Forrest: in battle, “I gets there firstest with the mostest!”

Given that von Clausewitz’s army had guns and cannons and Sun Tzu’s had swords and arrows, the smart money’s on the German guy. :slight_smile:

Both von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu clearly understood that war should only be embarked upon when there’s a clear objective and when you have the upper hand. Imagining them presiding over a “war-as-sport” event where both get X divisions and the last man standing is the victor is about as far from “Art of War” as one can get.

Likely outcome: They’d compare forces, realize that they were on an equal footing, say “bugger this for a game of soldiers” in Mandarin & German, respectively, and not fight.

The only way to win the game is not to play. How about a game of chess?

See, you can learn important life lessons from Hollywood. :wink:

“War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

Never read Clausewitz or Sun Tzu but I oughta for several reasons. Then I’ll dig up this thread and post my opinion on it.

Note that both were heavily influenced by their contemporary cultures, and that neither of their philosophies stood up to the test of time. It took longer for Sun’s philosophy to be decisively refuted by events, but one can argue that that was because he was the much earlier writer[sup]1[/sup], and that the situaton just wasn’t and couldn’t change as fast in his day.

[sup]1[/sup][sub]If, in fact, he existed at all, something that is not universally accepted.[/sub]

sun tzu’s philosophy seems to be a kind of kung fu warfare. ideally you would defeat the enemy before he even made the decision to attack you. it’s about spies, politics and warfare. the more force you have to use the worse you have been playing up to that point.

haven’t read much clauswitz but doesn’t appear as subtle.

you know how those barbarians are.

of course china blew it and the barbarians took over.

Dal Timgar

Well, by my reading, Clauswitz was more interested in brute force to achieve objectives (obviously, he was a product of his times) where-as Sun Tzu was more of a strategist. When I look at trench warfare in WWI, I see Clauswitz’s theories at work (i.e massive artillery bombardments, gas barrages, etc.–it’s industrialized warfare at it’s worst). When I think Sun Tzu, I think Viet Nam (specifically how the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fought). I see the American’s trying to blow the bejesus out of a foe who, wisely, faded into the jungle whenever faced with overwhelming force. I see Tet, I see Khesanh, I even see the final assault by the North on the South (which was probably as close to a ‘conventional’ i.e. Western battle as was fought during that war). I also would say Sun Tzu is more realistic about the costs of warfare and how it should be engaged in only as a last resort. Contrast the following two paraphrases:
Clauswitz: 'War is simply the continuation of political policy by other means."
Sun Tzu: 'War should only be used as a last resort because anger can turn to joy but the dead cannot be returned to life" (this is an extreme paraphrase–my books are at home so I’ll be able to provide a complete cite on request). He also argues strongly against protracted warfare where-as I can’t remember Clauswitz being concerned by this at all.

It just seems that, in this post-nuclear world (and now that we have ‘smart weapons’ which make precision warfare more practical), Sun Tzu’s theories are much more applicable today than Clauswitz’s. Indeed, I would say that Clauswitz (even though he was written what, 200 or so years ago) is much more out of date than Sun Tzu who was written over a 1000 years ago! My suggestion is that wars (if ya gotta fight 'em) are better fought by Sun Tzu’s philosophy than Clauswitz’s.
Not only is there less bloodshed, but there’s more of a chance of something being left to ‘win’ after it’s all over.

Anyway, just a thought.

I’ve read von Clausewitz’s “Vom Krieg” (It’s in print as “On the Art of War” by Pelican books), but I only know Sun Tzu by reputation and a few quotes. But my money’s on Clausewitz. His book is longer and (odd to say for a book of philosophy) more concrete than what I’ve seen of Sun Tzu. Von Clausewitz is more specific, Sun Tzu more Zen-like. Me, I’d prefer to have the one that was more like a field manual. Von Clausewitz talks about “The Fog of War” and what happens when things go wrong. Sure, I’d like to win without firing a shot, a la Sun Tzu. But what are you going to do when you CAN’T?

i like the book:


better than his translation of THE ART OF WAR.

it is the translation of two discussions/critiques of The Art of War by two chinese military men/politicians who were successful with his philosophy in their careers. much less cryptic and with examples from chinese history.

Dal Timgar

You forget the rest of his quote (after all, he WAS the first national leader of the KKK) “… and then lynch all those damn uppity niggers”.
Well- Clauswitz would win- as he would pull out his pistol & shoot Sun. Hmm, tacticly tho- i really do not think a mass of chinese spearmen could hold up to some 8pouders with grapeshot. :smiley:

True enough–but if you gave them both modern armies, I’m thinking Sun Tzu would stomp the living shit out of Clauswitz. In a world where something that can be seen can also be destroyed, I’m voting for the craftier general.

For what it’s worth, Clauswitz does describe the ‘friction’ of warfare much better than Sun Tzu, but that may be a factor of missing text rather than any greater insight.

I think part of the question is how much time you gave both guys to prepare. If you just dispensed an army for each guy and said “Go have at 'em,” Clauswitz would have an advantage – his tactics are directly applicable to such a hit-and-run-full-throttle scenario.

On the other hand, if you made each guy the Military commander of a country with unsteady diplomatic relationships with each other, then told them to “get ready, because we may have to go to war if these other folks get uppity,” Sun-Tzu would have the advantage there. His Art of War is heavily biased in favor of pre-battlefield strategies, up to and including diplomacy, espionage, sowing dissention in the enemy ranks, and stuff like that. Clauswitz wouldn’t really have much to do until the gauntlet is thrown, methinks.

Ultimately, my money is with Spiny Norman; they’d realize they were participating in an artificial contest, say “screw this nonsense,” and go grab a beer instead. :slight_smile:

Heh–I like it! Who needs this war crap anyway… :wink:

I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston yesterday. In the gift shop I find – Clausewitz’ “Vom Krieg” in a single volume WITH Sun Tzu !

The editor claims that the two are ssentially inagreement, and their books complement each other.

Of course I am operating under the assumption that both would be given equal forces and time to prepare. If it was primarily tactical I would lean towards clauswitz, strategic, Sun Tzu.

All the guns and technology in history will never allow you to kill an opponent you cannot engage. The idea behind much of Sun Tzu’s work was often “a battle is decided before a shot is fired” Since even a disciplined army will usually retreat at I believe something like 15-20% casualties, using your forces efficently is more important than having the biggest guns. By sun tzu’s method even a more advanced force could be defeated due to superior positioning. No matter how big and bad you are, being hit from multiple sides at once plays havoc with an armys morale. It takes time for an attacking army to redirect itself towards a new attack vector and prepositioned units can take advantage of those turns and the time lags they incur. I believe clausewitz covered this too but was more interested in battles than whole wars. In this way you could “in theory” force an army to surrender rather than risk annihilation from being surrounded and or cut off from supply. Thus the idea of winning without anyone getting killed. This idea can apply in a strategic scale (which is what most of sun tzu seems to be telling us, an army could find itself hundreds of miles from help because a nearby base was wiped out while they were out trying to engage a diversonary force. End result, surrender or die of starvation. Worked in WWII at Rabaul

I agree with CalMeacham, They complete each other. In addition do not forget that Clausewitz’s book was published unfinished posthumously by his widow, so it cannot be as polished as Sun Tzu

“War is the continuation of political intercourse with the intermixing of other means”. Clauswitz’s thought works to a point, but his perception doesn’t take into account that war is about more than just politics, but often an expression of culture. War has existed prior to states and politics and his thoughts are geared around the idea that war is fought by professional soldiers with high discipline, and that all wars have a very structured beginning and end. He himself had trouble understanding and even condemned the unskilled tactics used by mercenaries and local “militias” that he himself had brought in at times simply because to win, he needed the undisciplined tactics that mercenaries brought to the battlefield. These undisciplined tactics are in fact, the type of tactics favored by Sun Tzu. Clauswitz dealt with war in the european frame of mind at the time. Ordered ranks of soldiers, unquestioned obedience, and attrition. The same frame of mind that the Brits had during the Revolution when they held the Colonists in contempt for hiding and shooting from cover in the forests, rather than face to face battle in the fields. Clauswitz had some great thoughts, and is thought provoking reading. It is hard to read On War, and not come to the conclusion that he was a brilliant man. But for actual warfighting, I’ll go with Sun Tzu’s doctrines first, for the same reason that many of today’s unit commanders, especially the more elite ones, do. They work.