Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Discussion: Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and Jomini

All four authors lived during periods of intense political turmoil and experienced or observed firsthand seemingly interminable warfare. All four were recognized luminaries in power circles of their day, and were motivated to provide sound and lasting advice to either political leaders or power brokers. While the careers of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli are more commonly known, Clausewitz was a widely recognized military intellectual who fought with Marshal Blucher at Leipzig and Waterloo, and Jomini was an aide to the Swiss minister of war, aide-de-camp to Marshal Ney, and moved in Napoleon’s orbit. By one author’s account, “It is not beyond reason to assume that Napoleon believed that Jomini, who possessed the potential of a great historian, might provide him with another stepping stone toward immortality.”[1] All four investigated war’s fundamental nature and were attuned to war’s dual nature as both science and art, but Jomini’s work stands out as the least revolutionary in this respect.

Jomini was drawn to see war as art and it was probably the writings of Clausewitz which prodded him to give a more balanced treatment of war. Jomini, though still accomplished and a popular as well as widely read author, was a shameless self-promoter who kept a constant eye on his political standing. Jomini’s oversimplification of strategy and warfare between states, according to some critics, seemed to roll back military thought to before the watershed year of 1789.[2] Jomini’s theory of war—though clearly not wrong—is best seen as a model of operational warfare, and especially Napoleonic warfare.[3] Only Clausewitz stands out as his—unfinished—work was marked by philosophical rigor and skepticism worthy of the early natural philosophers such as Copernicus.

What has come down to us as the general and military advisor Sun Tzu is almost certainly a historical model (a caricature) commonly used by official Chinese historians to shape the views and behavior of subjects through time. Although his work is arguably the oldest surviving theoretical examination of war, Sun Tzu’s thinking has been called “sublime”—his carefully crafted ideas can be easily misunderstood through poor translation.[4] Sun Tzu’s The Art of War—unlike Machiavelli’s writings which were peculiar to Renaissance Florence—is characterized by generalizations, not closely tied to any particular state during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States time periods.[5] Shaped by a Taoist world-view, Sun Tzu’s theory of war is marked by balance between complementary principles and forces; war is a balance between art and science.

Clausewitz laid out a relatively elaborate theory of war (compared to Jomini’s geometric approach) firmly based in the political milieu of the Napoleonic wars and characterized by the politicization of war, primacy of organized violence, and the involvement of the people in military struggles. Clausewitz’s theory evolved significantly between his Principles of War (1812), heavily laden with popular military themes of the day, and his last period of work on what was later published as On War. According to John Keegan, referring to the more simplistic writings that pre-date On War, “…it is recognized that toward the end of his life he was moving away from the crudities of his youth….”[6] At the time of his death Clausewitz was evolving into a deeply skeptical philosopher (so skeptical it seemed to bother Jomini), having been shaped by the anti-Enlightenment brewing in Germany following 1806, who was deliberately searching for a timeless theory of war that explained the influence of physical and moral factors. Clausewitz’s readiness to reject facile theory prompted Jomini to write, “[H]is first volume is but a declamation against all theory of war, whilst the two succeeding volumes, full of theoretic maxims, proves that the author believes in the efficacy of his own doctrines, if he does not believe in those of others.”[7]

Jomini saw war in traditional terms—not too unlike Clausewitz’s absolute war—with heroic warriors and decisive battles, though he did allow for the influence of the populace, collective motivations in war, and so forth. At the end of his long life, Jomini believed he had conclusively proven that war is an art, and not a science—in a contemporary sense of the term—and that certain eternal principles of war, if properly applied, could ensure success on the battlefield.[8] But, though it may appear contradictory, Jomini also wrote about waging war in a scientific manner.[9] Jomini used the terms science and scientific often though it is clear he meant to convey the idea a of logical, systematic, and rational body of practical knowledge. One way of looking at the relationship between Clausewitz and Jomini is to say the latter focused on distilling the basic principles—he used the term “veritable rules”—from the former’s ideal of absolute war.[10] Clausewitz, though not against principles of war in his early writings, grew to strenuously reject all forms of unchanging principles.[11]

War is a state of competition involving political aims and sources of political power, whereas warfare is the military application of the sources of power.[12] This distinction can be applied to Clausewitz and Jomini; Clausewitz was exploring the phenomenon of war, whereas Jomini was focused on a theory of warfare grounded in, he hoped, universally applicable principles. Although it is easy to focus on the differences between the two, Clausewitz and Jomini also were aware of each other’s work and actually shared many things in common, for example, both elaborated on the decisive point. Jomini, but especially Clausewitz, turned attention to war as a social and historical phenomenon, and not necessarily as the focus of statecraft. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War focused on the conduct of warfare as a means to ensure the survival of the state, similar to the way Machiavelli’s The Prince focused on how to promote the strength and longevity of a Renaissance state.[13]

Clausewitz introduced many new theories, including friction and military genius, to help explain timeless phenomenon. Clausewitz made significant advances over earlier writers by attempting to lay out theory—scientific knowledge—as opposed to anecdote and prescription. Clausewitz saw war as a unique human activity due to its widespread fear, danger, chance, and unpredictability.[14] In line with the philosophical currents of the day in Germany, Clausewitz assumed that war had an objective (science) and subjective (art) nature, and any comprehensive theory of war cannot separate its material and non-material dimensions. Clausewitz’s theory is the most sophisticated (though still incomplete) because not only does he recognize an ongoing, dynamic relationship between the art and science of war, but also that each of these can change; weapons and technology will change, as can the moral forces in war (the passions of the populace can grow and ebb, for example).[15]

Any ideal form of war, which would also be free of change, though theoretically possible, will never be experienced in the real world. Clausewitz introduced the theory of friction to explain all of the factors which modify absolute war. Clausewitz identified in the concept of friction both the physical restraints that prevent the perfect maneuver of military units as well as the intangible factors such as fear, uncertainty, and indecision, that plague the commander’s mind—another indication of the objective and subjective natures of war. To properly understand Clausewitz’s views on war one must accept his general overview of the phenomenon—his general theory—and keep this in mind while examining the many components of war, as it is actually executed—what might be termed the particular theories of war.[16] This varying use of theory apparently frustrated Jomini.

All four thinkers considered war within a political framework, and for that reason saw war as both an art and a science. Even Jomini, especially in his later writings, was following Clausewitz’s lead in bringing the political framework of war to the forefront of military theory. Today, of course, Clausewitz is known most for his pronouncements on the relationship between war and policy because his close pairing of policy and military operations was essentially new.[17] Following the dramatic campaigns of the Napoleonic wars, both Clausewitz and Jomini focused on the political objective as central to the conduct of military operations, “versus war for wars sake.”[18] Both Sun Tzu and Machiavelli assumed that the aim of the ruler is a populace that is prosperous, content, and closely wedded to their leaders.[19] Sun Tzu and Machiavelli advocated very similar kinds of stratagems based on deception and what today would be called psychological operations.[20] Sun Tzu and Machiavelli—expressing a pre-modern world-view—portrayed war as an integral part of the political order, and a tool to be wielded by those in power.

All four writers, including Sun Tzu, recognized a practical dimension to war, including the significance of numbers—the objective qualities of war—material factors including supply, and specific tactical principles (even though there are differences in how they viewed the nature of principles and theory). Both Clausewitz and Jomini drew heavily on scientific terminology, concepts, and models—both the ‘language’ of educated men of the period and an important part of the zeitgeist—to explain the nature and art of war. Clausewitz used Newtonian terms, while Jomini tended to borrow from geometry and mathematics (although Jomini’s most basic formula of employing mass in time and space can also be seen as Newtonian).[21] Clausewitz recognized the objective and subjective aspects of war—such as the courage and personality of the overall commander, the spirit and moral strength of an army, and chance—but set about to discover a general theory that synthesized both into a higher construct. Clausewitz was the first to set out a complete theory of the moral effects on warfare and of the “centrality” of human will in war.[22]

All four theorists gave significant attention to the concept of military genius and the attributes associated with the military genius, or “great captain.” Not surprisingly, fighting in the tremendous shadow of Napoleon, both Clausewitz and Jomini discussed military genius at length, and highlighted the central role of military genius in the art of war.[23] Clausewitz constructed a theory of military genius to explain the ability of victorious armies to surmount the seemingly debilitating effects of friction, including imponderables and lack of complete intelligence. Although it seemed that Clausewitz aimed to defy simplification in his writing, his concept of military genius can be summed up as a balance between superior intellect and unyielding determination.[24] Similar to Clausewitz’s unyielding determination, Machiavelli argued that the ruthless and “stern” commander was preferable to a “pleasant” one since the former can be relied upon to fight on until completion of the campaign.[25]

Clausewitz’s military genius referred to all the qualities of a commander that allow him (or her) to see through the fog of war and make intuitive decisions that reflect a deeper understanding of the military situation (referred to by the French, coup d’oeil). One author summed up Clausewitz’s focus on the pivotal role of the commander this way: “Armies require training, preparation and intelligence, but victory ultimately depends on the commander’s strength of will to carry out his plans in spite of doubt, danger and uncertainty.”[26] Just as he described the political fabric of warfare without separating policy from war, Clausewitz wrote about military leadership within the context of war’s fundamental nature—shaped by danger and uncertainty. War could not be reduced to a science and the military leader could not be reduced to an ‘engineer.’[27] Just as he used the concept of absolute war to explore the nature of real-world war, Clausewitz used an ideal make-up of the military genius to outline his views on military leadership. Although Clausewitz was not trying to outline qualities that if developed in anyone would automatically produce military genius, he nonetheless believed that leaders of strong intellect and determination were critical to success on the battlefield.[28]

In many ways Clausewitz and Jomini belong to a modern paradigm of war theory, shaped by the Enlightenment and the social, political, and economic upheavals associated with Napoleon (most importantly, the social and political revolutions emanating from France, and the final destruction of the ancien regimes in Europe). Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, broadly speaking, belong to another, ancient paradigm, though they represent eastern and western varieties. Sun Tzu’s and Clausewitz’s studies of war are the most influential and insightful primarily because they understood and gave prominence to the human, chaotic, and unpredictable aspects of war. Machiavelli (in his The Art of War) and Jomini sought principles of war to explain how to achieve victory on the battlefield; Machiavelli advocated a revival of Roman principles, while Jomini very accurately unlocked the system of Napoleonic warfare—at least at the operational level.

War is a human activity closely tied to the social nature of human beings. War is similar to other social interactions except that the fundamental interaction—or transaction—involves combat and the threat of death and destruction. War is both a science and an art, reflecting a dual nature, and more than the simple combination of the two. The source of the duality is human nature, the human influence of political leaders, populations, commanders, and armies, which can never be adequately quantified or predicted. Human nature is the one constant in warfare through the ages, and has been understood by exceptional theorists and practitioners (such as Patton) as fundamental to the nature of war. No theory can stand the test of time that does not adequately address the human ‘material’ of war.


1. Gordon J. Lippman, “Jomini and the Principles of War,” Military Review (February 1959): 45.

2. Steven D. Russell, Picking the Right Horse? Dominant Maneuver in the Twenty-first Century (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1998), 10.

3. See Robin P. Swan, The Pieces of a Military Chessboard—What is the Contemporary Significance of Jomini’s Design of a Theater of Operations (Fort Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, 1991).

4. Kurt P. VanderSteen, Classical Theories and the Will to Fight (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2001), 12.

5. On Sun Tzu, see Robert B. Geddis, Ancient Chinese Precedents in China’s National Defense (Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1998), 55.

6. John D. Keegan, “On the Principles of War,” Military Review (December 1961): 63.

7. Antoine Henri de Jomini, Summary of the Art of War, trans. O. F. Winship and E. E. McLean (New York: G. P. Putnam & Co., 1854), 10.

8. Lippman, 46.

9. Vincent J. Curtis, “Jomini on Battlefield Tactics,” The [Canadian] Army Doctrine and Training Bulletin, Volume 5, No.4 (Winter 2002-2003): 36.

10. Jomini, 6.

11. Christopher Bassford, “Jomini and Clausewitz: Their Interaction,” (paper presented to the 23rd Meeting of the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe at Georgia State University, 26 February 1993).

12. Steven W. Peterson, The Nature of War and Campaign Design (Fort Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, 1994), 3.

13. VanderSteen, 23.

14. Suzanne C. Nielsen, Political Control Over the Use of Force: A Clausewitzian Perspective (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2001), 4.

15. Antulio J. Echevarria, Globalization and the Nature of War (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2003), 7-8.

16. Simon Bernard, “Clausewitz in the 21st Century,” The [Canadian] Army Doctrine and Training Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Winter 1999): 49.

17. Rex A. Estilow, Campaign Planning: The Search For Method (Fort Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, 1991), 10.

18. Wesley R. Odum Jr., Conceptual Transformation for the Contemporary Operational Environment (Fort Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, 2003), 22.

19. Geddis, 57.

20. See Harry G. Summers, Jr., “Clausewitz: Eastern and Western Approaches to War,” Air University Press (March-April 1986),

21. For more on Clausewitz and Newtonian science, see Robert P. Pellegrini, The Links between Science, Philosophy, and Military Theory: Understanding the Past, Implications for the Future (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1997).

22. VanderSteen, 34.

23. Odum, 25.

24. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds and trans by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984), 102.

25. Gregory C. Gardner, Generalship in War: The Principles of Operational Command (Fort Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1987), 6.

26. Eugenia C. Kiesling, “On War Without the Fog,” Military Review (September-October 2001): 87.

27. Donald D. Chipman, “Clausewitz and the Concept of Command Leadership,” Military Review (August 1987): 30.

28. H. Gray Otis, “Developing Military Genius,” Military Review (November 1989): 46.