Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, or Mao Zedong?
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Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, or Mao Zedong?


Last week we kicked off the winter term in the Naval War College’s Intermediate Level Course, dubbed Strategy & War. We spend the first week of seminars with the giants of strategic theory, namely Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Mao Zedong. That provides a platform from which we vault into historical case studies for the balance of the course. We encounter the rest of the greats—Thucydides, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sir Julian Corbett, David Galula—along the way. At the outset of any seminar I like to canvass the students about their predispositions toward strategy. Solomon-like, I decree that each person justify his choice by listing a favorite passage from that theorist’s writings.

Does Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, or Mao speak to a particular group of people more, and why? Which concepts find more favor? Mao tends to finish third, probably because he carries heavy historical baggage. In six years of overseeing seminars, I have never had a Maoist class. Whatever the Chinese Communist Party chairman’s strategic ingenuity, it’s hard to overlook the mounds of dead Chinese bodies stacked up during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, when Mao made the transition from tearing down a state to building his own. By my unscientific count, around a quarter of students ‘fess up to being admirers of Maoist works such as On Protracted War. On the whole, setting aside Mao’s third-party candidacy, seminars generally incline slightly to Clausewitz’s On War or to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

This result implies that the late Michael Handel, who taught in my department when I was a mere whippersnapper of a student—hard to believe, I know—was correct to conclude that there is no clear-cut Asian or Western way of war. If there were, European soldier Clausewitz would be the clear winner every time with overwhelmingly American audiences. Why do students lean one way or the other? Some reasons are pragmatic. Sun Tzu furnishes a short, quick, easy read that appears straightforward, whereas Clausewitz heaps page upon page of 19th-century German on the unwary student. Why not take the path of least resistance? And the domain where we operate makes a difference, as a lesser-known commentator, Admiral J. C. Wylie, observes. Airmen tend to see things one way, as do seamen, soldiers, diplomats, or anyone else. For instance, Sun Tzu premises his writings on the artful use of information, surprise, and deception. Ergo, he’s a darling of intelligence professionals. And so forth.

The Naval Diplomat owns up to waffling on this important question. As a former resident of greater Boston who spent many a happy day cycling or hiking at Lexington and Concord, I could mimic Emerson and mumble some lofty sentiment about a foolish consistency’s being the hobgoblin of little minds. Or maybe it’s just strategic aimlessness. If forced to take a stand, however, I take rank with Clausewitz. Sun Tzu extols the use of orthodox and unorthodox methods to keep adversaries off-balance. Mao urges Red Army commanders to let stronger foemen overextend themselves before turning the tables on the enemy and winning.

These are worthy insights, but they’re about methods. Clausewitz resonates with me more than the others simply because his insights are more fundamental. He respects his enemies, as befits someone who fought Napoleon and often lost. Sun Tzu insists that those who read his book win every time. Mao conveys a sense of Marxist-Leninist inevitability. Clausewitz refuses to sound such a cheery note.  For him, strategy isn’t about our acting on some inert mass, an adversary with little capacity to adapt or innovate. Strategy is about interacting with living, breathing adversaries who have as many brain cells as we do and as much resolve to prevail. If we haven’t overthrown the enemy, we are bound to fear he will overthrow us.

Giving opponents their due means taking them seriously. That’s the proper attitude to take into international competition—and a usefulstarting point for strategic wisdom. Sign me up with the great Carl.

January 27, 2014 at 09:21

If you want to know the real strategic warrior in history look at the facts. The number of countries initially conquered has increased to 232 countries and territories and it’s self-perpetrating. The number of his followers in China alone numbers 30-40 million. In the rest of the world they total 23% of the global population, or 1.57 billion people. Born in 570 and most of his present day follows will still die for him. I would say the Prophet Muhammad is the greatest strategist of all time.

Ahmad bin Abdullah
December 27, 2013 at 14:40

Mao achieved more than he intended. The Japanese had as a war goal the capture of northern Australia, to deny the US this sanctuary and to equip Nippon with immense mineral wealth. Mao thwarted this war aim by trapping the Japanese within China, biting them, baiting them, holding them captive to their erstwhile military successes.

January 12, 2014 at 03:09

Abdullah, it wasn’t Mao who did it. It was Chiang-Kai-Shek. Don’t like Chiang as I am, facts are facts.

Devindra Sethi
November 28, 2012 at 16:26

Agree with you Christopher.STRATEGISTS ARE PEOPLE WHO MAKE STRATEGY , POLITICAL LEADERS AND HIGH MILITARY COMMANDERS. The finest example of the last century, is President Franklin DelanoRoosvelt ! He kept USA out of WW2 till he was ready and yet supported Allied Powers by his famous Lend – Lease Agreement Act. In effect he controlled Mr Stalin and Churchill strategically right through and prosecuted the entire war successfully to finally defeat the AXIS Powers. All other leaders of the 20th century and before, pale in comparision to him.
One input from his library, he was an avid reader of PM CHANAYKYA's treatise, the Arthasastra!! The citizens of USA correctly rewarded him with an unprecdented third term as the President of the country. Professor Holmes should expose his students in the Naval War College accordingly.         

November 28, 2012 at 15:09

@Leonard R.,
"Strategy is the art of making use of time and space. I am less concerned about the latter than the former. Space we can recover, lost time never."
I don't know if this is original word from Napoleon, but if he think Strategy is only this, he is light year behind the real meaning of Strategy, what he mentioned is only few words in one chapter of the Art of War, yes, in battle, you should do things quick enough, the time and the chance of victory wait nobody. When,Where and How to battle is only part of the story of war. You may know there're enemy you can not defeat;there're situations where it favor your enemy, not you; there're places better solve in other ways, not war, many many more consideration. Good strategist is good at balance all war related points to make it in favor of the interest of their nation, not half bucket of water.

November 28, 2012 at 12:05

None of those "revisionist ideas" came from me. Your words were "Washington never disrespected human rights on such a massive scale" and I rebutted that specific comment. I think the Founders were great men with strong political accomplishments, but people speak of them as Saints and I think that's incorrect. All of the political accomplishments you listed for Washington I agree with. Being a reasonable and restrained politician in a young repubilic is difficult, no precedent to follow and turning down the potential of going down the dictator route. 
As to the last four presidents, I consider Clinton working with the Republican congress to get balanced budgets a Great accomplishment. Obviously and sadlly not an enduring accomplishment, but in the hyper partisan atmosphere those four had, this counts as a Great accomplish.

November 28, 2012 at 10:29

I agree with your views.  Mao was different from the rest in the fact that he wrote military treatises during war and practicised them on the enemy. Such is the profound difference between Mao and the other military theorists. 

November 28, 2012 at 10:24

"the creation of the greatest free country ever- are deminished."
Not for blacks though. They remained as slaves in 18th and 19th century. And what about the native american genocide? All white washed history?

November 28, 2012 at 08:41

I partially agree with you that the USA has an isolationalist streak as it can. Though, in a way it also doesn't truly have the strenght to be isolationist. 1941, 2001 are both examples of actions forced upon the USA even though they wished to sleep.
I also disagree that the USA has forced its neighbors to be friendly as much as its been a stroke of good luck that both of its neighbors have similar interests in peaceful relations with its neighbor.
I do believe that the USA is ignorant of many other nations real attitudes as it focuses too much on technology, but the benefit for my nation is that they are more aware of other nations and thier concerns than the next major challenger. Thus they will be quicker to build relationships that are win/win than them.
The USAs problem is that it is a Grizzly Bear looking for another similar sized Grizzly to wrestle, it tends to underestimate the scorpians, centipedes, snakes etc that can threaten it until they bite. It then goes into a frenzy stamping on the underbrush and roaring loudly until it loses sight of the wound as the pain subsides.
All is calm until it happens again.

Chuck Hill
November 28, 2012 at 08:25

I suppose many would consider Boyd a tactician. But write large could not the OODA loop writ large be strategy as well. It certainly reflects the same regard for time that the quote from Napoleon did.

November 28, 2012 at 01:34

There is indeed a modern revisionist idea that because Washington owned slaves in his time his accomplishments- aiding the creation of the greatest free country ever- are deminished. In fact such lazy thinking is just hogwash. Mao considered his people all slaves. This is why people like Stalin and Moa had no quilms about sacrificing their human stock by the millions. Washington was man enough to reject the idea of himself becoming a King or dictator. He was enlightened even if black people were considered slaves/low class by every single modern country of that time. He was a good man whom will outshine any and all contemporary but cowardly modern politicians. I would predict in 100 yrs. Washington will still be regarded as a great man while most Americans will have bad memories of today's leaders whom have failed the country on too many levels to keep count. The only word to sum up our modern leaders is "loser". Name one great and enduring accomplishment by any of the last four Presidents for our country?

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