James Holmes

Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, or Mao Zedong?

Who do you consider the best military strategist? James Holmes surveys the field for some answers.

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.

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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.