Sun-Tzu, Clausewitz, and Thucydides: It’s Only a Lot of Reading If You Do It

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a major in the US Army, but until recently I hadn’t read Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, often considered the seminal work on military theory.

In my defense, however, I’ll say this: Though the great minds of military strategy are often invoked, they’re rarely read—and even then, almost never in full.

Over the past few months, I committed myself to reading the three greatest military thinkers of all time: Chinese philosopher Sun-Tzu, the Prussian military theorist Clausewitz, and the Greek historian Thucydides. Though there’s certainly much widsdom in all three works, their greatest value hasn’t been in helping to grasp good strategy, per se. Rather, every military leader should read all three works to help spot bad strategy.

Let’s face it, nearly every budding defense writer knows that the credibility of your argument goes up 1000% by slapping a quote from one of the greats somewhere before your thesis. Clausewitz is among the most abused of those great strategists—Clausewitz’ sage wisdom was invoked in 2002 to justify the Iraq War, then afterwards to repudiate it. Indeed, Clausewitz is so vague at times, he can be used to justify, well, pretty much anything.

The problem, of course, lies in the fact that the vast majority of Clausewitz quotes are pulled from the first twenty pages of his book—in a book which generally runs over 500 pages. The publishers of one of the most prominent editions of Clausewitz have even speculated that writers commissioned to write forewords rarely read beyond the first chapter themselves.

On War is basically like Moby Dick. Sure, the beginning and ending are delightfully quotable and fascinating, but there’s that vast swath of drivel in the midsection involving the drudgery of life in the 1830s. (Clausewitz’s Book VI is about as interesting as Melville’s entire chapter dedicated to the “Whiteness of the Whale.”)

Perhaps adding to the confusion is the fact that Clausewitz’s first chapter refers to absolute war—an abstract style of war even the author admits has never happened in history, and likely never will. And while the simplicity and rationality of absolute war and its zero-sum game may sound appealing, Clausewitz is quick to point (in Book One, Chapter Two) out that wars are often fought for irrational and limited purposes, subject to the whims of the individual commanders.

Adherents of Sun-Tzu, however, aren't just content to cherry-pick quotes. Some have fabricated quotes entirely. You can, too, if you use my simple guide! (Patent pending.)

  1. Take a general truism
  2. Invert some of the grammar, a la Yoda.
  3. Insert into general text on strategy or policy paper and claim it comes from Sun-Tzu
  4. PROFIT!

Think I’m joking?

Pundits often attribute the following to Sun-Tzu: “ Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” This quote has even made its way into reputable publications. The problem, of course, is that Sun-Tzu never actually wrote it...unless he was writing in Google Books sometime in 2002.

Which brings us to Thucydides. On one hand, Thucydides’ Greek is so dense and circumloquacious that he just doesn’t translate well to sound bytes. On the other hand, the text is so obscure that it’s easy for pundits to use the text to support all manner of cockamamie schemes. (Or, as Dan Drezner puts it, “Everything I needed to know about Thucydides, I learned from the Melian Dialogue.”)

The worst offenders are the neoconservatives, who long lionized the text and used it to justify the invasion of Iraq. Never mind the fact that the last third of the text (Books VI-VIII) chronicles Athens’ disastrous Sicilian Expedition, which ultimately led to its defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Indeed, the run-up to the doomed expedition reads—nearly line by line—like the sequence of events that led to the Iraq War.

Athens, in a bout of hubris, grossly overreaches and embarks upon a costly overseas campaign, having not even finished their current war against Sparta and her allies. But hot-headed youth believe the war against Syracuse will pay for itself, and that Sicilian city-states (a coalition of the willing, if you will) will gladly ally with Athens.

One skeptic is Nicias, who (channeling his inner Shinseki) tries to discourage the Athenians from undertaking the expedition by noting that pacifying all of Sicily will require a massive presence in ground troops. However, Nicias’ ruse backfires and Athens doubles down, losing thousands of troops and her navy in Sicily and leading to her ultimate ruin. That point was apparently lost on the Neocons.

What’s a budding young strategist to do, then? By all means, read the classics. Read them in full, cover-to-cover…or at least the portions written by the original authors (I skip the hundreds of pages of forewards and afterwards). Next thing you know, you’ll be far more adept at recognizing the obligatory gratuitous Clausewitz quote. It won’t be long before you find yourself groaning at the inevitable article which begins by invoking “politics by other means”.

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