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Sun Tzu vs. ISIS: The Art of War on Terror

Carl von Clausewitz, the young Prussian strategist of the Napoleonic age, is a giant in the field of security studies. His seminal work, On War, is widely considered the definitive text in understanding the nature of war. His famous quote, “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” is generally considered the cardinal rule for war—it is often quoted and equally often ignored in practice. So, it is unsurprising that contemporary Western strategists and thinkers look towards Clausewitz for answers and insights, but is he the only choice?

In “What Would Clausewitz Do?,” Mark Perry explored how the Prussian strategist would tackle the challenge of the Islamic State (ISIS). Perry astutely emphasized the need for a clear, achievable political goal driving the war effort combined with a level-headed understanding of the war being fought Clausewitz would be proud. However, Perry’s singular focus on the bare-fisted, no holds barred type of warfare is both mismatched to today’s socio-political climate and a woefully one-dimensional characterization of Clausewitz’s theory of war. Although frequently quoted Clausewitz's comprehensive theory of war is often misrepresented. . . or at least poorly understood in its entirety Clausewitz provides the abstraction of absolute war as an intellectual baseline to highlight the utility and constraints of limited warfare in practice, as explained in Book One’s “Purpose and Means in War.” Contrary to popular representation, Clausewitz outlines a masterful theory of war where the grammar of warfare adapts and changes to the logic of politics—ranging from conventional warfare to counterinsurgency involving non-state actors. Thus, to reduce Clausewitz’s theory of war to a simplistic suggestion “to hit them, and relentlessly, before they hit us,” as Mark Perry suggests, is both inaccurate and provides a false strategic dichotomy.

That said, however, Perry’s characterization of;Clausewitz;highlights the need to incorporate both nuance and a wider range of voices in the crafting of strategy. Thus, modern strategists should not be limited to the eighteenth century Prussian strategist for answers, but also look to the fifth century BCE strategist, Sun Tzu.

Although historical sources disagree on the details of Sun Tzu’s life or even his existence, his work, The Art of War, is considered a masterpiece in the philosophy of war and strategy. For hundreds of years, The Art of War provided the foundations of military theory in China and continues to have tremendous influence today. Although separated by nearly 2,000 years, Clausewitz and Sun Tzu both stressed the importance of politics in warfare, the role of the commander, and the dynamic nature of war. Yet these strategists significantly differed in their approach to warfare Clausewitz emphasized a deductive approach to the study of warfare by focusing on a theory that incorporated empirical experience. In contrast, Sun Tzu, reflective of his time, preferred a more inductive approach and understanding of warfare. But most importantly, while Clausewitz demonstrated skepticism regarding the value of intelligence in warfare, Sun Tzu advocated victory through the systematic use of intelligence, deception, and manipulation.

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