JPME - Military Theorists Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Mahan, Corbett

Prompts from my JPME course

JPME - Military Theorists Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Mahan, Corbett

Question #1

Based on your readings by Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, is war more of an art or a science? Why?

War is an art. I believe both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu would recognize this truth, but that of course does not stop them from applying scientific principles and reasoning to the matter. In considering war as art, a useful analogy would be cooking, where solid understanding of doctrine (recipe) and cooking science (skill) is prerequisite to producing artful results.

I surprised myself in making this conclusion. Sun Tzu’s writings are laid out like a list of commandments among titles like “The Nine Varieties of Terrain.” Clausewitz’s writing takes a methodical approach with specific chapters like “Flank Positions and Entrenched Camps” and “Attacks on Swamps, Flooded Areas, and Forests” as though attempting to account for every possible variable in a grand equation of war.

However, investigating beyond the structure reveals that though they tried to create rules for waging war, Clausewitz and Sun Tzu believe there are forces at work that render it unsolvable. Clausewitz said “War is the realm of chance,” likening it to a card game, and an “intricate machine with tremendous friction” which destroys complex plans and “distinguishes real war from war on paper.” Sun Tzu makes numerous references to victories that don’t require actual fighting, suggesting that war is much more than a contest of arms and might but rather a complicated web of politics, information, humanity, and morale.

As an interesting aside, it seems that both authors and translators struggled with whether to use the word Art or Science in their writings. A footnote in the Estimates chapter (pg. 63) states that the ‘Fa’ character has a primary meaning of ‘law’ or ‘method’ but is translated as ‘Art’ in the title. In v. 8 Sun Tzu expresses that he really means what we call ‘doctrine.’ Book Two, Chapter 3 of On War, titled Art of War or Science of War simply says “The use of these terms seems still to be unsettled.” I take this to mean that truly understanding the authors’ intent requires close reading and leaves ample room for interpretation.

Question #2

Explain the differences in Mahan and Corbett's approaches to sea control.

Mahan stressed the importance of sea control and a dominant Navy as a means to win wars and as crucial for any nation to be internationally relevant. He believed this control was obtained through victory at strategic choke-points, blockades, and decisive battles with the use of capital ships. In contrast, Corbett took a broader approach treating the Navy as a part of a whole that was not war-winning in its own right. Corbett also valued the importance of sea control, but believed in fundamental differences in the nature of naval warfare as opposed to land-based warfare such that total sea control was not practical and did not necessitate victory except for limited circumstances.

Mahan was singularly focused on naval fleets, while Corbett preferred to associate collaborative effects of naval forces with those on land. Influenced in his theories by Clausewitz, Corbett also makes account for external politics which promotes the Navy as a tool for diplomacy and national interest whereas Mahan promotes a Navy as a direct tool for sea control. In general, Mahan’s lens is more narrow and tactical while Corbetts is wider and strategic.