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Understanding the Western view of war

Written by on 07 January 2011

The West has evolved an understanding of war, which considers selection, training, processes and the equipment procurement strategy. But how did we come to view war from this perspective? The answer lies in key military thinking, which reaches back over 3000 years.

The Art of War – Sun Tzu’s legacy

Sun TzuMany authors have tried to distil Sun Tzu book, “The Art of War” into the modern contemporary environment. From military thinkers, through to business practitioners, many have tried to apply his words to the current context. It should be remembered that much of what Sun Tzu describes are general principals and observations based on the military and political practices of the day. Sun Tzu work is renowned for highlighting general principals such as, “one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the most skilful. Seizing the enemy without fighting is the most skilful.” These points are self-descriptive philosophical approaches to war; they stand on the basis of logical deduction without contextual application. That said, the words of Sun Tzu have retained their relevance for over 3,000 years and still form the basis of a great deal of contemporary military thinking.

Carl von Clausewitz – the science of war!

ClausewitzCarl von Clausewitz was a Prussian Staff Officer during the battle of Jena-Auerstedt, which took place on the 14th of October 1806. This battle saw Napoleon inflict a crushing defeat on two superior Prussian armies. This battle not only demonstrated a fantastic display of military strategy, but also heralded a new tactical employment of smaller forces that set a chain of events in motion, which directs our current Command philosophy. Carl von Clausewitz witnessed first hand a desterilised decision and command approach dismantle the old centralised, highly controlled, pre-planned military approach of the day. Clausewitz applied the new scientific approach of the day to understanding the complexities of conflict in an attempt to understand how the Prussians had lost so heavily to the French. His studies produced insights such as, "war is not merely a political act, but also a political instrument, a continuation of political relations, a carrying out of the same by other means.” These words would resonate in the conflicts of the twentieth century and Clausewitz’ scientific study of War produced valuable understanding and illustrated the uncontrollable nature of conflict, “the friction of war”.

When war became an art form!

HelmuthIt was left to the formidable military thinker Helmuth von Moltke the Elder to combine both the philosophical approach of Sun Tzu and the scientific observations of Carl von Clausewitz. Moltke established a staff, Command and training regime that would establish the new German Army as the most formidable fighting force of the early twentieth century. He is perhaps best known for his observation, “no plan survives contact with the enemy”, that encapsulates both the analytical, scientific approach to war whilst accepting the unpredictable nature of context.

How we think today!

The military today accepts the unpredictable nature of war and plans accordingly. This is not just a question of planning resilience, it is the empowerment of frontline implementation forces, sharing information and context so individuals can evaluate tasks and make decisions based on the emerging context they see in front of them. Never have military forces been so empowered and decentralised as they are today. Speed and complexity drives the requirement to maintain this approach, as information connectivity enables so much co-ordination it also provides the detail, the fog of war that can paralyse decision making capability. In the end, individuals need enough information from which the can make a timely decision, no more, no less.

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