Leadership in Sun Tzu, Machiavelli and Clausewitz

Military theory provides a definition for war as well as methods and systems for how to wage it in the most effective way. Implicate in each theory are the qualities and abilities that create the most effective forms of leadership for those methods and systems. We shall examine how the theories of Sun Tzu, Niccolò Machiavelli and Carl von Clausewitz have helped to define their ideas of military leadership and statecraft as well as attempt to evaluate those ideas through their application to a recent and important historical conflict, the Vietnam war.

Philosophy does not create testable hypothesis but Sun Tzu, Machiavelli and Clausewitz are not building metaphysical systems. They are trying to tell us something practical about the world. As a result there is a need for some form of empirical verification. However what they say is not mutually exclusive and does not create clearly defined criteria for evaluation. Still, we should attempt to compare their ideas with the examples history has presented to us.

Machiavelli claims that a leader will arise from either Fortuna or virtù. This seems a reasonable truism and is vague enough to be accepted without the need for verification but it does not really tell us a great deal. His view that there are different systems of morals for private individuals and leaders of states are of greater interest but are perhaps difficult to verify. To begin with we are faced with the difficulty of adequately defining what constitutes personal morality. While it seems possible that it should be better to value a society’s welfare more than an individual’s personal conduct, but where does one draw the line? How often and how long can a leader ignore personal moral conduct in the service of the state before his rule becomes so corrupt that it is no longer able to function?

If we take the US involvement in Vietnam as an example, the Johnson administration was able to continually act beyond societies moral expectations. Dangerous chemical herbicides and defoliants were indiscriminately applied to an agrarian landscape and the people that lived in it. The supposed neutrality of Laos and Cambodia were violated with increasing frequency. Bombing and other operations were often conducted to maximize civilian casualties. While each of these examples was conducted with the purpose of bringing an end to the war and establishing peace and stability, their collective results undermined the public confidence and trust in the Johnson administration and eventually brought an end to his progressive and beneficial social policies.

Sun Tzu looks for a wise leader with a strong penchant for planning and especially calculation. If there was ever a military leader with a strong ability and inclination for computation it would have to Robert McNamara. Young, bright, Harvard-educated; McNamara applied the same management and analysis skills he used as an executive to turn around Ford to the art of war. If ever there was a man who embraced calculation in warfare it was McNamara—bringing new levels of efficiency to the US execution of the war effort in Vietnam. However, in this case calculation and efficiency did not lead to a successful conclusion. Sortie completion rates rose, bombing efficiency improved and body-count ratios soared, but this seemed to have little or no effect on resolving the conflict or bringing it to a conclusion.

Of course Sun Tzu could counter that the failure was not related to the calculations, after all they led to winning all the battles. Sun Tzu might point out the lack of independence of command. President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara always kept limits on the generals in the field and never allowed them to completely follow-up on any tactical victory. He could also argue that complete victory is not a matter of winning battles but in breaking the enemy’s resistance, something the North Vietnamese were able to accomplish whereas the US failed.

For Clausewitz war is not a system of rules and maneuvers. It cannot be solved through calculation. It is dirty, messy and violent. A leader must adapt to changing circumstances, find the unpredictable, the unexpected and the accidental and make something of them. Clausewitz realizes that war is not fought on paper, nor is it independent of policy. The US often fought in Vietnam as though the military objectives were independent of political considerations. McNamara’s calculations brought efficiency but not victory. From the perspective of Clausewitz, what was missing from US efforts in Vietnam was a balance of the trinity. The support and passion of the people, the ability of military leaders to understand and use the complexity and chaos of the situation to military and political advantage, and the government to construct and execute a clearly defined and practical policy would have brought the conflict to a successful conclusion. All things that were not achieved by the US in Vietnam. Perhaps Clausewitz’ recognition of the violence and chaos of war can provide us with the most realistic and useful definition of leadership.

Leadership in Sun Tzu, Machiavelli and Clausewitz


~ by severalfourmany on September 2, 2007.

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