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Clausewitz Essay, Research Paper

Clausewitz advocates attacking enemy “schwerpunkt” or centers of gravity. How does this compare with Sun Tzu’s prioritization for attacking important elements of national power? Which theorist provides the most useful guidance for determining the object of a strategy or strategies?


Clausewitz’s attack of enemy centers of gravity and Sun Tzu’s prioritization of attack of important elements of national power provide contrasting approaches to the development of effective strategy. These contrasts are reflections of each author’s perspective on how war should be waged, the proper use of force, their definitions of the ideal victory and how best to achieve that victory as well as their methodologies, styles, and levels of analysis (Handel, p. 18-19). The understanding of these varying points of view enable us to better appreciate how each man arrives at his own unique solution to the common problem of identifying and overcoming the enemy’s most critical point.

Clausewitz’s Approach

Clausewitz uses systematic, empirical methods in arriving at his concept of the center of gravity being the critical strategic objective. This approach is both a product of his era, the age of enlightenment, where scientific thought was beginning to exert its primacy, as well as his view of war and how it should be waged. To Clausewitz war is armed conflict. It is “…an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will” and “…equips itself with the inventions of art and science.” (Clausewitz, p.75) Following his logical approach, if war is fighting, then war is waged according to Clausewitz, primarily by military means. All other means, such as diplomacy, are secondary and are not the concern of the military leader. (Handel, p. 19)

This narrow perspective on the waging of war by military means leads Clausewitz to focus his level of analysis on the operational level of war. It is here that the critical strategic objective must be found. Combining this perspective with scientific metaphors, he states that in keeping “…the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind. Out of these characteristics a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed.” (Clausewitz, p. 595-596) By disrupting this center of gravity, the enemy is thrown off balance and if not allowed to recover, will, according to Clausewitz, eventually succumb.

Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity

In keeping with his focus on the military aspects of war, Clausewitz defines the enemy’s center of gravity as the enemy army. He supports this with historical reference to such great military commanders as Alexander, Gustavus Adolphus, Charles XII and Frederick the Great. Clausewitz states, “If the army had been destroyed, they would all have gone down in history as failures.” (Clausewitz, p. 596) Though he acknowledges other centers of gravity, such as the enemy’s capital and his principal allies, “…the defeat and destruction of his fighting force remains the best way to begin.” (Clausewitz, p. 596)

If victory, according to Clausewitz is achieved through a military defeat of the enemy’s army, then the instruments of that defeat, adhering to his argument, must be military means. Using concepts such as concentration and speed (derived from both history and the physical sciences), he goes into detailed descriptions of how to achieve

military success. His eventual goal is the destruction of the enemy army in one great decisive battle.

Military means are employed to the same extent to Clausewitz’s less significant centers of gravity (by order of priority): the enemy’s capital, principal ally, leaders and public opinion. The taking of the enemy’s capital may lead to the disruption of the enemy nation as a whole. Attacking an enemy’s primary ally is beneficial “…if you can vanquish all your enemies by defeating one of them.” (Clausewitz, p.596-597) In “popular uprisings” (Clausewitz, p.596), leaders and public opinion should be overcome (presumably by military force).

Sun Tzu’s Approach

In contrast to Clausewitz’s systematic, empirical approach, Sun Tzu utilizes less overt, more general means in explaining what he believes to be the critical strategic objectives. While Clausewitz utilizes detailed explanations of his theories, Sun Tzu merely states his as conclusions one can accept or refute. For the Chinese theorist’s view of war (as shown in the title of his work), is that of an art, complex and varied in nature as well as in execution. (Handel, p. 28) To Sun Tzu, “In the art of war, there are no fixed rules.” (Sun Tzu, p. 93) Conflict involves both peace and war, both of which “… are difficult to distinguish from each other.” (Handel, p. 32) He takes on a broader view of war, which encompasses not just military means, but diplomatic, economic and psychological means as well. (Handel, p.19)

Keeping in mind his broader perspective on how to wage war, Sun Tzu’s primary concern is at the highest levels of politics and strategy. As opposed to Clausewitz’s operational level of analysis, Sun Tzu’s objectives lie on strategic planes. His focus is one winning the war before the war is fought since he believes the force should be used only as a last resort and that the ideal victory is to win without fighting. (Handel, p.19)

Sun Tzu’s Center of Gravity

Accordingly, Sun Tzu views the enemy’s plans and strategy as the critical strategic objectives. Because his disdain for the use of force, epitomized in his statement that, “…to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” (Sun Tzu, p. 77), he obtains these objectives through non-military means such as diplomacy and deception. His main concern is the defeat of the enemy before fighting begins.

In keeping with his theme of non-violent methods, Sun Tzu even places disruption of enemy alliances before the defeat of the enemy’s army. He states that, “Next best is to disrupt his alliances…Look into the matter of his alliances and cause them to be severed and dissolved.” (Sun Tzu, p. 78) This is in stark contrast to Clausewitz who ranks this as a tertiary concern.

If these first two objectives are impossible to achieve then and only then does Sun Tzu advocate attacking the enemy’s army. Here instead of using Clausewitz’s concentration and speed to win a military victory, Sun Tzu advocates deception and surprise “When ten to the enemy’s one, surround him” (Sun Tzu, p. 79), therefore again minimizing the use of force. He proclaims, “…those skilled in war subdue the enemy’s army without battle. They capture his cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without protracted operations.” (Sun Tzu, p. 79)

Where Clausewitz views the taking of the enemy’s capital as the secondary goal to the defeat of the enemy’s army, Sun Tzu places this goal last in order of priority. He considers any attack on a city as “The worst policy” (Sun Tzu, p. 78) and must be carried out only as a last resort. He realizes that any attack on a city would result in enormous casualties and therefore must be avoided.


Though Clausewitz and Sun Tzu provide seemingly contrasting approaches to the development of effective strategy, there are parallels that can be drawn from their concepts. Both discuss the disruption of alliances and the defeat of the enemy’s army. Both discuss attacking the enemy’s cities or capital. Both are concerned with achieving victory at lower costs. (Handel, p.48) These concepts eventually lead to a focus of effort on which leaders can build their strategies. Thus, if one views their approaches as an attempt to identify and overcome an enemy’s critical point in order to achieve victory, this similar thought transcends their differences in priorities and means.


Both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz provide useful guidance for determining the object of a strategy. In armed conflict, on the operational level, Clausewitz provides concrete guidance on how to develop strategy. On the strategic level, before and during armed conflict, Sun Tzu provides means for achieving victory with minimal physical losses. An attempt to derive which theorists provides the most useful guidance ignores the inherent differences resident in each man’s unique approach and can only be considered as it applies to ones own individual context.

Take for example our present day context. War today, because of advances in weaponry that make war more violent and destructive than it has ever been, has been a circumstance that nations have attempted to avoid. The potential economic and human losses are just too costly to sustain. In this environment, many world leaders have sought to achieve their objectives through non-violent means. If the goal is to achieve victory in this sense, at the lowest costs, then Sun Tzu may be the more appropriate guide.


1. Clausewitz, Carl Von. On War. New Jersey. Princeton University Press, 1976.

2. Handel, Michael I. Masters of War. Classical Strategic Thought. London. Frank Cass and Company, 1992.

3. Sun Tzu. The Art of War. London. Oxford University Press, 1963.

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