Did Sun Tzu Win the Revolutionary War?
Sun Tzu said:
“Know thyself and know thy enemy. If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. ”
This basic principle when properly applied is at its core the essence for any country willing to go to war, to be able to determine if they should to go to war and how to shape their strategic and tactical planning.
Sun Tzu understood that success, ruin and, survival heavily depended on the relationship between war and state issues (Tzu, 1963, p. 63). A better understanding of this would come from Clausewitz’s statement that “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose” (Clausewitz, 1976, p. 87). The political goal for the British during the Revolutionary war was to stop the rebellion and restore order and loyalty to the British Empire. Washington as the military leader understood that his hopes would not lie mainly in a military victory, but in a political objective to create opposition in Great Britain that would force the British Ministry to abandon its conflict. (Weigley, 1973, p. 5).
Washington clearly understood his political goal, and this would allow him to shape his military strategy accordingly. During the first conflicts, Washington saw many victories against the British especially during the battle for Bunker Hill. It was the first time that the Americans saw that they could actually defeat the once thought indestructible British in conventional warfare. It wasn’t until the conflict in New York on August 22nd where Washington would lose a quarter of his command, about 970 men killed or injured, and 1079 taken captive that would cause Washington to rethink how he would strategically conduct warfare from this point on. George Washington knew that conventional warfare would be suicide against the sheer size, manpower, and capabilities of the British military. Washington knew that if he were to have any chance at achieving a free and independent America, he would need to keep his army alive, and therefore keep the Revolutionary cause alive (Weigley, 1973, pp. 5-13). Washington would set about on a new course to victory in a Sun Tzu approach to the Art of War.
Sun Tzu lays out the principles for a military commander needed to successfully win a war and therefore achieve the political end state. Commander Washington’s selection by the newly formed Continental Congress to be the leader of the Continental Army would prove to be an excellent decision according to Sun Tzu. His personal character exemplifies the five traits required in a successful general: wisdom, sincerity, humanity, courage, and strictness. (Tzu, 1963, p. 65) These five crucial traits are evident during his time as the commander of the continental Army, Washington understood the need for public, political, and military support. He would care for his troops and their families with his own money and was respected not just by the rank and file, but also by people in all parts of the colonies. Even with an attempt by members of congress to replace Washington with Gates, he held too much support from many in Congress and the Army, as George Washington proved his Character in his career and would be needed through what would be a protracted war. (The American Revolution, 2011, pp. 1-51)
PATH TO VICTORY
During the time up to the winter strike against Trenton Washington recognizes the symptoms of the protracted war on his own forces, the Continental Army was falling apart around him, morale, and recruitment were low. Washington mounts an attack on Christmas Day 1776, crossing the Delaware River to strike Trenton defeating the Hessian outpost and successfully restoring public support and bolstering his ranks. (Weigley, 1973, pp. 39-40)
By taking away the British Army’s will to fight, and to erode it’s peoples support for the war was the main focus and attack on the British Center of Gravity, “For there has never been a protracted war from which a country had benefited.” (Tzu, 1963, p. 73) In drawing out the war, Washington strategy of attrition attacks the very heart of the British strategy. Since the British are still at war with France, the drain on resources abroad in the colonies weakens British strength in defense of England. “…what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy;” (Tzu, 1963, p. 77)
Understanding the political goal and his own center of Gravity being his army, Washington avoids a major battle whenever possible and attacks when it is advantageous forcing the British into a prolonged war of attrition. “He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.” (Tzu, 1963, p. 82) Washington avoids the British attempt to win decisively by adapting a Sun Tzu approach to maneuver warfare, “He who knows the art of the direct and indirect approach will be victorious. Such is the art of maneuvering.” (Sun Tzu, p. 106) with this continuous maneuvering it gives Washington control of the flow of the War. The War of Maneuver allows Washington time to build his Army while forcing the British to garrison in several major cities as they never knew where Washington’s forces would strike.
Washington’s steadfastness in his strategy and character would pay off when Cornwallis pulled out of the southern campaign and would encamp his forces at Yorktown. Washington, recognizing that this was the moment to strike, executed a plan to engage the British at Yorktown. In a deceptive move towards New York that threw the Northern British Army under General Clinton off-balance, Washington began the movements of forces towards Yorktown. Meticulous planning from Washington would ensure that every detail was considered. The French followed the routes recommended by Washington, and the two great armies converged on Yorktown. General Cornwallis conceded, surrendering his army October 19, 1781, the Revolutionary War was over. The British ministry under pressure from its recent loss and dealing with conflicts much closer to the homeland with France and Spain, lost the will to continue fighting in America, the very objective Washington maintained during this conflict. (Weigley, 1973, p. 39)
“For there has never been a protracted war from which a country had benefited.” (Tzu, 1963, p. 73)
There are many parallels that can be drawn between the actions of Washington and the ideas of Sun Tzu during the Revolutionary war, but there seems to be a conflict when it comes to the idea of protracting a war. Sun Tzu clearly states that no country benefits from such war, yet this seems to be the very path Washington would pursuit. Are the strategies Washington used closer to that of Mao Zedong than that of Sun Tzu?
Mao was heavily influenced by Sun Tzu especially when it came to strategy and tactics as they relate to guerilla warfare, and protracted war. (Tzu, 1963, p. 45) When we look at Clausewitz and Sun Tzu there is a desire to destroy the enemy in quick, decisive battles that break the enemy’s ability and will to fight. Sun Tzu takes it’s a step further by winning the conflict in the most cost efficient manner. Mao in one of his basic doctrines would be to avoid a decisive battle when the odds are not favorable and to live to fight another day. To prolong the battle and create a drawn out conflict that would wear down the stronger enemy while building up your own forces to eventually beat the enemy in conventional warfare. (Zedong, 1938, p. 61)