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in: Manly Knowledge, Military History, Podcast

• Last updated: March 15, 2021

Podcast #664: The Masters of the Art of War

Looked at from the heat of combat, war can seem disorganized and chaotic. But overarching the conflict is typically some kind of thoughtful, well-ordered, even scientific strategy that is influencing when, where, how, and why dueling forces have met.

My guest today will introduce us to a few of the military philosophers and tacticians who made the most significant contributions to the art of strategy over the last couple millenia. His name is Andrew Wilson, and he’s a professor at the Naval War College, as well as the lecturer of the Great Courses course, Masters of War: History’s Greatest Strategic Thinkers. We begin our conversation with a brief overview of what martial strategy is, why civilians should study it, and how the contrast between generals Eisenhower and Patton delineate the difference between strategy and operations. We then survey several of history’s most influential war strategists, and the contexts in which their theories and doctrines were born. This tour includes a discussion of how Sun Tzu used The Art of War to argue that a new type of war in a new type of society required a new type of general who could process conflicts like a supercomputer, and a dive into how Carl von Clausewitz emphasized the importance of understanding how complexity, irrational passions, and creative genius underlay contemporary warfare. We end our conversation with how military strategy has or hasn’t changed in the 21st century.

Disclaimer: The views offered in this podcast are Andrew’s own and do not reflect the official policy or positions of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.   

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Show Highlights

  • Why is it useful for civilians to have an understanding of military strategy?
  • What is strategy? How is it different from operations?
  • Thucydides, the Peloponnesian War, and what that essential text can teach us today
  • The lasting value of The Art of War
  • Who was Carl von Clausewitz and why is he still important?
  • What’s the state of strategy here in the 21st century?

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Looked at from the heart of combat, war can seem disorganized and chaotic, but overarching the conflict is typically some kind of thoughtful, well-ordered, even scientific strategy that is influencing when, where, how and why dueling forces have met. My guest today will introduce us to a few of the military philosophers and tacticians who made the most significant contributions to the art of strategy over the last couple of millennia. His name is Andrew Wilson, he’s a professor at the Naval War College, as well as the lecturer of The Great Courses course, Masters of War: History’s Greatest Strategic Thinkers.

We begin our conversation with a brief overview on what martial strategy is, why civilians should study it and how the contrast between Generals Eisenhower and Patton delineate the difference between strategy and operations. We then survey several of history’s most influential war strategists and the context in which their theories and doctrines were born. This tour includes a discussion of how The Art of War argues that a new type of war and a new type of society required a new type of general who could process conflicts like a supercomputer.

We also do a dive into how Carl von Clausewitz emphasized the importance of understanding how complexity, irrational passions, and creative genius underlie contemporary warfare. We end our conversation with how military strategy has or hasn’t changed in the 21st century. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Alright, Andrew Wilson, welcome to the show.

Andrew Wilson: Okay, thank you very much.

Brett McKay: So you are a professor of strategy at the Naval War College. Let’s talk about your career. How did you end up at the Naval War College teaching the art of strategy?

Andrew Wilson: Yeah. Well, first things first, for those who aren’t familiar with a war college, a war college is much more about the college, much less about war. It’s not like we’re out doing exercises in the field during the day. It’s a very academic place. It’s in fact, it’s a mid-career institution. Most of my students are mid-career professionals in their 30s, 40s, sometimes 50s, mostly from the various US armed services, but also from allied nations, and we have a fair number of students from the diplomatic intelligence communities, a whole range of… For really wonderful professionals, mid-career.

So what we do is… It’s a year-long course, and they get a Master’s Degree in National Security and Strategic Studies. And it’s a very intensive course. And I teach in a department called Strategy and Policy, where we look at historical case studies through the lens, not just of military and strategic history, but through strategic theory. Can the great masters of strategic thought tell us about why it was that the statesmen and military commanders of the past succeeded or failed, and how we can take those lessons forward into the 21st century.

I actually, a Chinese historian by training, I did a degree in modern Chinese history, with a fair bit of ancient thrown in, but being a student of the 19th and 20th century in China it’s an unfortunately extended period of war. China brought low in the course of the 19th century, and then of course the Second World War and the rise of the People’s Republic of China and Mao Zedong is a… It’s a blood-damped history, but it also translated well to the War College where they were looking to add more Asian content, specifically Chinese content. So I started off doing Mao Zedong and revolutionary warfare, and then I branched out into ancient Chinese classics, particularly Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Brett McKay: So you spend your career teaching officers about strategy, but the way I discovered you, you have a course or a lecture on the Great Courses called the Masters of Strategy, and this is directed to civilians. Why do you think it’s useful or important for civilians to understand high-level military strategy?

Andrew Wilson: Because as civilians, we vote for our governments. And it’s our political leaders that determine the policies that our military is then employed to serve. So I think the connection between policy and the actions that the military take is absolutely fundamental to how our government works. And I think as an educated citizenry, we just should understand that, understand the vernacular of strategic theory in practice.

Brett McKay: And besides helping citizens become more informed… A lot of times you see people, particularly in business, talk about, or even football coaches who will read The Art of War by Sun Tzu to gain insights about strategy in those domains. Do you think it’s useful for that or is that too tenuous?

Andrew Wilson: I think it is useful if it’s done judiciously and rigorously. These texts are essentially about using the assets at your disposal and in a competition, and that competition could be between corporations, it could be between sports teams. So the value, for example, intelligence and what we call net assessment, knowing the enemy, knowing yourself, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of both sides and anticipating how a contest between the two of you would evolve, therefore being better prepared for the ensuing struggle. So you would never imagine any football coach not watching film on next week’s opponent.

So that’s a process of figuring out how it is the other team plays and crafting your game plan to maximize your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses and while at the same time exploiting their weaknesses and not allowing them to bring their strengths to bear. So that process of net assessment as the basis of strategy is exportable to a lot of different domains.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about definitions, high-level, what is strategy?

Andrew Wilson: Yeah, the way we usually parse it is that we start at the top with policy. So these are the… This is the political purpose for the war, what it is that the political leadership is seeking to achieve; say peace and stability in the Middle East, or the liberation of Kuwait back in the First Gulf War. Strategy is the means by which you translate political purpose into military action, and how it is that you anticipate military action to deliver your political purpose. So strategy is the nexus between policy and the other dimensions of… The other levels of war, the dimensions of war that we’re more familiar with, which are operations and tactics. Operations being essentially the big muscle movements, the battles, and tactics being the individual unit actions taking place on the battlefield. So strategy is the bridge between policy and military actions.

Brett McKay: So strategy is pretty high-level, you’re not getting into the details so much, you’re just staying… You’re playing the 10,000 level.

Andrew Wilson: 10,000, yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah, 10,000 feet. And then your lecture, you give the examples of General Eisenhower and General Patton’s as… Their different leadership styles as the examples to delineate the difference between strategy and operations. Can you walk us through those two guys and their examples?

Andrew Wilson: Sure. Eisenhower, of course, as the Commander of Allied Forces in the European theater in the late stages of the Second World War, he sits at the nexus between political and operations, and he’s a trusted agent of President Roosevelt. He conducts diplomacy on a daily basis, balancing the interests of the Brits and the Canadians and the Americans and the French, dealing with the conflicting personalities of his subordinate officers, and he’s almost perfectly suited to that task. So he’s a perfect choice to operate at that strategic level where you see that overlap between military operations and political purpose.

Patton, however, is most famed as being an operational genius, someone who was just a great student of war, developed a great knowledge of war throughout history, but also somebody who’d honed his intuition so he could make snap decisions on the battlefield and pursue victory with creativity and audacity, and he’s exactly what you want at the operational level of war. He’s a flamboyant and somewhat volatile figure, of course. And the way I explain it is you have to think about Eisenhower is the coach and Patton is your franchise quarterback, brilliant on the field, but you wouldn’t want to reverse that relationship. You wouldn’t want to bring the skillset of the coach, try to get them to master the operational level in the way Patton does, nor would you want to have the operational expert necessarily be at that strategic nexus.

Brett McKay: That sounds like that could be tough as a leader to figure out who is a strategic expert and who is an operations expert, ’cause typically the way we think of promoting people, like in a corporation, or even in the military, it’s like, well, if you’re good at operations then maybe you’ll be good at strategy too, right? But that’s like the Peter Principle, you’ll get out of your area of competence and… I guess I imagine that’s a challenge to figure out.

Andrew Wilson: Yeah, there’s… The Prussian military theorist Clausewitz actually made a… I’ll summarize one of his points which is that actually the strengths that make you a great tactical and operational leader can actually become a liability as you’re promoted, because the lower levels of war are quite often about routine and method, that there’s doctrine, there are right ways to do things and wrong ways to do things. There’s a lot of science at that level of warfare, and that the mastery of those methods and those routines can sometimes handicap an officer as he moves up through the ranks to the position where they’re leaving behind most of the science and doctrine of war and entering the realm of art where they’re balancing political considerations against military considerations, and doing as much diplomacy as they are doing operational planning.

Brett McKay: And so as you evaluate or as strategic thinkers like yourself evaluate strategic theories from ancient Greece through ancient China to today, what are you looking at, what are the criteria you’re looking at on determining whether a strategic theory is sound or even brilliant?

Andrew Wilson: It’s got staying power, and in the sense that many of the great strategic theorists and the products of those strategic theorists are created in or immediately after periods of revolutionary change in the conduct of warfare and political systems, a whole range of things that demanded a fresh take. So the great strategic theorists are products of a very specific time and place and you have to understand them in that context of their creation, but it should be durable in the sense that it doesn’t become a formula for success throughout the course of history but rather it has insights that are timeless, that it gives you tools of analysis that when you’re evaluating a strategic challenge in the future, allows you to unpack it in organized ways to discern the extent to which you can follow this precept or that precept.

So they’re guiding, but more of the classics of strategic theory are supposed to foster habits of thought, and you want a pretty big shelf of strategic theory, because Clausewitz says war is more than a true chameleon, every war is different, but some ways at its heart, every war is the same and has the same balance between reason and passion and the completely non-rational chance, probability, fog, friction. So ways of thinking about making that connection between military action and its higher purposes, and that gives you tools that cultivate those habits of analysis, that’s what gets you on to the varsity squad when it comes to strategic theory.

Brett McKay: It’s all about developing. I think John Boyd talked about this with his OODA loop, like mental models that you can use.

Andrew Wilson: Exactly, yeah. Theory doesn’t give you the answers, but what it allows you to do is you don’t have to start on page one every time you’re confronting a strategic problem or a political crisis. Because… And also, all the great strategic theorists have an eye towards history, many of them got their start as historians. But what they’re trying to distill from history are lessons, not rule books per se, but takeaways. And part of the reason for this is no matter how long or intense your, say, military career has been, your personal experiences, your professional experiences are inadequate to dealing with the immense complexity of war, so how better to prepare yourself for future conflicts, and rely, of course, on your own personal experience and professionalism, but learning from the experiences of others that give you insight into all the different forms that war can take and all the different strategic quandaries you might find yourself in.

Brett McKay: So let’s do a survey on some of these masters you highlight in your lecture on the Great Courses, and the first one from the West is Thucydides. And he wrote The History of The Peloponnesian Wars and it’s a text that’s still read by military strategists and is taught at the War College. So I think, to understand Thucydides, we have to put into context his strategic insights, historical context. So it’s about the history of the Peloponnesian War. In summary, how did it start, why did it last so long and then how did the Peloponnesian War finally end?

Andrew Wilson: Yes, Thucydides is an Athenian… We’ll call him an aristocrat. He was from a wealthy, prestigious background. He actually served as a triarch, that’s essentially a commander of a small naval squadron during the Peloponnesian War and was actually cashiered for conspicuous military failure. So as I like to tell my students that that failure cost Thucydides his citizenship and his military career, but it ended up only costing them a weekend, in the sense that Thucydides used his forced retirement to expand and complete his History of The Peloponnesian War.

Now, this Peloponnesian War begins in 431 and it’s essentially a struggle between the two great powers of the Greek world, Athens, this dynamic commercial, rambunctious democracy, the classic sea power, and Sparta, a more conservative land power. We call this the whale versus elephant issue and it’s… Thucydides chalks it up not just to the crises of the day, the Sarajevo moment that leads to the outbreak of the First World War, he sees the roots much deeper in terms of this long-term struggle for hegemony among the Greek states, and he sees this deep, abiding fear in Sparta, a much more conservative status quo-type power with the rising dynamism of Athens, which is becoming an empire, and not put, not just pushing its commercial interest but also its political interest.

So it starts with a series of minor events in 431, but the war lasts for 27 years, and part of the reason for the protraction of the war is that we have such a radical asymmetry between Athens and Sparta. It’s very difficult for Sparta, as a land power, to bring its strengths to bear in some decisive land battle against Athens that has almost infinite strategic flexibility and has a complete mastery of the seas. So the war begins with the two sides fighting past each other rather than being able to bring their strengths to bear directly on the others, and it takes decades for this war to resolve.

Ultimately, Sparta has to become something of a sea power. It has to either build or borrow or rent a navy, become competent at naval warfare, begin to dismantle the Athenian commercial empire which stretches across the Aegean and ultimately face and decisively defeat an Athenian fleet, that happens in 404 BC. And with that the war comes to an end and Sparta dictates terms to Athens.

Brett McKay: What was the lasting outcome of that? How did Sparta and Athens fare years after the war?

Andrew Wilson: Many look at this war as a turning point in Greek history. In part, one view is that Sparta is so materially and morally depleted by the struggle that its status as the dominant land power in the Greek world is fundamentally undermined and that later, Thebes, for example, other land power competitors manage to best Sparta and become the hegemon. Athens actually, after a major defeat, recovers fairly well. It doesn’t rebuild the vast empire it had in the 430s, but it puts together a modest maritime consortium, as it were, its economy recovers, but the Greek states are… These poleis are not particularly well-suited for empire, for hegemony. In fact, the whole purpose of the poleis is to be singular, to be a local entity, and the idea of the ability of the institutions of a polis is to be able to run a hegemony is pretty much asking too much of them. And then of course, there’s this internecine warfare between the Greek states that ultimately opened the door, first, to the Macedonians, Philip and Alexander, to become hegemons of Greece and then later for the Romans to do something very similar.

Brett McKay: So why are we still reading Thucydides? What timeless insights about strategy can we take away from his book, The History of The Peloponnesian Wars?

Andrew Wilson: There’s so much. Thucydides is the gift that keeps on giving. And you mentioned earlier that military students read Thucydides. I would say even more students of politics read Thucydides. I first was introduced to it in Ancient History 101, where it’s a window on life in classical Athens and classical Greece. Later, if you do PoliSci or IR courses, Thucydides is quite often trotted out as the ultimate realist or the founder of the Realist School of International Relations. So every generation of policy pundits finds their own Thucydides. So George Marshall, at the advent of the Cold War, said, “I can’t imagine anyone being able to deal with this emerging situation without having understood the tensions between Athens and Sparta, between the democracy and the oligarchy, between the conservative land power and the dynamic democratic sea power,” so to overlay on the Cold War.

The dramatic climax of the Peloponnesian War is a completely misguided adventure by the Athenians in an attempt to go conquer Sicily, this vast piece of territory at the other end of the Greek world. They launch a massive expedition, and when that expedition gets bogged down, they double down, they send more and more forces and they’re ultimately completely militarily humiliated, and that misguided overseas adventure became code for the Vietnam War, for the Iraq War, so every generation finds its own Thucydides. Today we’re talking about Thucydides’ attention to the plague that ravaged Athens early on in the war, some sort of fever, some sort of respiratory syndrome, as it were, devastated, perhaps killed 20% of the population of Athens while it was trying to wage a war and the kind of psychological shock, what happens to a society when it’s hit with a massive biological weapon.

You also see in Thucydides this sort of… Where other theorists focus on the more operational levels of war, connecting the military actions to the political purposes, Thucydides forces us to interrogate how societies wage war and what war does to those societies, especially a protracted war, and how it can challenge political institutions and bring them down. So it’s a history, but it has so much insight of lessons that can be carried. If you do it judiciously, carefully and rigorously, there’s a lot of loose applications of Thucydides but that can be applied to a lot of different circumstances. One of my favorites is leadership. There are profiles in leadership, brilliant, awful, and everything in between, and there are these characters that clearly Thucydides knew personally, interacted with on all sides of the conflict, so there’s these profiles in leadership, it’s just… It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Brett McKay: So let’s move east, it’s around the same time, there was another work of strategic theory that came out at the same time, about the same time that Thucydides was doing The History of the Peloponnesian War, and that’s the Art of War and this is from China. This is your area of expertise. I think everyone, not everyone, but a lot of people have this like copy of The Art of War, they quote it, businesses like to put it on PowerPoint slides, whatever. Let’s get some historical context for this text, when was it written, and what was the sort of political and military situation in China at this time that caused this to come to bear?

Andrew Wilson: Yeah, The Art of War, I’m in the school that places The Art of War at the… In sort of the… Say around the 320s, 330s BCE, so the late fourth century, so it’s about the same time as say, Alexander, Philip and Alexander of Macedon. The purported author of it actually lived a couple of… A couple of hundred years earlier at the end of the sixth century, he was operational about 520, 530 BCE. But what this later book does, it kind of appropriates the military bonafides of this earlier general and uses him as the cipher to make an argument, and that argument is about new requirements of military leadership and organization, and I talked earlier about how revolutionary changes in the nature of warfare and the political systems and things like that demand fresh strategic appraisals.

Well, one of these is going on in ancient China, and it spans that entire period from when this General Sun, from whom we get Master Sun, Sun Tzu, to the actual crafting of the book to the sort of culmination of this, and this is a period we generally refer to as the Warring States, which runs from the 600s and 700s BC up to the first unification of China. What’s happening there is that one small aristocratic state, small states, principalities ruled by a warrior or aristocracy are giving way to ever larger, territorially… States that are larger territorially, large in terms of population and increasingly bureaucratic, and rather than loose confederations of aristocrats like you see in feudal Europe, you start to see the creation of something we might understand as kind of a modern state where you have a centralized government with a centralized administration built on merit.

And what this does by the state being able to reach down into society and mobilize hundreds of thousands of young men for infrastructure projects for the military, be able to collect taxes from a much wider population base creates this revolutionary… It creates the sea change in what these states are able to do militarily, for example, but all these states start to develop those capabilities, so as they’re in this fierce struggle with each other for hegemony in ancient China, they’re constantly trying to outdo the others in terms of how it is that you exploit these new capabilities. And what The Art of War does is it tries to create the general, the new general, someone who is a master of the new realities of warfare, its scale, its organization, its logistical and manpower requirements, the dangers of war, because war in antiquity was a . . .  affair, a few thousand aristocrats would go out and hack each other up, set up trophies, sacrifice to the gods and war is over, and they go back and do it again and again and again.

But now we have these ever larger states, and these ever larger states are starting to be extinguished one by one, so it’s this kind of cage match in ancient China, and The Art of War is an answer to that political and strategic crisis in ancient China.

Brett McKay: So it sounds like the states were getting larger, but they’re still fighting like they were heroic small-time aristocrats.

Andrew Wilson: Exactly, because you had this tension, because as these states become more bureaucratic, you are relying more on promotion by merit, organizational competence, as it were, but these states are still ruled by aristocrats, people who have these sort of antiquated notions about warfare and about military command. Like the duke of one of these states, believes that he’s the duke because the gods favor his clan, and the way to keep the favor of the gods is to spill the blood of his enemy. So battle’s actually kind of a holy place in this aristocratic construct, right, whereas the author, Sun Tzu comes in and says, “No, war is a means to an end. It is a very expensive means. Therefore, if the use of it does not bring profit, if you’re not stronger at the end of the battle, well, that’s the route to destruction.” And only by this much more rational, organized, professional approach to the recruitment, training, equipping, feeding, and then, ultimately leading in the field of these new militaries, that’s the only way you’re going to survive in this death match.

Brett McKay: So what are the big theoretical prescriptions that The Art of War has for generals?

Andrew Wilson: One of them is to make the most efficient use of your resources, and these resources are abundant now. But just because they are abundant, in terms of manpower, the introduction of the essentially mass-produced, standardized weapons, where the state is producing weapons rather than the warriors, aristocrats showing up with their own chariots and armor, where the state takes over all that stuff, where these aren’t private armies, these are national armies, as it were. So your resources are now abundant, but that doesn’t mean you can be profligate with them, because the state… One state over is just as powerful, has just as much strategic potential, and it really comes down to how well you use those resources. The other danger is to avoid protraction. Don’t get involved in these long sort of hot and cold wars, where you’re constantly maneuvering against your adversaries, because that’s exhausting.

The longer that an army is away, the higher the taxes are, the more levies of troops, so this starts to attack the very core of national power. And I think the third and most important thing is that this is an approach to war that puts a premium on the intellect. The general, the supreme general, is the master organizer, but when you see him operating on the battlefield, he’s kind of a super computer. He is absorbing and processing massive amounts of information, and he has the organizational wherewithal of translating that information, the power of his intellect, into military action, and that’s going to be the decisive advantage. It’s not about whether he’s not, he’s personally brave, he’s not leading from the front, he’s manipulating this vast new machine of war from behind, and that can only be achieved with supreme intellect and supreme professionalism.

Brett McKay: So it sounds like there’s a lot of net assessment going on. I think it’s for him, for Sun Tzu, the supreme general would actually think things over before like, “Do I even actually… Should I even go to war? It might be better not to go to war.”

Andrew Wilson: Absolutely, yeah, ’cause you know, the supreme excellence, the acme of skill is to essentially achieve your political objectives, defeat the enemy without resort to combat. To an aristocrat, that’s offensive. Combat, that’s where we spill the blood of the enemies, we settle status by blood vendettas. This is where we honor our ancestors and the gods. You’re telling me I’m not supposed to fight? But the argument builds on the fact that the risks of war are now… Not just the costs of war are going up, but the risks of war have exploded. So you have to approach war and the use of the military very coolly, rationally, in some ways, almost arithmetically.

You have to… In the first chapter, which is literally called Assessments, you have to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of two belligerents. First, in terms of the sort of psychological coherence, the moral coherence, that sort of spiritual strength of your adversary. Then, you have to think about advantages in terms of terrain and weather, the physical world in which this… The physical context in which this military contest is going to take place. And then, you have to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing generals, your own generals. Net assessment is not just about assessing the adversary; in fact, the self-knowledge part, which says, “know the enemy, know yourself.” Knowing yourself is actually quite often much more difficult because you don’t interrogate your assumptions quite often.

So this process of net assessment is absolutely crucial to figuring out, essentially, if you’re going to fight, what is it going to take? What is it going to cost? And is the political purpose you’re seeking, is the piece of territory you’re trying to annex, worth the type of costs you’re likely to run into when trying to convince this particular adversary to give up that piece of territory? That’s a very, very difficult thing to do.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah, it sounds difficult. Is The Art of War… Is the theory actually applicable? ‘Cause, it sounds like it… You had to be very, like a super computer in your brain to figure all this stuff out. It doesn’t really take into account the interactive and ever-changing nature of warfare.

Andrew Wilson: On the face of it, yes, because it’s almost… Some have looked at it as a kind of really antiseptic approach to war, that basically you just have to get the math right and you follow the recipe, you get the math right, you’re basically guaranteed victory, but that doesn’t take into account fog, friction, interaction. Some people criticize The Art of War as not giving nearly enough credit to the adversary. This is the… I call this the Patton-Rommel dialectic, where, as smart and as brilliant as Rommel is, well, Patton’s read his book, so he knows how this guy is inclined to fight and understands the strengths and weaknesses of that approach. So you have to be constantly interacting, because as much as you try to compel your enemy to do your political will, your strategic will, he’s trying to do exactly the same to you. It’s a… It’s like a physical wrestling match on the battlefield, but also in the minds of the leaders of both sides.

But my take is that the book goes to those sort of rhetorical extremes to push this sort of radical new approach to warfare that’s quite different than the strutting, preening, bold, personally courageous aristocrats of old who charge into battle to seek glory, with the stark new realities. So I think the author kind of pushes this idea that this new general’s essentially the exact polar opposite of that older general who was all about the slug fest.

Brett McKay: So that’s the Art Of War. Let’s move on to another strategic master you highlight in your course, and this one… So you mention a lot of words when you’re describing some of the problems of warfare, friction, fog, etcetera, and there was one strategic theorist that he used these terms, that’s Clausewitz, we’ve been saying his name throughout this conversation, but what’s Clausewitz’ story? Who was he, and why are we talking about him in the 21st century?

Andrew Wilson: Yeah, Clausewitz is kind of the theorist’s theorist. He pretty much brings it all to bear, all the criteria of truly insightful, durable, useful strategic theory. He’s a Prussian military officer, minor aristocrat, hence the Carl von Clausewitz. He’s a Prussian. Prussia is one of the German states that had risen to great power status in Central Europe under Frederick the Great, but had been brought low by a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of Napoleon in the early 19th century. And Clausewitz lives through this period. He enters the army, enters the artillery, I believe it is, at the age of 12 and spends his entire career in the military. He’s not a battlefield commander by any stretch of the imagination. He has commanded, but he’s primarily a… He’s a staff officer, he’s an organizer, but he’s also an educator.

His great love in life, his great passion, was the study of history and how it was that you could make history useful in the cultivation of a new… Every new generation of military officers who had to confront ever new and challenging circumstances in the future, but through the careful, systematic approach to the study of great commanders and failed commanders in the past, you could… There were ways of developing those habits of thought. So another tremendous impact of the period in which Clausewitz lives, he’s born before the French Revolution, the wars of the French Revolution, he lives through them, he sees the spectacular eruption of French power, the genius of Napoleon, who’s the god of war, but also Napoleon’s undoing, particularly with the invasion of Russia and this ill-fated campaign in the Iberian Peninsula.

But Clausewitz identifies at the very center of that, of his life experience, the true sea change, which is the impact that the French Revolution had on warfare, and in fact on the nature of war writ large. It wasn’t just about the weapons and the organization and the uniforms, it is something has fundamentally changed. And what’s changed is that war has become national again. Wars in the 17th and 18th century in Europe were, particularly the armies, generally small, lots of mercenaries, what citizen soldiers there were would serve incredibly long terms of service, they would essentially be ripped out of society, and therefore, war and society did not have a particularly intimate linkage. But with the French Revolution and the death ground that France finds itself on, it undertakes national mobilization in which the people, the entire people, the nation, become part of these considerations, and kind of like that revolution in warfare in ancient China, bring just so much more mass and energy, volatility to warfare.

So warfare goes from being a pretty limited affair, both materially in terms of what changes on the map, little things, to becoming nearly sort of an ideal type of total war, total mobilization for huge stakes, the conquest and mastery of entire continents, and Clausewitz says, basically, we need a new type of thinking to deal with this particular challenge.

Brett McKay: And yet, the challenge is complexity, as things get bigger, things become more complex, and he talks about that. Warfare now, there’s this fog, there’s this friction, sometimes you don’t know what’s going on. It’s not one plus two equals three. It’s like one plus X, and I don’t know what X is.

Andrew Wilson: Exactly. Well, I mean, the Enlightenment, the era in which Clausewitz grew up, when that came to the military realm, there was an effort to subject war to the rules of science. And there is a lot of science in war, lots and lots of science, but there’s the idea that you could bring science almost to the realm of strategy, and that if you just sort of got the math right, you would have a formula for success. And Clausewitz admits that there’s lots of mechanical sciences in war, but it’s an inherently interactive thing, it’s a political thing. So war is a political act. So policies can change, political leadership can change over time. The bigger war gets, as war becomes nationalized, the greater the fog and the friction.

So it’s pretty easy to get your son and maybe his best friend to the airport to catch a flight on Saturday morning. Imagine if you had to do that with your son and 10,000 of his closest friends. What is essentially an easy task, as you increase the scale, becomes so much more complicated, and the general has to be able to adapt to these elements of fog and friction. And one of Clausewitz’s most brilliant additions to strategic theory is this concept I’ve sort of danced around before called the Trinity, which is, well, every war is different. At its core, each war, by his definition, has three component elements. One is that it serves a political purpose. So there’s a rational reason, there’s some item to be gained by it. So it serves a rational political reason. So there is reason there, and that’s usually in the hands of the politicians.

But war by its very nature, both in terms of its origin, what gives rise to wars, but also what happens in the course of wars can be increasingly dictated by passions, by irrationality, where we go to war against the opposing state, not because we value territory X, it’s because we hate them. They’re Yankees fans, for Christ’s sake. There’s some sort of primordial hatred at the root. And then as war goes on, these irrational forces can ebb and flow in the course of a war. So you have this tension between war as a rational political act and war as this irrational paroxysm of primordial hatred. If that wasn’t complicated enough, war takes place in the physical world. It is a contest between armies made up of human beings operating on terrain, in weather, it can rain, beer supply can run out, all sorts of things can happen in this contest. And in that realm, where it is the government that usually has control of the political reason, the population is usually the… The people are usually the well-spring of that passion, those irrational forces, it is the general, and particularly the genius who rises above and who excels in that realm of what he calls chance and probability, where within which he says the creative spirit is free to roam, and he sees this in someone like Napoleon, whose actions on the battlefield, even when he was just a general, before he seized power, could have outsized effects on popular passions.

So things he achieved on the battlefield could resonate with the passions of the people. He could achieve greater things on the battlefield than the politicians could ever hope for. So there is this tension between these three elements, and that’s, without a doubt, Clausewitz’s most important contribution, among many.

Brett McKay: It sounds romantic, his ideas.

Andrew Wilson: It is. One scholar says he’s a child of the Enlightenment. So he brings to his study of war a lot of the apparatus of the Enlightenment. He talks about ideal versus real. He thinks about war as an abstract versus war in reality, what are the intervening variables, the sort of Newtonian approach. But he’s a child of the Enlightenment, the scholar says, but a man of the romantic era. So the romantic era is not just about romance per se, it’s about there are these forces that are not subject to the laws of reason, and in war, that is fear, it’s genius, it’s the moral forces, he calls them, all happening in that ever-changing complex, friction-filled world. So at first glance, it looks so Enlightenment, but you’re right, it’s so… Has that, so much indefinability of the romantic mindset.

Brett McKay: So Clausewitz… This was in the 19th century, correct?

Andrew Wilson: Yeah, he lived through the Napoleonic wars, he served in the Napoleonic wars, and I believe he died in the 1830s. So he sits astride the French Revolution, and he was a foundational force in the educational system for the Prussian military.

Brett McKay: So this is 19th century, a lot has happened since then, but Clausewitz, people still… We’re still talking about him. You still teach him to your officers. And then during that time, new developments of strategy have come into place. You’ve had the changes in sea power, we’ve had air power now, nuclear weapons change strategy. What’s the state of strategy in the 21st century? Are you seeing any new developments in the works in terms of military strategy, or are we sort of remixing, sort of like a post-modern, we’re just remixing stuff from the past over and over again?

Andrew Wilson: That’s a great question. For example, in the realm of cyber, we think about cyber as an utterly new technology, it creates new… It’s a new type of… It’s a form of terrain, it’s an environment. So that sort of terrain and weather that Sun Tzu talks about, it’s entirely new. So that would seem to demand fundamentally new approaches, and the things you can do with cyber, for example, getting inside the adversary’s intelligence gathering system to sow deception or to get information or to subvert their political process, all those things. So there are some who say, well, there, cyber, completely new realm, like air power was a century ago, requires a new set of theorists. And there are those theorists emerging. But others say, well, what cyber is really doing is essentially espionage, sabotage and propaganda. And there’s nothing new under the sun about those three things, and therefore we can still learn from classic approaches. So that’s the cyber domain.

Terrorism, for example. We’ve been waging this war on terrorism for essentially the entire careers of pretty much all of my students. And terrorism in the information age, when an ISIS video can be splashed all over computers in France or Northern California or wherever it is, radicalizing these youths who are so info-savvy, but also feel so divorced from society, as it were, so radicalizable… A lot of technology for radicalization, these post-modern appeals to identity groups and the ability to, for example, a terrorist or a group of terrorists to get to achieve totally outside strategic effects with a fairly… When you think about how a state would do it, with a fairly modest outlay of manpower and materiel.

If you think about the September 11th attacks, we’re talking several hundred thousand dollars, a couple of hundred people involved in the operation itself. But think about the strategic and political effects of that relatively modest operation and how those were compounded by the information age. So wouldn’t that itself demand a completely new set of approaches to strategy, both understanding the strategic logic of 21st century terrorism but also coming up with contextually appropriate technologically savvy responses, approaches to counter terrorism. So there is that tension, and a lot of the… When you’re going through these rapid periods of technological and political change, you get a lot of churn, a lot of new strategic theories that are just reflexively jettisoning the old ones. But what you usually end up with is Clausewitz does better on Machiavelli.

There’s a lot in Clausewitz that is carried on by air power theorists and sea power theorists. And Clausewitz is alive and well in the 21st century, but that doesn’t mean that you ignore the changes in the character of warfare and technology and society and politics, all those things. So that’s understanding the environment which you’re operating.

Brett McKay: Well, Andrew, this has been a great conversation. Is there somewhere people can go to learn more about your work and what you do?

Andrew Wilson: I’ve got some products on the Great Courses website, I have a course there on Masters of War, which is a survey of the great strategic theorists, or the ones that I was able to fit into a 24 lecture course. I’ve got a course on Sun Tzu’s Art of War. We recently did one on Imperial China, getting back to my roots as a Chinese historian, and just really recommend that.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Andrew Wilson, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Andrew Wilson: Oh, my pleasure, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Andrew Wilson. He is a professor at the Naval War College, also the lecturer of The Great Courses’ course, Masters of War: History’s Greatest Strategic Thinkers. You can find that at The Great Courses Plus or The Great Courses. Also check out our shownotes at, where you can find links to resources and delve deeper into this topic.

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