War as an Art or Science?

So, we have been discussing in my MILH511 MA class on whether war is an art or science...here is my view..

The discussion of war as an art or science in nearly as old as warfare itself.  Two of the early strategic thinkers, Sun Tzu and Niccolo Machiavelli, offer remarkably similar viewpoints on the importance of warfare to a state while presenting different opinions on how best to wage war successfully.  While their great treatises reflect the particular issues faced by their states and rulers, they do provide a common frame of reference to begin the strategic issues of war.   Born centuries after Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, Clausewtiz and Jomini expanded upon earlier thoughts of warfare and statecraft, but diverged significantly on the lessons learned from their common experiences in the Napoleonic Wars.  A careful review of these four great thinkers provides an excellent departure point for arguing whether waging war is an art or science and the importance of waging war to a state.
            Sun Tzu, writing in China of the 6th century BC, and Niccolo Machiavelli, who lived in 16th century Renaissance Europe, hard remarkably similar views on warfare and statecraft.  Both men considered the study and preparation for war to be the most important task of a ruler.  In both of their eras, being able to successfully wage war was literally a life or death matter for a ruler or dynasty and was a task never to be undertaken lightly.  Both men offered several early insights into the relationship between politics and warfare, particularly the notion that warfare was a common and accepted instrument of diplomacy.  “Warfare is the greatest affair of state, the basis of life or death, the Way to survival or extinction.  It must be thoroughly pondered and analyzed” was Sun Tzu’s view [1], while Machiavelli expressed his thoughts on the topic as “A Prince then out to have no other aim, nor other thought, nor take anything else for his proper art, but war, and the orders and discipline therof:  for it is the sole art which belongs to him that commands.”  [2] As these quotes show, both writers developed a keen understanding of war’s importance and the need for a ruler to undertake a serious study of strategy and diplomacy.  Both of these writers certainly considered warfare to be more of an art than science, and Sun Tzu in particular developed some of the earliest theories of indirect and psychological warfare as a means to avoid battles that, even if won, could destroy a ruler’s army and drain his treasury-“Thus one who excels at employing the military subjugates other people’s armies without engaging in battle…thus his weapons will not become dull, and the gains can be preserved.” [3]
Although Machiavelli was not as detailed in The Prince on how warfare should be conducted, he did introduce two important thoughts into military strategy—the increasing role of nation-states in raising and equipping armies and the need for conscription of soldiers to avoid the chaotic role of mercenary armies in Italy.  [4]
However, both authors were also influenced by their particular situations.  Sun Tzu actually served as a military commander and advisors to Emperors and his Art of War serves partly as a military manual, offering advice not only on strategy and policy, but deception, logistics and the equipping and organizing of armies.  Machiavelli was a product of 15th and 16th century Enlightenment thinking, as well as the political struggle of the Italian city-states to maintain their independence against larger and better armed foes.  One particular flaw in Machiavelli’s Art of War and The Prince was his complete disregarded or misunderstanding of the on-going changes to warfare at the tactical level caused by the widespread introduction of modern artillery and hand-held gunpowder weapons.  [5]

[1] Ralph D. Sawyer, trans., The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, trans. Ralph D. Sawyer (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1993), 157.
[2] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Art of War (Radford, VA: Wilder Publications LLC, 2008), 191.
[3] Sawyer, 161.
[4] Felix Gilbert, "Machiavelli: Renaissance of the Art of War," in Makers of Modern Strategy: Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret, 11-31 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986).
[5] Gilbert, 11-31.
More later this week