How Sun Tzu and Sir Julian Corbett Explain the Outcomes of the American Revolution and Pacific theater of WWII

Which two of the four theorists [Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Mahan, Corbett] best explain the outcomes of both the War for American Independence and Pacific Theater?

Keegan Leary
Keegan Leary

Which two of the four theorists [Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Mahan, Corbett] best explain the outcomes of both the War for American Independence and Pacific Theater?

My response to a prompt for my Joint Professional Military Education (JPME)

The outcomes of the War for American Independence and the Pacific Theater of World War Two are best explained by the philosophies of Sun Tzu and Sir Julian Corbett. In their conflicts against the United States, both Japan and Britain found themselves fighting unplanned wars of attrition for which they were unable to adapt their battle plans. Sun Tzu and Corbett’s approaches to war, which favor many external forms of power beyond military might in addition to decentralized execution of strategy, can explain American successes in these conflicts. Clausewitz and Mahan are too narrowly focused on advantages represented by the makeup and employment of armed forces. As a result, their philosophies miss the human elements of war such as commanders’ hubris, public support, economy, and deception, which all played key roles in enabling America’s smaller military to overcome that of its enemies.

In defining the structure of this paper in which we apply the philosophies of famous war theorists to events of history, we should first look at the events themselves. It is instructive to draw similarities between the American Revolution and the Pacific Theater of the Second World War because it will help us to refine the benefits of one theory over another. In my research, the most striking similarity is that both of the conflicts lasted multiple years despite intent by the aggressor for speedy resolution.

The British sought to maintain control over their colonies while extracting value in an effort to fund other imperial efforts. Despite debate among politicians on whether or not to intervene militarily, King George III eventually proclaimed “we must with Vigour pursue the means of bringing the Deluded Americans to a Sense of their Duty.” Quelling the rebellious colonists swiftly and decisively was their best case war plan, and they fully expected the colonists to submit if confronted by British armed forces despite growing evidence to the contrary (O’Shaughnessy, 24).

Similarly, the Japanese had imperial ambitions and needed resources, especially oil. With their army beginning to face stiff competition against the Soviets in a Northern campaign through Manchuria, they looked to the Navy in the Indo Pacific region of their Southern campaign. They would take the resources they desperately needed by force, American embargo be damned. A concentrated bombing of American forces at Pearl Harbor was a gamble by the Japanese in hopes that they could buy time to consolidate gains in the South Pacific. As Admiral Yamamoto predicted, "I can run wild for six months ... after that, I have no expectation of success." The hope was that an increasingly isolationist America would opt for a quick peace after losing the bulk of its Pacific fleet (Marston 36).

Both Clausewtiz and Sun Tzu would agree with Yamamoto that his chances of success in the long term scenario were slim. Clausewitz writes "Time is less likely to bring favor to the victor than to the vanquished. An offensive war requires above all a quick decision” (Clausewitz 167). Sun Tzu states, “There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited… move like a thunderbolt” (Sun Tzu, 73, 106). The theorists may sound aligned on this issue, but it’s critical to examine why the Japanese did not account for the long term consequences of the American retaliation. Clausewitz is lacking here. The means of his philosophy on war is narrowly focused on the “one thing, combat” (Clausewitz, 95). Sun Tzu takes the broader approach, and would look beyond the act itself to the human element. The Art of War more accurately predicts the hubris of the Japanese commanders and the poor command decision process which allowed approval of a plan that was contrary to the words of its highest admiral, really just a gamble (Marston 35).

This human element is a key factor of the British response in the colonies as well. At first, debate in Parliament about how to intervene in the colonies was healthy. Everyone knew that British resources were spread thin, and that a prolonged campaign in the colonies would be costly. However, once King George got onboard with the plan to use force, there was no turning back. (O’Shaughnessy, 25) Similarly to how the Japanese enjoyed early success in their imperial campaign, the British imperial engine was not used to losing, which led to a miscalculation of force required in America.

Sun Tzu is the only theorist to explore “a general’s qualities of wisdom, sincerity, humanity, courage and strictness (Sun Tzu, 65) and ways a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army (Sun Tzu, 81). Clausewitz conversely calls war “the realm of chance” (Clausewitz, 101) in his chapter on military genius, suggesting that his philosophy would not readily identify the human fallacies present in the war planning efforts of Japan and Britain.


Another human factor present in both conflicts is that of the sentiment of the general populace. The efforts of regular Americans went a long way to frustrate the British army during the revolution (O’Shaughnessy, 184) and similarly the American industrial giant churned to life following Pearl Harbor at the hands of the average citizen. Clausewitz would likely agree but doesn’t make any specific mention in his writings of morale at home. Sun Tzu writes on the importance of people “in harmony with their leaders” (Sun Tzu, 64) in his opening statements. His statement that “the reason troops slay the enemy is because they are enraged” (Sun Tzu, 75) further explains the human aspect behind actions of rebellious colonists and retaliation after the bombings in Hawaii.

Moving past human aspects of war, we should look at economy in wartime. In our two cases of study, funds for the war efforts come from public coffers, such that the expense must be publicly justified. With the Revolution, the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781 triggered the “is it worth the cost?” question. Japan’s surrender was accelerated by the dropping of the atomic bomb, but most historians seem to agree that the U.S. submarine blockade and sinking of merchant ships crippled the economy in such a way that would force ultimate surrender even without the bombs (O’Brien, 422). These routes to victory suggest a Sun Tzu approach to war in that they rely on all means available, not just weapons. “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill” (Sun Tzu, 77). No doubt there was plenty of fighting that led to those moments, but the key lies in that the ferocity of the fighting was outmatched by the economic toll at home.

With the employment of naval blockades, we are presented with an opportunity to involve Corbett and Mahan in our analysis. The Revolution saw Naval successes of the French over the British as a key contributor to Cornwallis’s surrender. With respect to World War Two, the U.S. submarine blockade represents a larger innovation of submarine warfare from fleet auxiliaries to autonomous war vessels that would perform maritime interdiction (Rosen 131).

The failure of the British to recognize Yorktown as a center of gravity where they could not concentrate the full force of their pacific fleet to bear represents an inability to comply with the theories of Mahan and Clausewitz surrounding force concentration. Mahan and Calusewitz would have applauded the offensive posture of the British in this situation, though it did not serve them well in the end. They may have been more successful had they adopted Corbett’s views which de-emphasize seeking out a decisive battle in favor of maintaining an active defense. The British were actually at the harbor three days before the French, but gave up the defensive position in favor of going out on the hunt. (O’Shaughnessy, 347)

America’s two-pronged strategy against Japan following the Battle of Midway represents a strong break from Mahan and Clausewitz’s principles of force concentration in favor of dispersal which is much better explained by Corbett. He recognized that command of the seas comes in degrees, general or local and permanent or temporary (Corbett, 104). Moreover, he understood the need for fleet concentration but also understood that “commerce protection always calls for dispersal… Concentrations must be as open and flexible as possible.” (Corbett 133-134).  As we learned previously, commerce protection played a major factor in the Japanese surrender and prevented Britain from utilizing its force to the maximum potential.

The two-pronged strategy and island hopping tactics follows Sun Tzu’s teachings to “Attack where he is unprepared; sally out when he does not expect you” (69). It is often mentioned that the U.S. campaigns in the Central and South Pacific kept the Japanese Navy unbalanced and caused fortified positions to wither without support of sea lines of communication (Martson 122).

This idea of being where your enemy does not expect you leads nicely into our final topic, deception. George Washington’s famous deception of General Cornwallis outside of Princeton is best explained by Corbett’s rebuttal to Mahan’s principle of force concentration, namely that it is very difficult to conceal your force if it is concentrated in one location. Sun Tzu loved to write about deception going so far as to say “all warfare is about deception” (66). Clausewitz is a polar opposite here, writing in his chapter on cunning that “an accurate and penetrating understanding is a more useful and essential asset for the commander than any gift of cunning” (Clausewitz, 202). To not give credence to the essential role of deception in both the Revolution and the Pacific Theater serves to seriously undermine Mahan and Clausewitz theories. So many examples abound in both conflicts, from Princeton to Pearl Harbor, from code breaking to an atomic bomb, that we should conclude deception is indeed an essential trait for any commander.

In our analysis we have been able to determine that both the British and the Japanese lost their wars with America largely due to a major pivot in the nature of the war. Namely, both experienced a shift from wars seeking quick resolution of objectives to protracted wars with deep political and economic consequences. This shift emphasized externalities of war which favor the philosophies of Sun Tzu and Corbett over those of Clausewitz and Mahan. Specifically, we looked at how commander overconfidence, public support, economy, and deception all factored into the outcome of the conflicts, which receive greater attention in the works of Sun Tzu and Corbett. With these lessons learned, one might possibly conclude that American strengths are best realized in protracted wars of attrition, but we must be careful with this assumption. The lessons apply in the reserve direction for America within the context of our conflicts in Vietnam or Afghanistan. As such, we shouldn’t dismiss the valuable contributions of all the theorists and we should always be ready to innovate and adapt our strategy.

Navy

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