Quotes by Famous Strategic Thinkers

Intelligence

By 'intelligence' we mean every sort of information about the enemy and his country - the basis, in short, of our own plans and operations.

Clausewitz, On War

The movement of the enemy's columns into battle can be ascertained only by actual observation - the point at which he plans to cross a river by the few preparations he makes, which become apparent a short time in advance; but the direction from which he threatens our country will usually be announced in the press before a single shot is fired. The greater the scale of preparations, the smaller the chance of achieving surprise. Time and space involved are vast, the circumstances that have set the events in motion so well known and so little subject to change, that his decisions will either be apparent early enough, or can be discovered with certainty.

Clausewitz, On War

The difficulty of accurate recognition constitutes one of the most serious sources of friction in war, by making things appear entirely different from what one had expected.

Clausewitz, On War

[The cause of inaction in war] ... is the imperfection of human perception and judgment which is more pronounced in war than anywhere else. We hardly know accurately our own situation at any particular moment while the enemy's, which is concealed from us, must be deduced from very little evidence.

Clausewitz, On War

To discover how much of our resources must be mobilized for war, we must first examine our political aim and that of the enemy. We must gauge the strength and situation of the opposite state. We must gauge the character and abilities of its government and people and do the same in regard to our own. Finally, we must evaluate the political sympathies of other states and the effect the war may have on them.

Clausewitz, On War

No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance. And through the element of chance, guesswork and luck come to play a great part in war.

Clausewitz, On War

The very nature of interactions is bound to make it unpredictable.

Clausewitz, On War

In war more than anywhere else, things do not turn out as we expect.

Clausewitz, On War

In short, absolute, so-called mathematical, factors never find a firm basis in military calculations. From the very start, there is an interplay of possibilities, probabilities, good luck and bad, that weaves its way throughout the length and breadth of the tapestry. In the whole range of human activities, war most closely resembles a game of cards.

Clausewitz, On War

The deduction of effect from cause is often blocked by some insuperable extrinsic obstacle: the true causes may be quite unknown. Nowhere in life is this so common as in war, where the facts are seldom fully known and the underlying motives even less so.

Clausewitz, On War

The general unreliability of all information presents a special problem in war: all action takes place, so to speak, in the twilight, which, like fog or moonlight, often tends to make things seem grotesque and larger than they really are. Whatever is hidden from full view in this feeble light has to be guessed at by talent, or simply left to chance. So once again for the lack of objective knowledge, one has to trust to talent or to luck.

Clausewitz, On War

The only situation a commander can know fully is his own: his opponent's he can know only from unreliable intelligence.

Clausewitz, On War

We must evaluate the political sympathies of other states and the effect war may have on them. To assess these things in all their ramifications and diversity is plainly a colossal task. Rapid and correct appraisal of them clearly calls for the intuition of a genius; to master all this complex mass by sheer methodical examination is obviously impossible. Bonaparte was quite right when he said that Newton himself would quail before the algebraic problems it could pose.

Clausewitz, On War

If we consider the actual basis of this information [i.e., intelligence], how unreliable and transient it is, we soon realize that war is a flimsy structure that can easily collapse and bury us in its ruins. ... Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain. This is true of all intelligence but even more so in the heat of battle, where such reports tend to contradict and cancel each other out. In short, most intelligence is false, and the effect of fear is to multiply lies and inaccuracies.

Clausewitz, On War

A general in time of war is constantly bombarded by reports both true and false; by errors arising from fear or negligence or hastiness; by disobedience born of right or wrong interpretations, of ill will; of a proper or mistaken sense of duty; of laziness; or of exhaustion; and by accident that nobody could have foreseen. In short, he is exposed to countless impressions, most of them disturbing, few of them encouraging. ... If a man were to yield to these pressures, he would never complete an operation.

Clausewitz, On War

Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war. ... Countless minor incidents - the kind you can never really foresee - combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls short of the intended goal. ...

Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper. ...

This tremendous friction which cannot, as in mechanics, be reduced to a few points, is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured just because they are largely due to chance. ...

Action in war is like moving in a resistant element. Just as the simplest and most natural of movements, walking, cannot easily be performed in water, so in war it is difficult for normal efforts to achieve even moderate results.

Clausewitz, On War

In war, where imperfect intelligence, the threat of a catastrophe, and the number of accidents are incomparably greater than any other human endeavor, the amount of missed opportunities, so to speak, is therefore bound to be greater.

Clausewitz, On War

War is the realm of uncertainty; three-quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. ... war is the realm of chance. No other human activity gives it greater scope; no other has such incessant and varied dealings with this intruder. Chance makes everything more uncertain and interferes with the whole course of events.

Clausewitz, On War

Since all information and assumptions are open to doubt, and with chance working everywhere, the commander continually finds that things are not as he expected. This is bound to influence his plans, or at least the assumptions underlying them. If this influence is sufficiently powerful to cause a change in his plans, he must usually work out new ones; but for these the necessary information may not be immediately available. During an operation, decisions have usually to be made at once: there may be no time to review the situation or even think it through. Usually, of course, new information and reevaluation are not enough to make us give up our intentions: they only call them into question. We now know more, but this makes us more, not less uncertain. The latest reports do not arrive all at once: they merely trickle in. They continually impinge on our decisions, and our mind must be permanently armed, so to speak, to deal with them.

Clausewitz, On War

The surprise of an army is now next to an impossibility. ... Prearranged surprises are rare and difficult because in order to plan one it becomes necessary to have an accurate knowledge of the enemy's camp.

Jomini, The Art of War

This [a surprise attack] is an operation by no means to be despised in war, although it is rare, and less brilliant than a great strategic combination which renders victory certain even before the battle is fought.

Jomini, The Art of War

It is certainly of great importance for a general to keep his plans secret; and Frederick the Great was right when he said that if his night-cap knew what was in his head he would throw it into the fire. That kind of secrecy was practicable in Frederick's time when his whole army was kept closely about him; but when maneuvers of the vastness of Napoleon's are executed, and war is waged as in our day, what concert of action can be expected from generals who are utterly ignorant of what is going on around them?

Jomini, The Art of War

One of the surest ways of forming good combinations in war would be to order movements only after obtaining perfect information of the enemy's proceedings. In fact, how can any man say what he should do himself; if he is ignorant what his adversary is about?

Jomini, The Art of War

Principal Sources of Intelligence:

1. A highly organized and efficient system of espionage.
2. Reconnaissance by special units.
3. The interrogation of prisoners of war .
4. 'Forming hypotheses of probabilities' [that is, a systematic analysis of courses of action open to the enemy based on information, logic, and experience].
5. Signals.

Jomini, The Art of War

6. It is most important, when we take the initiative of a decisive moment, that we should be careful to perfectly inform ourselves of the positions of the enemy and of the movements which he can make, The employment of spies is a useful means, to the consideration of which too much pains can not be given; but that which is perhaps of more use is to have the country scoured in all directions by partisans. A general should send small parties in all directions, and he must multiply the number of them with the greater care, as this system is avoided in grand operations ... To operate without these precautions is to march in the dark, and to expose ourselves to the chance disasters which a secret movement of the enemy might produce. These things have been too much neglected; spy parties have not been organized far enough in advance, and the officers commanding light troops have not always had enough experience to conduct their detachments properly.

Jomini, The Art of War

But it is almost impossible to communicate with them [one's spies in the enemy camp] and receive the information they possess ... Even when the general receives from his spies information of movements, he still knows nothing of those which may since have taken place, nor of what the enemy is going finally to attempt.

Jomini, The Art of War

1. A general should neglect no means of gaining information.
2. By multiplying the means of obtaining information; for no matter how imperfect and contradictory they may be, the truth may often be sifted from them.
3. Perfect reliance should be placed on none of these means.
4. As it is impossible to obtain exact information by the methods mentioned, a general should never move without arranging several courses of action for himself, based upon probable hypotheses. ... and never losing sight of the principles of the art.

Jomini, The Art of War

For if many ill-conceived plans have succeeded through the still greater lack of judgment of an opponent, many more, apparently well laid, have on the contrary ended in disgrace. The confidence with which we form our schemes is never completely justified in their execution; speculation is carried on in safety, but, when it comes to action, fear causes failure.

Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War

In order not to annul our free will, I judge it true that Fortune may be mistress of one half our actions but then even she leaves the other half, or almost, under our control.

Machiavelli, The Prince

With difficulty he is beaten who can estimate his own forces and those of his enemy.

Machiavelli, The Art of War

Secret operations are essential in war,. upon them the army relies to make its every move. ... An army without secret agents is exactly like a man without eyes or ears.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Of all those in the army close to the commander, none is more intimate than the secret agent.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

[Tu Mu] The first essential is to estimate the character of the spy to determine if he is sincere, truthful, and really intelligent ... Afterwards, he can be employed. ... Among agents there are some whose only interest is in acquiring wealth without obtaining the true situation of the enemy, and only meet my requirements with empty words. In such a case I must be deep and subtle.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

[Mei Yao-ch'en] Secret agents receive their instructions within the tent of the general, and are intimate and close to him.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Of all rewards none [is] more liberal than those given to secret agents.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The sovereign must have full knowledge of the activities of the five sorts of agents. This knowledge must come from the double agents, and therefore it is mandatory that they be treated with the utmost liberality.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

He who is not sage and wise, humane and just, cannot use secret agent.s. And he who is not delicate and subtle cannot get the truth out of them.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

And therefore only the enlightened sovereign and the worthy general who are able to use the most intelligent people as agents are certain to achieve great things.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Now the reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they move and their achievements surpass those of ordinary men is joreknowledge.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy ... [Li Ch 'uan] Attack plans at their inception ... The supreme excellence in war is to attack the enemy's plans.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

[Tu Mu] Generally, the commander must thoroughly acquaint himself before-hand with the maps so that he knows dangerou.1' places. . . All these facts the general must store in his mind,. only then will he not lose the advantage of the ground.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Therefore, to estimate the enemy situation and to calculate distances and the degree of difficulty of the terrain so as to control victory are virtues of the superior general.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Agitate him and ascertain the pattern of his movement. Determine his dispositions and so ascertain the field of battle. Probe him and learn where his strength is abundant and where deficient.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Dust spurting upward in high straight columns indicates the approach of chariots. When it hangs low and is widespread, infantry is approaching. ... When the enemy's envoys speak in humble terms, but he continues his preparations, he will advance. ...

When the envoys speak in apologetic terms, he [the enemy] wishes a respite ...
When half his force advances and half withdraws, he is attempting to decoy you.
When his troops lean on their weapons, they are famished.
When drawers of water drink before carrying it to camp, his troops are suffering from thirst.
When the enemy sees an advantage but does not seize it, he is fatigued.
When birds gather above the camp sites, they are empty...
When at night the enemy camp is clamorous, he is fearful.
When his flags and banners move constantly, he is in disarray.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

He should be capable of keeping his officers and men in ignorance of his plans.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Set the troops to their tasks without imparting your designs.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The ultimate in disposing one's troops is to be without ascertainable shape. Then the most penetrating spies cannot pry in nor can the wise lay plans against you.

It is according to the shapes that I lay the plans for victory, but the multitude does not comprehend this. Although everyone can see the outward aspects, none understands the way in which I have created victory.

Therefore, when I have won a victory I do not repeat my tactics but respond to circumstances in an infinite variety of ways.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

He changes his methods and alters his plans so that people have no knowledge ofwhat he is doing. ...

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

He alters his camp-sites and marches by devious routes, and thus makes it impossible for others to anticipate his purpose.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

I will be able to forecast which side will be victorious and which defeated.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Now if the estimates made in the temple before hostilities indicate victory, it is because calculations show one's strength to be superior to that ofhis enemy,. if they indicate defeat, it is because calculations show that one is inferior. With many calculations, one can win; with few one cannot. How much less the chance of victory has one who makes none at all! By this means I examine the situation and the outcome will be clearly apparent.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

It is sufficient to estimate the enemy situation correctly and to concentrate your strength to capture him. There is no more to it than this. He who lacks foresight and underestimates his enemy will surely be captured by him.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Therefore I say: Know your enemy and know yoursef; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.

When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal.

If ignorant of both your enemy and yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Generally, management of many is the same as management of few. It is a matter of organization. And to control many is the same as to control few. This is a matter of formations and signals.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In the tumult and uproar, the battle seems chaotic, but there is no disorder, the troops appear to be milling about in circles but cannot be defeated.

Apparent confusion is a product of good order; apparent cowardice, of courage; apparent weakness, of strength.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Because of the uncertainty peculiar to war, it is much more difficult to prosecute war according to plan than the case is with other activities. Yet, since preparedness ensures success and unpreparedness spells failure, there can be no victory in war without advance planning and preparations. There is no absolute certainty in war, and yet it is not without some degree of relative certainty. We are comparatively certain about our own situation. We are very uncertain about the enemy's, but here too there are signs for us to read, clues to folloW and sequences of phenomena to ponder. These form what we call a degree of relative certainty, which provides an objective basis for planning in war. Modern technical developments. ... have added to the possibilities of planning in war.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

Even though future changes are difficult to foresee and the farther ahead one looks, the more blurred things seem, a general calculation is possible and an appraisal of distant prospects is necessary. In war as well as in politics, planning only one step at a time as one goes along is a harmful way of directing matters. ... It is absolutely essential to have a 1ong term plan which has been thought out in its general outline and which covers an entire strategic stage or even several strategic stages. ...

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

Uncertainty interferes with even the best-laid plans, but its effect can be overcome to some extent by flexible planning and the readiness to change plans frequently according to developing circumstances. 'Planning must change with the movement (flow or change) of the war and vary in degree according to the scale of the war.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

A strategic plan based on the over-all situation of both belligerents is ... more stable, but it too is applicable only in a given strategic stage and has to be changed when the war moves towards a new stage. ... [Conversely, tactical plans may] ... have to be changed several times a day.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

Because of the fluidity of war, some people categorically deny that war plans or policies can be relatively stable, describing such plans or policies as 'mechanical.' This view is wrong ... Because the circumstances of war are only relatively certain and the flow (movement or change) of war is rapid, war plans or policies can be only relatively stable and have to be changed or revised in good time in accordance with changing circumstances and the flow of war; otherwise we would become machinists. But one must not deny the need for war plans or policies that are relatively stable over given periods; to negate this is to negate everything, including the war itself as well as the negator himself.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

The plan for the first battle must be the prelude to, and an organic part of, the plan for the whole campaign. Without a good plan for the whole campaign, it is absolutely impossible to fight a really good first battle ... Hence, before fighting the first battle, one must have a general idea of how the second, third, fourth, and even final battle will be fought, and consider what changes will ensue in the enemy's situation as a whole if we win, or lose, each of the succeeding battles. Although the result may not - and, in fact, definitely will not - turn out exactly as we expect, we must think out everything carefully and realistically in the light of the general situation on both sides. Without a grasp of the situation as a whole, it is impossible to make any really good move on the chessboard.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings