Quotes by Famous Strategic Thinkers

Theory & Practice

These are the strategist's keys to victory. It is not possible to discuss them beforehand.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

... the step is always long from cognition to volition, from knowledge to ability.

Clausewitz, On War

[The] gap between principles and actual events ... cannot always be bridged by a succession of logical deductions.

Clausewitz, On War

The art of war in the narrower sense must now in its turn be broken down into tactics and strategy. The first is concerned with the form of the individual engagement, the second its use.

Clausewitz, On War

Strategy is the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war. The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose. In other words, he will draft the plan of the war, and the aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it: he will, in fact, shape the individual campaigns and, within these, decide on the individual engagements. Since most of these matters have to be based on assumptions that may not prove correct, while other , more detailed orders cannot be determined in advance at all, it follows that the strategist must go on the campaign itself. Detailed orders can then be given on the spot, allowing the general plan to be adjusted to the modifications that are continuously required. The strategist, in short, must maintain control throughout.

Clausewitz, On War

No logical [theoretical] conclusion has been avoided; but whenever the [theoretical] thread became too thin, I have preferred to break it off and go back to the relevant phenomena of experience. Just as some plants bear fruit only if they do not shoot up too high, so in the practical arts, the leaves and flowers of theory must be kept close to its proper soil - experience.

Clausewitz, On War

... A satisfactory theory ofwar [is] one that will be of real service and never conflicts with reality. It only needs intelligent treatment to make it conform to action, and to end the absurd difference between theory and practice that unreasonable theories have so often evoked.

Clausewitz, On War

Theory is content to refer to experience in general to indicate the origin of the [theoretical] method, but not to prove it.

Clausewitz, On War

... The idea we wish to convey ... will always have its origins in the impressions made by the sum total of the phenomena of war, rather than in speculative study.

Clausewitz, On War

These [theoretical] truths must be rooted in experience. No theorist, and no commander, should bother himself with psychological and philosophical sophistries.

Clausewitz, On War

... Theoretical truth must have been derived from military history or at least checked against it ... A great advantage offered by this method is that theory will have to remain realistic: it cannot allow itself to get lost in futile speculation, hairsplitting, and flights of fancy.

Clausewitz, On War

In almost any other profession, a man can work with truths he has learned from musty books ... It is never like that in war.

Clausewitz, On War

... In the art of war, experience counts more than any amount of abstract truths.

Clausewitz, On War

Only the experienced officer will make the right decision in major and minor battles at every pulsebeat of war. Practice and experience dictate the answer: this is possible, this is not.

Clausewitz, On War

Is there any lubricant that will reduce this abrasion [i.e., friction]? Only one, and a commander and his army will not always have it readily available: combat experience.

Clausewitz, On War

... It is natural that military activity, whose plans are based on general circumstances, are so frequently disrupted by unexpected particular events, should remain largely a matter of talent, and that theoretical directives tend to be less useful here than in any other sphere ... For lack of objective knowledge one has to trust talent or luck ... Talent and genius operate outside the rules, and theory conflicts with practice.

Clausewitz, On War

All theories, however, must stick to categories of phenomena and can never take account of a truly unique case; this must be left to judgment and talent.

Clausewitz, On War

Routine [an important form of experience for Clausewitz] will be more frequent and indispensable, the lower the level of action. As the level rises, its use will decrease to the point where, at the summit, it disappears completely. Consequently, it is more appropriate to tactics than to strategy.

Clausewitz, On War

Strategy is the art of making war upon the map, and comprehends the whole theater of operations. Grand Tactics is the art of posting troops upon the battlefield according to the accidents of the ground, or bringing them into action, and the art of fighting upon the ground in contradistinction to planning upon a map. Its operations may extend over a field of ten or twelve miles in extent ... Strategy decides where to act ... grand tactics decides the manner of execution and the employment of the troops.

Jomini, The Art of War

To learn is no easy matter and to apply what one has learned is even harder. Many people appear impressive when discoursing on military science in classrooms or in books, but when it comes to actual fighting, some win battles and others lose them. Both the history of war and our own experience in war have proved this point.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

The concentration of troops seems easy, but is quite hard in practice. Everybody knows that the best way is to use a large force to defeat a small one, and yet many people fail to do So ...

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

Experience is essential ... and failure is indeed the mother of success. But it is also necessary to learn with an open mind from the experience of others: and it is sheer 'narrow empiricism' to insist on one's own personal experience in all matters and, in its absence, to adhere stubbornly to one's own opinion and reject other people's experience.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

All military laws and military theories which are in the nature of principles are the experience of past wars ... We should seriously study these lessons... We should put these conclusions to the test of our own experience, assimilating what is useful, rejecting what is useless, and adding what is specifically our own.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

Neither a beginner nor a person who fights only on paper can become a really able high-ranking commander: only one who has learned through actual fighting in war can do so.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

All of the experience of the ten months of war proves the error both of the theory of China's inevitable subjugation and of the theory of China's quick victory. The former gives rise to compromise and the latter to the tendency to underestimate the enemy. Both approaches to the problem are subjective and onesided, or in other words, unscientific.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

A careless military man bases his military plans on his own wishful thinking and hence his plans are fanciful and do not correspond with reality.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

In real life, we cannot ask for 'ever-victorious generals' who are few and far between in history.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

The initiative is not an innate attribute of genius, but is something an intelligent leader attains through open-minded study and correct appraisal of the objective conditions and through correct military and political dispositions. It follows that the initiative is not ready-made but is something that requires conscious effort.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

This wisdom in sensing changes and choosing the right moment to act is not easily acquired; it can be gained only by those Who study with a receptive mind and investigate and ponder diligently. Prudent consideration of the circumstances is essential to prevent flexibility from turning into impulsive action.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

The laws of war, like the laws governing all other things, are reflections in our minds of objective realities: everything outside of the mind is objective reality. Consequently, what has to be learned and known includes the state of affairs on the enemy side and that on our side, both of which should be regarded as the object of study, while the mind (the capacity to think) alone is the subject performi.ng the study. Some people are good at knowing themselves and poor in knowing the enemy, and some are the other way round; neither can solve the problem of learning and applying the laws of war. There is a saying in the book of Sun Tzu, the great military scientist of ancient China: 'Know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat' which refers both to the stage of learning and to the stage of application, both to knowing the laws of the development of objective reality and to deciding on our own actions in accordance with these laws in order to overcome the enemy facing us.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

Epistemologically speaking, the source of all erroneous views on war lies in idealist and mechanistic tendencies ... People with such tendencies are subjective and one-sided in their approach to problems. They either indulge in groundless and purely subjective talk, basing themselves upon a single aspect or temporary manifestation [and] magnify it with similar subjectivity into the whole of the problem ... Only by opposing idealistic and mechanistic tendencies and taking an objective all-sided view in making a study of war can we draw correct conclusions on the question of war.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

In the case of the Communist Party in the People's Republic of China and the Red Army, Mao considers two basic groups of pathologies that can often (though not exclusively) be identified with the right or left wing of the party. The first group consists of conservatives who, because of a lack of confidence caused by early defeats, tend to overestimate the enemy's strength. As a result, they leave the initiative to the enemy ('only retreat, never advance')

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

The exponents of quick victory ... are ... likewise wrong. Either they completely forget the contradiction between strength and weakness, remembering only the other contradictions, or they exaggerate China's advantages beyond all semblance to reality and beyond recognition, or they presumptuously take the balance of forces at one time and one place for the whole situation, as in the old saying, ' A leaf before the eye shuts out Mount Tai.'

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings

In the end, Mr. Reality will come and pour a bucket of cold water over these chatterers, showing them up as mere windbags Who want to get things on the cheap, to have gains without pains ... There is no magic short-cut.

Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings