Academic journal article Military Review

Applying the Principles of War

Academic journal article Military Review

Applying the Principles of War

Article excerpt

Their relentless pursuit of excellence through rigorous intellectual study of past military campaigns, terrain, tactics and the art of war prepared [Sun Tzu, Napoleon and Jackson] to fully exploit the principles of deception, celerity, shaping the enemy and exploitation of victory. Although each general had his own individual leadership style and stressed slightly different aspects of the principles of war, each agreed that warfare must be thoroughly studied and that prudent application of its basic principles to the fluid conditions of war ensures victory.

ALTHOUGH CENTURIES and continents separated their lives, Sun Tzu, Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson employed, to varying degrees, the same basic principles of war. All were ingenious military commanders. Histories of their lives detail the characteristics that enabled them to become successful leaders. This article will discuss their similarities and the tactics they employed: deception, celerity (speed/swiftness), shaping the enemy and exploiting victory.

Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu's Chen clan ancestors were extremely active and influential in Chinese politics. Tales of the wiles with which the clan overthrew the reigning Qing family no doubt inspired Sun Tzu as he developed his principles of war. Sun Tzu's father, Chen Shu, received the title "Sun" in recognition of his notable military attainments. Sun Tzu assimilated and developed many of his military theories as a result of his father's and paternal family's influence. Sun Tzu placed great value on studying the art of war. The constant political unrest in China compelled Chen clan members to always be on guard and to seek opportunities for military advancement. Resolutely facing a life without tranquillity, Sun Tzu honed his warrior skills.

Helu, King of Wu, an experienced military commander and expansionist, positively impacted Sun Tzu's career. Helu recognized and capitalized on Sun Tzu's military knowledge, appointing him troop disciplinarian and assistant to General Wu Zixu, commander of Wu forces. In his position as collaborator with Wu, Sun Tzu gained opportunity to fully employ his principles of war. His successes ultimately won him the rank of general.


Napoleon exhibited signs of genius at an early age. Despite being young and deficient in most studies except mathematics, in 1783, Napoleon was selected for transfer from the Brienne School to the Paris Royal Military Academy. Chevalier de Keralio, inspector and military tactics author, overruled suggestions that Napoleon should wait another year: "I perceive in him a spark of genius which cannot be too early fostered." As further evidence of his mental superiority, in September 1785, at the age of 16, Napoleon was commissioned second lieutenant, royal corps of artillery. The average length of time required to "pass out" of the Royal Academy was from two to three years, but Napoleon "applied himself so assiduously" he received his commission after only one year.2

At 19, on his own initiative, Napoleon launched an intensive self-education period in which he consumed many books on military and political history. While attending the Paris Royal Military Academy, he had gained no formal knowledge of military history or tactics. His self-appointed course of study included 83 campaigns, foremost of which were the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Henri de Turenne, Eugene of Savoy and Frederick the Great.3 Napoleon thoroughly read about these campaigns, convinced that only in this way could he master the secrets of the art of war.

Napoleon also consciously trained his memory and analytical powers by writing a concise summary of each book he read. When he received command of the Army of Italy in March 1796, his mind was trained and ready for his future as military commander and, eventually, emperor. "If I seem always ready to meet any difficulty, to face any emergency, it is because before undertaking any enterprise I have spent a long time thinking it out and seeing what might happen. …

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