Sun Tzu said:
“Know thyself and know thy enemy. If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. ”
This basic principle when properly applied is at its core the essence for any country willing to go to war, to be able to determine if they should to go to war and how to shape their strategic and tactical planning.
The recently formed Congress would need to select an individual to lead the Continental Army, what traits would be required of such a leader to successfully win the war? Sun Tzu describes five traits a commander needed: wisdom, sincerity, humanity, courage, and strictness. (Tzu, 1963, p. 65) Commander Washington’s would fit those five traits and would exemplify the five traits as described by Sun Tzu during his time as the commander of the continental Army. Washington understood, as did Sun Tzu in order to achieve military victory he would need to be able to receive public and political support. Though he was not known as a individual who studied war but a keen observer through experience, he had the foresight, wisdom, and humanity to care for his troops and families with his own money. (Weigley, 1973, p. 13) He was respected not just by the men he was charged to command, but also by the people in all parts of the colonies. Even with an attempt later during the war by members of congress to replace Washington with Gates failed, as he held too much support from many in Congress and the Army. George Washington would continue to prove his Character in his career and would demonstrate he would be the perfect commander that would be needed through what would be a protracted war. (The American Revolution, 2011, pp. 1-51)
Sun Tzu understood that success, ruin and, survival heavily depended on the relationship between war and state issues (Tzu, 1963, p. 63). A better understanding of this would come from Clausewitz’s statement that “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose” (Clausewitz, 1976, p. 87). The political goal for the British during the Revolutionary war was to stop the rebellion and restore order and loyalty to the British Empire. Washington as the military leader understood that his hopes would not lie mainly in a military victory, but in a political objective to create opposition in Great Britain that would force the British Ministry to abandon its conflict. (Weigley, 1973, p. 5).
Washington clearly understood his political goal, and this would allow him to shape his military strategy accordingly. During the first conflicts, Washington saw many victories against the British especially during the battle for Bunker Hill. It was the first time that the Americans saw that they could actually defeat the once thought indestructible British in conventional warfare. It wasn’t until the conflict in New York on August 22nd where Washington would lose a quarter of his command, about 970 men killed or injured, and 1079 taken captive that would cause Washington to rethink how he would strategically conduct warfare from this point on. George Washington knew that conventional warfare would be suicide against the sheer size, manpower, and capabilities of the British military. Washington knew that if he were to have any chance at achieving a free and independent America, he would need to keep his army alive, and therefore keep the Revolutionary cause alive (Weigley, 1973, pp. 5-13). Washington would set about on a new course to victory in a Sun Tzu approach to the Art of War.
PATH TO VICTORY
Before the winter fight that would take place in Trenton Washington recognizes the symptoms of the protracted war on his own forces. Public support and general morale were at its lowest and with the Continental Army dwindling as those within it were coming close to the end of their obligated service contracts something had to happen. Washington recognizes the need to achieve a victory that would restore public support and increase recruitment into his ranks. This would come on Christmas Day 1776, with Washington leading the charge, crossing the Delaware River to strike Trenton and ultimately defeating the Hessian outpost. (Weigley, 1973, pp. 39-40)
With the decisive win in Trenton, the British Army’s will to fight, and peoples support for the war began to wear down. Washington was able to turn the tide and begin to capitalize and focus his attacks on the British Center of Gravity, “For there has never been a protracted war from which a country had benefited.” (Tzu, 1963, p. 73) In protracting the war, Washington strategy of avoiding large conflicts and only attacking smaller forces, attacks the British strategy “…what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy;” (Tzu, 1963, p. 77).
The British struggled to counter Washington’s forces as his attacks would be unpredictable and Guerilla in nature, forcing the British to encamping themselves in major cities. As well as fighting the colonies the British defense of England would be tested, as the conflict with France and Spain would further drained resources and threaten the homeland.
Washington now sees the political end state more clearly now with what is occurring within the British political state, the war of attrition and its effect on his enemy is more evident now than has ever been prior. With his most valued asset being his army, Washington must avoid a major battle and attack only when it is advantageous to do so, forcing the British into a protracted war of attrition. “He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.” (Tzu, 1963, p. 82) Washington knows by dictating when and where the fight will be as described by Sun Tzu, “He who knows the art of the direct and indirect approach will be victorious. Such is the art of maneuvering.” (Sun Tzu, p. 106) he will control the flow and direction of the War. This strategy allows Washington time to build public support and bolster his Army while forcing the British to encamp themselves taking a defensive position in several major cities.
Washington’s steadfastness in his strategy of attrition and a clear understanding of himself and his enemy would pay off during the campaign in Yorktown where Cornwallis would eventually position his forces. Washington, recognizing the shift from strategic defensive to that of offense, executed a plan to engage the British at Yorktown. With detailed planning and allied help from the French, General Cornwallis would later surrender on October 19th 1781, the Revolutionary War was over. The British ministry under pressure from its recent loss and dealing with conflicts much closer to the homeland with France and Spain, lost the will to continue the fight in America, the very objective Washington maintained during this conflict. (Weigley, 1973, p. 39)