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Ancient military thinkers and modern law enforcement

Cherry-picking quotes from complex strategic military thinkers and shoehorning their “lessons” into a tactical law enforcement context ignores the important cultural and historical conditions in which these men wrote. Though quoting a military theorist may be trendy and sound cool, without studied application it has little real meaning or use outside the larger military context in which it was written.

So how should we even consider the likes of Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and Jomini? Let’s look at each one individually.

Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu was a military commander — if he existed at all — who found employment with the King of Wu during China’s “Warring States” period (roughly 425 BC to 221 BC). Sun Tzu is probably the most popular military theorist to find his way onto the pages of law enforcement journals, in part because he’s been widely translated and his ideas, at first glance, appear clear and concise. What has attracted law enforcement attention has been Sun Tzu’s emphasis on man’s moral strength, discipline, and what Liddell Hart has called the “indirect approach,” an idea that in its simplest form means subduing one’s enemy without actually fighting. The application of violent action is only a last resort.

However, Sun Tzu is more than just a reduction of principles and phrases. According to military historian Martin can Creveld, one cannot fathom Sun Tzu “without bearing in mind the underlying way in which Chinese culture approaches war.” The Chinese saw war as a “temporary evil” and a short-term “departure from ‘cosmic harmony’.” Generally, for an adherent of Sun Tzu, violence must be kept at a minimum, which includes the idea that negotiating with and bribing an enemy is vastly preferable to fighting. Should negotiations fail, assassination or even capture and torture may be the next step before the warring armies face each other on the battlefield.

A Sun Tzu adherent may find Police Superintendent Jody Weis’ controversial meetings with Chicago gang members last year to be perfectly acceptable. Dealing with these criminals could be seen as a more appropriate approach in decreasing crime than taking the gangs on directly in open conflict, at least in the near term. Since Weis’ initial meeting, Chicago-area press reports suggest that homicides are down, especially in the crime-ridden 11th District. Aldermen who had initially been critical now appear to be more supportive, and it’s likely that Superintendent Weis will receive at least grudging recognition in the near-term for what started out to be a highly controversial crime reduction effort.

Conspicuously absent from law enforcement literature has been Carl von Clausewitz, the third and most difficult to understand of the triumvirate which includes Sun Tzu and Jomini. Michael Handel considered this trio to be the three “Masters of War.” Like Jomini, Clausewitz’s experiences came during the Napoleonic period where he fought against Napoleon as a member of the Prussian Army.

Clausewitz’s classic On War is a broadly theoretical and abstract discussion that has been intellectually demanding for even the most accomplished students of warfare to understand.

Clausewitz was more philosopher than strategist. Less concerned with what historian Peter Paret sees as “strategic schemes and tactical measures,” Clausewitz meant to discern the “permanent elements of war” and the use of violence to further the ends of the state.

Clausewitz wrote about the trinity of violence, chance, and politics that correspond to three societal groups: the military, the people, and the government. The balance between these was an important consideration, which made him, paradoxically, one of the most “democratic” military theorists of his time.

Clausewitz’s philosophical discussion between the parts of the trinity and his explanation of the intangibles and unpredictable results of the application of force (friction) may have a unique but as yet unexplored application for law enforcement.

Like Clausewitz, Jomini was a product of the French Revolution and wrote about his observations and experiences serving under both Napoleon and the Russians.

In his essay, “The Art of War,” Jomini attempted to establish a scientific approach to warfare that emphasized the concepts of lines of communication and massing overwhelming force at the “decisive point” in order to destroy the enemy’s army. No Sun Tzu here, where maneuvering the army into a position of advantage was often enough to overwhelm an enemy. Instead, Jomini envisioned the reason to maneuver: find the enemy’s decisive point, attack it with overwhelming force, and win not only the battle but possibly the war in a climactic engagement. He found Napoleon’s success, at least initially, to be a product of these precepts.

As historian John Shy has pointed out, another aspect of Jomini was that once war was decided upon, “the government should choose its ablest commander, then leave him free to wage war according to scientific principles.”

Though this approach may have some merit in a military dictatorship where the political and military leaders are one, it’s doubtful that war could or should be waged in this manner in a democracy. This would be akin to giving police unrestricted authority, ways and means to go after criminals of all types. Though this might play well in comic books, such a ham-fisted approach would threaten our democratic ideals.

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