"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."
Carl von Clausewitz, On War
What makes a great general?
Hannibal changed Carthaginian strategy from naval to land warfare, and beat the Romans in nearly every encounter. Julius Caesar commanded the undying loyalty of his officers and soldiers. Napoleon Bonaparte invented the modern concept of total war with a citizen army. Was their genius in strategy, or tactics, or logistics, or charisma? Or was it crude luck? Or was it the exploitation of uncertainty?
War is profoundly influenced by technology, social organization, human psychology and political goals. Success in war requires understanding and control of these factors. War consumes vast human and material resources and demands "genius, improvisation, and energy of mind" as Winston Churchill said. And yet, Clausewitz writes: "No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance."
Why? What does this imply about the successful military commander? What does it mean for human endeavor and history in general?
Clausewitz uses the terms "chance" and "uncertainty", sometimes interchangeably, to refer to two different concepts. An event occurs by chance if it is unexpected, or its origin is unknown, or its impact is surprising. Adverse chance events provoke "uncertainty, the psychological state of discomfort from confusion or lack of information" (Katherine Herbig, reference below).
Chance and uncertainty are dangerous because they subvert plans and diminish capabilities. Soldiers have been aware of both the dangers and the advantages of surprise since they first battered each other with sticks. Conventional military theorists aimed to avoid or ameliorate chance events by careful planning, military intelligence, training and discipline, communication, command and control. Clausewitz also recognized that steadfast faithfulness to mission and determination against adversity are essential in overcoming chance events and the debilitating effect of uncertainty. But "Clausewitz dismisses as worse than useless efforts to systematize warfare with rules and formulas. Such systems are falsely comforting, he says, because they reduce the imponderables of war to a few meagre certainties about minor matters" (Herbig). Clausewitz' most original contribution was in building a systematic theory of war in which the unavoidability of chance, and its opportunities, are central.
Why is uncertainty (in the sense of lack of knowledge) unavoidable and fundamental in war? Clausewitz' answer is expressed in his metaphor of friction. As Herbig explains:
"Friction is the decremental loss of effort and intention caused by human fallibility, compounded by danger and exhaustion. Like the mechanical phenomenon of friction that reduces the efficiency of machinery with moving parts, Clausewitz' friction reduces the efficiency of the war machine. It sums up all the little things that always go wrong to keep things from being done as easily and quickly as intended. ...
"What makes friction more than a minor annoyance in war is its confounding with chance, which multiplies friction in random, unpredictable ways."
War, like history, runs on the cumulative effect of myriad micro-events. Small failures are compounded because war is a coordinated effort of countless local but inter-dependent occurrences. Generals, like symphony conductors, choose the score and set the pace, but the orchestra plays the notes. A mis-tuned violin, or a drummer who mis-counts his entry, can ruin the show. Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, but he'd have looked pretty funny if they had scattered to the four winds. Moses' genius as a leader wasn't plied against Pharaoh (Moses had help there), but rather against endless bickering and revolt once they reached the desert.
Uncertainty originates at the tactical rather than the strategic level. The general can't know countless local occurrences: a lost supply plane, failed equipment here, over-reaction there, or complacency someplace else. As an example, the New York Times reported on 27 November 2011:
"The NATO air attack that killed at least two dozen Pakistani soldiers over the weekend reflected a fundamental truth about American-Pakistani relations when it comes to securing the unruly border with Afghanistan: the tactics of war can easily undercut the broader strategy that leaders of both countries say they share.
"The murky details complicated matters even more, with Pakistani officials saying the attack on two Pakistani border posts was unprovoked and Afghan officials asserting that Afghan and American commandos called in airstrikes after coming under fire from Pakistani territory."
Central control is critical, but also profoundly limited by the micro-event texture of history.
Conversely, uncertainty can be exploited at the tactical level by flexible and creative response to random opportunities. The field commander has local knowledge that enables decisive initiative: the sleeping sentinel, the bridge not destroyed, the deserted town. The general's brilliance is in forging a war machine whose components both exploit uncertainty and are resilient to surprise.
Uncertainty is central in history at large, like in war, because they both emerge from the churning of individual events. In democratic societies, legislatures pass laws and executive branches formulate and implement policies. But only active participation of the citizenry brings life and reality to laws and policies. Conversely, citizen resistance or even apathy dooms the best policies to failure. This explains the failure of democratic institutions that are imported precipitously to countries with incompatible social and political traditions. Governments formulate policy, but implementation occurs in the context of social attitudes and historical memory. You can elect legislatures and presidents but you can't elect the public. Non-centralized beliefs and actions also dominate the behavior of industrial economies. The actions of countless households, firms and investors can vitiate the best laid plans of monetary and fiscal authorities. All this adds up to Clausewitz' concept of friction: global uncertainty accumulating from countless local deviations.
In peace, like in war, the successful response to uncertainty is to face it, grapple with it, exploit it, restrain it, but never hope to abolish it. Uncertainty is inevitable, and sometimes even propitious. The propensity for war is the ugliest attribute of our species. Nonetheless, what we learn about uncertainty from the study of war applies to all our endeavors: in business, in politics and beyond. Waging peace demands the same staunchness, determination and inventive flexibility in the face of the unknown, as the successful pursuit of war.
Katherine L. Herbig, 1989, Chance and Uncertainty in On War, in Michael Handel, ed., Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, Frank Cass, London, pp.95-116.
Peter Paret, 1976, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times, re-issued 2007, Princeton University Press.