Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fog of War

"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.

Main source:
Katherine L. Herbig, 1989, Chance and Uncertainty in On War, in Michael Handel, ed., Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, Frank Cass, London, pp.95-116.

See also:
Peter Paret, 1976, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times, re-issued 2007, Princeton University Press. 


  1. Interesting essay. I liked the "you can't elect the public" section. Does it necessarily follow that imposing democracy is always for ulterior motives? These include fear of imaginary weaponry all the way to oil supplies. I guess retaliation is another such dynamic. These are uncertain times both politically and economically and is nothing new everywhere one looks.

  2. I read through this article quickly, and wonder how it can contain references to Julius Ceasar and Hannibal (admittedly great generals both) and even Napoleon (despite his monumental blunder to invade Russia), but not the greatest general of all time, Alexander the Invincible (whom the Romans later called "Alex. the Great"), who was not only invincible, (frequently fighting against vastly larger armies) but also unstoppable, really. For example, when he had a hard time conquering Tyre in today's Lebanon, he just changed the Geography and made it from an island close to the shore, into a.. peninsula, by building a causeway from the shore to it!

    But it is correct that war, at least in the past, was a game with partial information and a ton of uncertainty. Today, maybe less so, when we can go to Google maps (and other, far more professional but not public tools) and see every detail in the opponent's territory from above, etc.

  3. Emil Simiu wrote:

    1. Editorial note: Pharaoh is misstyped.
    2. Tolstoy's comments on war in "War and Peace" and Victor Hugo's description in "Les Miserables" of the Waterloo battle, which was decided by heavy rain, may be mentioned in this context.
    3. Hitler's defeat in Russia may be ascribed in large part to the fact that the invasion started late in June, rather than earlier, as had been originally planned. The delay was caused by an unexpected anti-Nazi coup in Yugoslavia; by the Nazi campaign in Greece, rendered necessary by Mussolini's invasion, with no prior knowledge by Hitler, the unexpectedly effective resistance of the Greeks, and the poor military performance of the Italians. Hitler's blitzkrieg plans in Russia were ruined by this delay and an early, unexpectedly harsh winter. However, the Nazi defeat was also caused by massive strategic blunders and intelligence failures (criminal occupation policies that alienated the civilian population; false assessment of Soviet military capabilities; Hitler's personal military incompetence).
    4. The reflections on democracy in countries whose traditions are incompatible with democratic practices are incomplete: Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, India, Germany, Spain, Poland, Turkey, have been able to build more or less functional democracies owing to factors of a fundamental nature -- the existence of a middle class among them.
    5. While the essay is well written, -- as usual Yakov has a way with words -- I believe it does not contribute much that is new or actionable.

  4. Dear Anonymous (the first comment):

    I don't think that it follows that imposing democracy is always for ulterior motives. What the discussion does imply is that even with wonderful motives, one much give careful attention to the social and historical context of the receiving society. We seen this conclusion before, for instance in the essay "Can We Replay History?" at:

  5. Hi Tassos

    Thanks for your comment. My apologies to all Greek readers. Alexander was indeed a great general.

    I'm not sure that uncertainty is less today than in the past. For one thing, greater capabilities are a 2-way street. Also, greater inter-dependencies entail the possibility for greater vulnerability to surprise. The struggle against surprise is still very important, as the Afghan example shows.

  6. Hi Emil,

    Your 4th comment is particularly astute. Yes indeed societies can be very adaptable. It is certainly true that there are many ways for a society to absorb or develop democratic institutions. I did not mean to ascribe blindly to western exceptionalism. However, we can see from many examples - including some that you mentioned - how each culture must adapt differently in adopting (and modifying) democratic institutions.

  7. Yakov Ben-Haim said...

    Hi Tassos

    Thanks for your comment. My apologies to all Greek readers. Alexander was indeed a great general."

    No need to apologize.. and after all, these days it is the Slavic Macedonians in the former Yugo Republic that claim Alexander as one of their own, (and recently, despite being a small and very porio nation, they erected a statue of Alexander on a horse that is 8 stories high... several times bigger than any Alex statue in Greece)

    " I'm not sure that uncertainty is less today than in the past. "

    Actually, the more I think of it the more I believe it is much less than it was in the past. Not only do we have far superior information and surveillance, look at the weapons, even in WW II the bombs were 100% "dumb" bombs that fell all over the place. Today's smart bombs don't give their target a chance, literally, and ICBMs and other nuke weapons can be controlled to fall within fractions of a percentage of their targeted location. Other kinds of uncertainty still exist, but they are more the result of the game and its players making decisions rather than probabilities and weapon accuracy.

  8. Some comments on one of Emil's comments:

    "3. Hitler's defeat in Russia may be ascribed in large part to the fact that the invasion started late in June, rather than earlier, as had been originally planned."

    I really doubt that Hitler ever had a chance, given not only the fanatical resistance of the Russians, but also the huge help in material they got from the USA. The Russian campaign lasted 4 years despite all that. And even if the Germans were more successful in the initial Summer-Fall 1941, I doubt they would be able to hold on to the vast lands they would have conquered.

    " The delay was caused by an unexpected anti-Nazi coup in Yugoslavia; by the Nazi campaign in Greece, rendered necessary by Mussolini's invasion, with no prior knowledge by Hitler, the unexpectedly effective resistance of the Greeks,"

    The Yugoslavs (Serbs mostly) also put a very strong resistance. The Greeks pushed the Italians back into Albania both in the initial Oct 1940 attack and in Mussolini's second attempt (Spring 41), but could not stop Hitler's armies in mainland Greece.

    Crete, the island where I was born, was the last to fall, it put out a very strong resistance, helped by Anglo-Australian forces and a Greek division, as well as the local population, who would have caused much more damage to the Nazis if Greece's Dictator in the late 30s, the same guy who said "no" to Mussolini, had not taken their guns from them.

    the Nazi invasion of Crete was innovative in the sense it was the first takeover of an island from Air forces only, but cost the Nazis thousands of elite troops (paratroopers) killed. Goering told Hitler he could do it in a day, but Hitler did not believe him. It actually took a week, which is often mentioned as a huge break for Stalin to be better prepared etc, but I doubt he used it, or it would have changed things much in Russia. In his memoirs, Churchill regretted not trying much harder to defend Crete, due to its strategic location in Eastern Mediterranean.

    "However, the Nazi defeat was also caused by massive strategic blunders and intelligence failures (criminal occupation policies that alienated the civilian population; false assessment of Soviet military capabilities; Hitler's personal military incompetence)."

    Hitler was not a professional modern general, but his successes in France and everywhere else except Britain must have given him a lot of confidence in his decision making.

    Similarly, the underestimation of the Russians could have been due to the very embarrassing Soviet Debacle of their invasion of Finland, as well as their previous 20th century disasters in the Russian-Japanese war and WW I.

    However, Hitler's policies of defending every inch of land they had made war really very inflexible and predictable to his opponents who exploited it repeatedly, incl. in Stalingrad.

  9. I tend to see this as the fog of war in one's mind. The need to understand is frustrated by the difficulty of the subject, with or without diseases which that produces, socially or (also) individually. The war is fought by all the independent axons wanting to join up and make good decisions, but fearing they will be wrong or bad.

    The state of uncertainty then helps reach that desired state of distinct clarity and pure, objective understanding, if only because all the nerves remain active as long as they haven't found their match yet to independently confirm what they know or have confirmed what they should know. So we should never not want that to be so, at least as long as untruth rules.