Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 2: the fog of war

Many people talk about “the fog of war”, even if they don’t know who coined the phrase. It was Clausewitz, and he used it to describe the pervasive difficulties of uncertainty, distorted perception and unreliable information that plague the commander in battle:

“all action takes place…in a kind of twilight, which, like fog or moonlight, often tends to make things seem grotesque and larger than they really are.” [2.2]

In Clausewitz’s era – the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries – the commander’s sense of the battle was shaped by what he and his aides could see and hear, and on reports coming to him from subordinates. Good generals stuck close to the action, but much was hidden by ground, trees, mist, rain, noise, and the billowing clouds of white smoke that issued from thousands of muskets and guns firing. Information was slow in coming, contradictory, fragmented and inaccurate. Perceptions were distorted by worry, fear, excitement, fatigue and mental strain. “Whatever is hidden from full view in this feeble light,” Clausewitz wrote, “has to be guessed at by talent or simply left to chance”.

Does the notion of the ‘fog of war’ still hold today? After all, the modern commander and his staff draw information about the battlespace from a vast array of sensors. This is intended to clear away the fog of war – to give the commander a clear view of the battlespace at any given minute, and to decide and act faster than the enemy. The political leader is in close, almost instantaneous, contact with the situation “on the ground” – through the reports of commanders and advisers, intelligence agencies, and television and other news media coverage.

Despite this, I’d suggest that Clausewitz’s ‘fog of war’ concept is as germane today as it was at Austerlitz, Borodino and Waterloo. Too much information creates its own haze. Modern commanders and politicians may be overloaded with information. In situations of high stress, they may be slow to think and act. Where there are nagging doubts or uncertainties, they may seek still more information and clarification, rather than act on what they’ve got.

In complex terrain – cities, tunnels, forest, mountains – the enemy can still cloak intentions and actions to a considerable degree. He or she can avoid prying electronic sensors by going high-tech – using off-the-shelf software to encrypt messages – or low-tech – passing messages by couriers. Guerrillas, terrorists, militiamen and criminals hide among the people and are difficult to distinguish until the moment of action. Here, the fog of war is a lack of knowledge and understanding about local cultures – the history, customs, traditions, mores of the population, and the place and pattern of the enemy within this.

So, there’s several ideas about the fog of war today. Any other situations in which the fog may arise?

3 thoughts on “Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 2: the fog of war”

  1. Also, the enemy is actively adding to the “fog” by deception, evasion, misinformation, etc.

    The essence of the fog is (1) fear induced by danger, that fouls up all perceptions and reports, (2) friction generally, as Clausewitz defined, and (3) the inherent nature of war as a deadly conflict between contending parties who are using all means to defeat each other — meaning the enemy is trying hard to confuse you and will sometimes succeed. We could add a fourth. Unlike in Clausewitz’s day, where the armies he was familiar with shared something like a common culture, we now have cross-cultural conflict which adds to misperceptions, miscommunications, incomprehension on one side or the other, between the USA and its local allies, and even worse with its foreign opponents.

    It has nothing to do with better sensors and better computers. Disperse one sort of fog, and those that are undispersable will remain.

    Just as Hayek’s “local knowledge” remains permanently inarticulable because it is so dispersed and lodged in practices and awareness that is never written down — so the fog of war can never be dispersed, but only overcome haltingly and case by case.

  2. I agree.

    VADM Arthur Cebrowski envisioned reducing the fog of war through the widely misunderstood and now much maligned (usually unfairly by folks too lazy to read Cebrowski firsthand)Network-centric Warfare/ Network-centric Operations. To a great degree, NCW tech helped facilitate and focus the commander’s ability to wield theater-wide military force in near real time in conventional war. Rarely does Cebrowski get credit these days for sharpening the tip of the American spear as he did.

    What Cebrowski did not promise nor could he deliver was the total elimination of fog, friction and uncertainty or that NCW would be useful against low-tech insurgencies or terrorism. Even with conventional war, NCW can be used in a self-defeating way if a commander chooses to use his augmented situational awareness to paralyze the initiative of subordinates.

    Fog will always be with us because the world contains more variables than our minds can ever account for.

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