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?