I have to apologize to my fellow roundtable participants for my lengthy absence. I will endeavor to catch up, starting with this post.
My background is in 20th century diplomatic and economic history, with an emphasis in the Cold War and related Soviet Studies. Our former Communist adversaries, especially the doctrinaire ideologues among them, were fond of employing a term “correlation of forces” to describe the geopolitical situation as being favorable or unfavorable to some proposed course of action. While it was woodenly uttered Marxist jargon, “correlation of forces” was far from meaningless as a phrase. It was a reminder in that grotesquely ideological world that it was important in affairs of state to calculate rationally. Even the old monster Joseph Stalin was known to bark at his henchmen” This is not a propaganda meeting!” when matters of war were being discussed in council.
Clausewitz devoted Book III of On War to matters of general strategy and he has an important section on the nature of calculation ” Possible Engagements are to be Regarded as Real Ones because of Their Consequences“:
“In both cases results have been produced by the mere possibility of an engagement: the possibility has acquired reality….Even if the whole enterprise leaves us worse off than before, we cannot say that no effects resulted from using troops in this way, by producing the possibility of an engagement; the effects were similar to a lost engagement.
This shows that the destruction of the enemy’s forces and the overthrow of the enemy’s power can be accomplished only as the result of an engagement, no matter whether it really took place or was merely offered but not accepted”
A passage rich in implications.
Clausewitz assumes here that opponents would have rough knowledge of each other’s actions and maneuvers. A position held entirely in secret by one side cannot become part of his enemy’s assessment and calculation. This is entirely logical given the small geographic context of the Western-Central European battlefield in the 18th and 19th centuries when field commanders had a shared understanding of warfare and armies had been raised on precision drill since the days of Gustavus Adolphus. It is also logical for the “higher” level of supreme command, the soldier-statesmen like Frederick the Great or Dwight Eisenhower who had to read situations in warfare like geopolitical, multidimensional, chess many moves ahead of their next, actual, move.
In essence, Clausewitz is explaining how movement of an army to a position of potential conflict forces an opponent to constantly re-calculate the potential impact upon all of their future options and weigh their potential costs. The movement itself forecloses options to both sides that had previously existed immediately before, resources, distance and time imposing constraints on a commander’s freedom of action. The decision tree is re-written. Sufficient velocity movement in strategic zones of operation are themselves enough to create either paralyzing uncertainty or impetuous decision in an adversary.
Where does Clausewitz’s principle of possible engagements equating to real ones begin to break down? Scenarios where the “fog of war” renders the battlefield opaque to the commander’s vision.
Naval battles at close quarters, especially in the ancient world, resembled land battles and were overseen by experienced generals like Pompey, Agrippa or Sparta’s duly appointed Navarch. Conflict on the open ocean was another matter, even as late as the Second World War, the location of the enemy at sea was typically unknown, frequently up until the moment of decision. The endless space of the seas put commanders in the position of playing chess blindfolded. It is telling that Napoleon’s genius failed him in Russia, where the vast steppes created a battlefield that most resembled those of the ocean.
Cultural differences, too, when civilizations are at war, create a cognitive “fog” for commanders. Alien value systems create a “noise” that interferes with the “signal” intended by the offer of engagement by one side to the another. They will not be calculated “right” because the shared understanding of war and the valuation of objectives is much more limited. The Iran-Iraq war dragged on as a Middle-Eastern version of WWI primarily because of the differences in worldview between the leadership of Saddam Hussein’s secular, Baathist, Sunni dominated, Arab, Iraq and the radical Shiism of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary, Persian, Iran. Two countries in the center of the same Muslim civilization! How much greater is the “fog” between Washington and the hills of Pushtunistan where al Qaida’s leaders reside?
This is not to say that Clausewitz’s principle of possible engagement does not exist under conditions of opacity, it just offers far less data to work with for the commander. The “unknown unknowns” predominate.