The Fog of War and Other Things

By | September 30, 2020

[September 30, 2020]  The concept of the fog of war was put forward by a Prussian fellow by the name of Carl von Clausewitz with his posthumously published book, Vom Kriege (1832).1  I have a copy of the English version, On War (1833), sitting on my bookshelf.  It is one of the few books I’ve read twice, cover to cover.

“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. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.” –  Carl von Clausewitz

 The idea stems from the fact that leaders frequently are required to take action in circumstances where there is uncertainty in situational awareness.  Fog of War seeks to capture the ambiguity and doubt regarding one’s capability and the adversary’s capability and intent.  Of course, the solution is better intelligence, and good military leaders reduce the fog of war through military intelligence and friendly forces tracking systems.

It’s a handy phrase because it captures the imagination and explains the idea that no one has a perfect command of the facts when making decisions.  More likely, information a leader gets is contradictory, incomplete, and hard to interpret information.  Thus, the fog of war is a reality that cannot be denied.

But if a leader were to base a decision on perfect intelligence, irrespective of the impossibility, that leader would be making delayed decisions.  The mission or tasks would rarely get done promptly.  Those enemies are waiting in the wings to attack you would quickly get inside your decision-making cycle and destroy you.

The circumstances over the Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19), its origins and causes, and what to do about it are an excellent example of how the fog of war works.  The U.S. federal government has been hindered by an incomplete understanding of the virus’ impact on our health and social systems.  Solutions were based on early estimates of the virus that turned out to be wrong, at least in some cases. Political infighting emerged as a spinoff and this has not been good for the country.

In a previous post, I wrote that the fog of war is lethal.  That is undoubtedly true.  If there is one thing we can learn from war, the outcome of any complex situation is unknown, how we will behave is unpredictable, and the more we know, the less we seem to know.  Such unpredictability, combined with the most essential elements of human nature, is a lethal combination.

As leaders gain a clearer picture of any adversary – person, country, or events – strategies can be better developed and tactics created.  That takes time.  And sometimes, time is simply too precious to waste.

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  1. Clausewitz does not use the exact phrase “fog of war.” The exact phrase “fog of war” in the text only dates to 1896, described as “the state of ignorance in which commanders frequently find themselves as regards the real strength and position, not only of their foes, but also of their friends.”  From “The Fog of War,” by British Col. Lonsdale Hale, Royal Engineers (retired).
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

21 thoughts on “The Fog of War and Other Things

    1. Mr. T.J. Asper

      Also good example using the current pandemic as a way to show how the fog of war blinds us to solutions. When you don’t have all the info, decisions sometimes go wrong. Like when Pres Trump said the virus was like the flu … no one knew better. To go back and say he was wrong shows a childish view of what we all knew at the time.

      Reply
  1. Dennis Mathes

    Very informative. No one really knows how much the ‘fog of war’ blinds us to reality until you are there and have to make a key decision.

    Reply
  2. Yusaf from Texas

    Good article, Gen. Satterfield. I would suggest taking this idea much further by elaborating on it over several articles. Thanks.

    Reply
  3. Army Captain

    I would venture that most people would have some difficulty reading the Clauswitz book On War. I found it very difficult. I suggest reading criticisms of the book first before trying to tackle it in full.

    Reply
    1. Roger Yellowmule

      Yep, that has been my point for a long time regarding some of the more complex books recommended in this blog. On War is really good if – and only if – you can get an interpretation by the experts on what Clausewitz is getting at.

      Reply
  4. William DeSanto

    ” The idea stems from the fact that leaders frequently are required to take action in circumstances where there is uncertainty in situational awareness. Fog of War seeks to capture the ambiguity and doubt regarding one’s capability and the adversary’s capability and intent. ”
    Core idea of this article is here, so I pasted it for further comment. Let’s not get distracted from the pres debates last night folks. Thank you. I wanted to note that leaders are always in need of situational awareness. Just like my wife always telling me to be self-aware or stay focused. Similar concept on a larger scale.

    Reply
    1. Willie Shrumburger

      Well said. William, I would add that this is the point of leadership. Stay focused, on target, and be clear about what you want done. Also, stick to your values.

      Reply
    2. Gil Johnson

      Yes, well said and thanks William. Gen. Satterfield has made us, once again, think! And think hard. Another reason to be reading his leadership blog.

      Reply
      1. Dead Pool Guy

        True! This is why I’ve been a long-time reader and fan. I also really like reading the comments section here. There is much to learn all the time here and questions can be asked and answered here as well.

        Reply
  5. Newtown Manager

    This whole idea of ‘fog of war’ is very interesting and helps me put some things into perspective (others have similar problems as I do). I decided to go out and read “On War” as recommended by Gen. Satterfield.

    Reply
    1. The Kid 1945

      I think I’ll do the same. I read a few reviews on Amazon and most agree that the book has considerable value to those in the military and senior leadership positions.

      Reply
  6. Max Foster

    Hey folks, did you see the presidential debates last night? I thought the parties held up pretty well overall. I know that there were very low expectations for Biden but he did okay in my opinion. Most of those watching have zero knowledge of the facts or of what is behind them. Biden was in rare form. When he didn’t know what to say he just called Trump a clown or stupid. Now that’s not how you win an argument. But note, that is not how these debates are judged. They are judged based on how they can push up the emotional angle.

    Reply
    1. JT Patterson

      Yeah, I watched most of it (got home late so started watching at about the 15 minute mark). To me it seemed as if Trump was not as prepared as he should be. Trump is best around crowds. Biden is best reading from a teleprompter. Neither had their props. I was most disappointed in the moderator who kept interrupting Trump. Jesh, this was supposed to be a debate.

      Reply
      1. Watson Bell

        Excellent point JT. Thank you. I too was disappointed in Chris Wallace as a moderator. He even helped Biden finish answering some of the questions he posed.

        Reply
    2. KenFBrown

      Once again, Max, excellent comment and cogent analysis. I watch it too and didn’t really expect to see Trump fail but I did believe Biden would be crushed. That didn’t happen.

      Reply
  7. Doug Smith

    Excellent article, BTW, I loved it. Everyone has to deal with a “fog of war” during their lives but only those with the right experience and education can overcome the most difficult of them all.

    Reply
    1. Tom Bushmaster

      Good comment Doug and so so true! Anyone can make a decision but only those with the right stuff can make the right decisions all the time.

      Reply
      1. Greg Heyman

        So true. Thanks Tom. This is why so many of us are regular readers of Gen. Satterfield’s leadership blog. You can also find some more about Gen. S. out on the Internet.

        Reply

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