[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.
- 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).