Thursday, November 19, 2009

What will we see when he fog of war clears?

"Fog of war" is a term used to describe the level of ambiguity in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations.

The term is ascribed to the Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote:

"The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently -- like the effect of a fog or moonshine -- gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance."


The term seeks to capture the uncertainty regarding one's own capability, adversary capability and adversary intent during an engagement, operation or campaign.

With imperfect information, decisions must sometimes be made in ignorance or on hunch or speculation.

Deadlines and the press of events make it impossible to wait for certainty.

Such is the case when a President makes decisions on Afghanistan.


Seeking guidance from von Clausewitz

Journalists. as well as soldiers, also must perennially struggle with the fog.

They must report under deadline with limited information from incomplete sources -- with the full knowledge that their reports may well be at least partly wrong when the fog clears.

For almost everyone the fog of war makes decisions even more of a gamble.


An entire nation can be in a fog when at war...

...if there is confusion over objectives, the intentions of the enemy, the strategy to adopt in relation to the enemy, how many resources to commit -- indeed over who is the enemy.

Such is America today -- full of debate, full of uncertainty, awaiting a President's decision, a President's evaluation of the terrain, the enemy, the strategy.

A nation full of rhetoric, a nation debating the intentions of Islam, the nature of terror...

A nation of politicians and broadcasters grandstanding to steal votes and ratings, power and profits.

The louder the language, the denser the fog.

Now we have a nation buffeted by fear, by uncertainty, by hope, and paranoia.

Yet among many people an indescribable calm.

Vast parts of the country untouched by war -- with military age "children" who never pick up a gun.


The fog of war can cloud a President or a general's view.

Or the view of any American.

It can obscure hidden opportunities or hidden perils.

Looking out over the battlefield of America's overseas military campaigns, it is tempting to see what one wishes to see or what one fears to be the case.

To justify one's view of the battlefield, one's view of the world...with imagined shadows on the wall.


It can be argued President Obama is wise to take his time, to assess and plan systematically, to try to penetrate the fog.

To decide the nature of the enemy, how many troops to move and to where.

A question: how much time does he have -- or must he and his staff, like General Joseph Johnston below, make key decisions in sharply limited span?

Paradoxically one result of delay may be a more anxious nation as a air of uncertainty grows.

What will we see when the fog of war finally clears?

From "Fog of War," the Life
of Robert S. McNamara

McNamara's eleven lessons of war

  1. Empathize with your enemy
  2. Rationality will not save us
  3. There's something beyond one's self
  4. Maximize efficiency
  5. Proportionality should be a guideline in war
  6. Get the data
  7. Belief and seeing are often both wrong
  8. Be prepared to reexamine your reasoning
  9. In order to do good, you may have to engage in evil
  10. Never say never
  11. You can't change human nature

Let's go back to the last
Confederate attack on the Union:

Bentonville, NC, March 19-22, 1865;
A Confederate commander struggles with
the "fog of war"


That day -- as four Rebel commands gathered in North Carolina -- General Joseph Johnston traveled to Smithfield to form the hodgepodge Army of the South.

After evacuating Wilmington in February and resisting Schofield at Kinston on March 8-10, Gen. Braxton Bragg finally had arrived at Smithfield with Maj. Gen. Robert Hoke's Division (Army of Northern Virginia)...

Hampton's cavalry was split to monitor both wings of Sherman's army. The proud remnants of the Army of Tennessee were slowly trickling into Smithfield from the west, having departed Tupelo, Mississippi, by rail in mid-January...

Others were still on the way.

As his motley units converged, Johnston waited anxiously for news.

Was the enemy moving on Raleigh or Goldsboro?

From his position at Smithfield, Johnston could swing west or southeast to block the way to either destination.

Lacking sufficient numbers for a decisive engagement, however, Johnston needed favorable ground from which to tackle one wing of the Union army while the other was beyond supporting distance. The clock was ticking...

Desperate for news, Johnston fired off inquiries to his subordinates:

"Something must be done tomorrow morning," he pushed Hardee on March 17, "and yet I have no satisfactory information."

He then queried Hampton for specifics on the enemy's position, strength, and relative distance.
"[G]ive me your opinion," urged Johnston, "whether it is practicable to reach them from Smithfield on the south side of the [Neuse] river before they reach Goldsborough."

General Joseph E. Johnston


When the fog from the guns clears, what is the view?
Results of Artillery at Bentonville

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