Reflection on Clausewitz Chapters 4-8: Elements Within the Fog of War
Chapter 4: Of Danger in War
This is a very short chapter, which should be read to every troop in Basic Training; Clausewitz shows his poetic side, illustrating the chaos and horror which a green soldier is going to encounter upon meeting real danger for the first time.
Chapter 5: Of Bodily Exertion in War
His first statement is an elocution of the cold, wet, tired, hungry mantra that ever soldier knows; I wonder if he originated it? He points out that while this is not the objective truth of soldiering, it is certainly the subjective truth. Physical exertion is one of the great unknowns; take Napoleon’s defeat it Russia, worn down by the elements. Don’t underestimate the mental toll that physical exhaustion takes.
Chapter 6: Information in War
“Most information in war is contradictory, even more is false, and the majority is of a doubtful character.” Paraphrased for brevity. Sound judgement, drawn from a broad understanding of men and machines, guided by probability, is necessary in an officer. If you’re lucky, the balance of contradictory reports will point towards a certain commonality. If you’re not, the false reports will all agree with one another.
Most reports are false, and timidity will exacerbate this – as men are more prone to lend credence to a negative than a positive. (Hmm… I wonder about this statement. While I lean towards being the cynic, most people are happy to drop quarters into slot machines.) The commander must stand like a rock, against the breaking waves of negative information. If the commander is new or inexperienced, and not of a buoyant disposition, he must brace himself by leaning towards hope, rather than inclining to fear. Self-doubt is normal; the senses overwhelm. Ordinary men who follow the opinions of others will find themselves frozen at the first blush of contradiction. This is why a commander must be so thoroughly self-possessed. Don’t mistake the foreground for the horizon.
This is one of the chief gulfs between conception and horizon.
Chapter 7: Friction in War
“Everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Those who haven’t seen it, have difficulty imagining it. “So in War, through the influence of an infinity of petty circumstances, which cannot properly be described on paper, things disappoint us, and we fall short of the mark.” Think of the difference between managing a company and leading an army. With a company, all of your employees’ personal issues are exported to the 16 hours where they’re out of the office. With a military, you’re responsible for these men 24/7 – their food, their accommodations, their petty grievances with one another, their laziness and boredom. Or think of the strategy game where everything always works according to plan; you have the right ammunition, the terrain is as it appears, and your soldiers understand your orders. It looks simple on paper, but the reality is a nightmare to behold.
“Activity in War is movement in a resistant medium.” Teaching war is like teaching swimming on dry land; the armchair theorists asks “Why don’t you just walk?” Experience and strong will are prerequisites for becoming a great General.
Chapter 8: Concluding Remarks
Danger, exertion, information, and friction are the four elements which make up the “fog of war”. The only oil which relieves this friction is an army habituated to war. Habit, training, and focusing on the basics can serve as a passable replacement. Training in the field is a weak substitute to war itself, but it surpasses the army which only trained in the movements.
Do not let your soldiers encounter something on the battlefield they have never seen before; even if they have only seen it once, in training, it will nonetheless be a known quantity. Exchange programs with other militaries who have recently seen war is also valuable. Even if they’re a small minority, their presence will be felt.
This is the end of Book I: On the Nature of War. Next up is Book II: On the Theory of War.