The Fog of War

When Clausewitz talked about the “fog of war”, he meant not only the uncertainty which surrounds specific events on the battlefield, but the overlapping, contradictory aims which combatants strive for. Even objects in war take on different values. Take weapons. Weapons are a particularly popular possession in Yemen just now. Seventy-five people were killed after an arms  factory previously looted by al-Qaeda blew up. The factory had been seized by al-Qaeda on the day previous.  The desire to possess guns in a country in turmoil is a natural one.


But not to everybody. Despite the fact that NATO aims to “protect civilians” from a tyrant, Britain says it will not arm the Libyan rebels. “We are not arming the rebels,” British Defense Minister Liam Fox told BBC television. It might be hard for rebels to topple the Duck of Death without weapons. But there was nothing for it because the UN says you can’t. Fox noted there was a U.N. arms embargo of Libya and “we have to accept that”. Without weapons that means that NATO will have to carry the burden of toppling Khadaffi from 20,000 feet, which they don’t want to do. Besides, if the British tried to arm the rebels they might have to run the NATO blockade, termed ‘Operation Unified Protector’, under Canadian air force Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard.

So without guns and without a direct mandate to actually overthrow the Duck of Death, commanders who are trying to run this kinetic military event have to creatively use what means they have left. Wired says commanders are hoping they convince Khadaffi’s generals to throw in the towel by broadcasting messages from EW aircraft.

On the Sunday chat shows, the administration indicated it was upping the information-operations pressure on Gadhafi’s commanders. “We’re also sending a message to people around him,” Clinton said on “Meet the Press.” “‘Do you really want to be a pariah? Do you really want to end up in the International Criminal Court? Now is your time to get out of this and to help change the direction.’”

Added Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “One should not underestimate the possibility of the regime itself cracking.”


Well it’s been cracked for a long time, although not in the right way. But it’s not just NATO who is engaged in non-kinetic. The EU’s Executive Arm and the French Presidency found their computers and email system recently penetrated by hackers, whom they have not identified.  But in the case of pentrations to the Australian Prime Minister and her  Foreign and Defense Ministers systems the culprits are believed to be Chinese.  Gillard was alerted by US intelligence to the penetration.

In Pakistan, “militants” have shown a decided attachment of the old shoot and behead methods of the past.  A convoy of Pakistani security personnel were ambushed as 14 killed as they were returning to base. Most of the deaths were due to a mortar blowing up in their faces as they returned the “militant’s” fire. Another version of the story has the Pakistani security men killed by friendly fire.  Either way, many of the government soldiers were killed. Elsewhere, the Taliban took 50 Afghan cops hostage. All’s fair in love and — kinetic military events. The Taliban have been setting up for a wave of attacks. They are probably planning to kill civilians in order to force the Americans out. Does it make sense for Afghans to kill Afghans?

Intelligence agents in Wardak province recently seized a truck loaded with explosives bound for Kabul. They captured 10 suicide vests, 1,650 pounds of explosives, 648 remote-controlled devices for bombs and 1,000 meters for detonation wire.  They wanted to make about 500 bombs out of these explosives,” he [a spokesman] said.


Don’t worry. It all makes sense to somebody. Maybe the Taliban. Clausewitz noted that war is defined differently by each of the participants. For the West, the war in Afghanistan may be about building things up. To the Taliban it might just be about tearing things down, returning everything to the 8th century.

the same political object can elicit differing reactions from different peoples, and even from the same people at different times…. Between two peoples and two states there can be such tensions, such a mass of inflammable material, that the slightest quarrel can produce a wholly disproportionate effect—a real explosion.

And as for the stakes, they vary too. For Khadaffi, events in Libya are about his personal survival. About living and dying. To President Obama, they are some kind of humanitarian exercise not worth getting Congress to authorize, just another relief mission in the service of some concept like R2P.  The kinetic side of routine kinetic activity. But even non-kinetic means different things. To NATO, broadcasting messages to Libyan commanders is serious business. To the Chinese, stealing the French President’s and Australian Prime Minister’s emails is all in a day’s work. Different strokes for different folks.

After the President explained the Libyan operation to the public, several high profile persons confessed they didn’t understand a thing. Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton and Donald Trump declared themselves perplexed.

“He did not articulate really what our purpose was except some inconsistent humanitarian effort there,” Palin said on Fox News shortly after Obama’s speech. …

Bolton, one of Obama’s fiercest and most consistent foreign policy critics, was particularly harsh “The speech was a dog’s breakfast as far as I was concerned,” he said on Fox News. “It wasn’t much that was new and what was new was trivial. … I thought it was pathetic.” …

Giuliani professed himself less than impressed. “The president’s speech tonight has made things even murkier than they were before,” he said on CNN. “The whole purpose of this was to clarify our mission. Our mission is just internally contradictory.” …

And Trump voiced concerns about the rebels being aided by the allied airstrikes, raising the specter that they could have dangerous backers, but without offering any evidence.

“I really do want to know these people we’re fighting for, who they are,” he said on CNN. “They call them the rebels like they’re these wonderful guys, but I hear they’re aligned with Iran, I hear they may be aligned with Al Qaeda. … And to be honest, wouldn’t that be really very very sad if we’re bombing all of these things killing all of these people one way or the other and Iran ends up taking over Libya.”


They expected the Libya operation to make sense. But why? War, as Clausewitz observed, can mean different things to different people. We’ve heard from the mind Barack Obama, but we haven’t even heard from the enemy yet.  One of the old Prussian’s keenest insights was that the enemy gets to vote in the definition of war aims. “The essential difference is that war is not an exercise of the will directed at inanimate matter … In war, the will is directed at an animate object that reacts.” The enemy pushes back and is not impressed by speeches from a podium.

Barack Obama may have no intention of widening events, but he hasn’t asked the events. He has especially omitted consulting that redoubtable Irishman Murphy who has been present at every conflict from stone age on down. Clausewitz’s parting advice to statesmen embarked on war is that chance plays a part in all events. For that reason even the simplest war turns out to contain unexpected difficulties. His classic exposition on the Fog of War invoked chance and the complicated “friction” between actors.

Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war….Countless minor incidents—the kind you can never really foresee—combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls short of the intended goal…. The military machine—the army and everything related to it—is basically very simple and therefore seems easy to manage. But we should bear in mind that none of its components is of one piece: each part is composed of individuals,… the least important of whom may chance to delay things or somehow make them go wrong…. This tremendous friction, which cannot, as in mechanics, be reduced to a few points, is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance.


War after all, is not about guns. It is waged by human beings, some of whom think things are simple even when they haven’t got a clue. Palin, Bolton, Giuliani and Trump should be more understanding of Barack Obama. He can’t explain what he’s done. But it’s not his fault. He may not even know what’s he’s done. But he’ll find out.

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