Clausewitz’s fog and friction and the military transformation fiction

War is and always will be the subject of uncertainty and the unexpected.

Strategic studies have retained the thinking of Karl von Clausewitz at its core. The Prussian General’s understanding of war by reference to the political process saw wars as the 'continuation of politics by other means.' (Clausewitz, 1997 translation) In conflict research, this has become the most widely quoted definition of war. What made Clausewitz’s work ‘On War’ so successful was that he wrote about war by focusing on its general aspects, or more simply, on the spirit of war as he saw it. In this way, war no longer drew on narrow and specific contexts, but rather became understood, as an enduring phenomenon, in general terms.

In the case of the military transformation discourse, Clausewitz has played a crucial role not only because of the relevance of his definitions of war, but also because of the core concepts of ‘fog’ and ‘friction’ of war. Much research on the subject has spoken about changes in military affairs either in the form of evolutions or in that of revolutions. It has advanced the idea of generational changes and conceptualized transformation from various angles ranging from security to technology. Where Clausewitz’s work becomes relevant is in its capacity to acknowledge that despite military transformations, war is and always will be the subject of uncertainty and the unexpected, namely of the ‘fog’ and ‘friction’ of war.

Attempting a statistical study of these concepts, Eugenia Kiesling found that the word ‘friction’ appears thirteen times in ‘On War’. ‘Fog’ is mentioned four times, but interestingly the expression ‘fog of war’ is never explicitly used. Intending the use of ‘fog’ as a synonym for uncertainty, Clausewitz states that 'all action takes place, so to speak, in a kind of twilight, which, like fog or moonlight, often tends to makes things seem grotesque and larger than they really are.' (1997) A careful reading of his work shows that the actions of war are presented as distorted, rather than confused. Uncertainty is referred to directly in relation to ‘fog’, when Clausewitz notes that 'war is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.' (1976 translation) The use of the word ‘realm’ points to the fact that uncertainty is not occasional, but rather imbedded in the enduring nature and character of war itself, in conscious levels of thinking about war. Friction, on the other hand, accounts for the unexpected of the war in practice. The inability to make use of the geographical conditions, or the effects of failed military manoeuvres are difficulties that 'accumulate and produce a friction which no man can imagine exactly.' (Clausewitz, 1997) Clausewitz explains that in war there are elements that cannot be anticipated, and, that their prediction cannot be learnt theoretically.

Co-authored by Bettina Renz. Excerpted from Ballots & Bullets.