Foggy War

Battle line is drawn over origin - and worth - of a ubiquitous wartime expression.

April 12, 2003|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

It's hard to know how Carl Von Clausewitz would feel now, and not only because he's been dead going on 172 years.

On the one hand, he might feel flattered. Since the beginning of war with Iraq, the media, military officers and commentators have found countless occasions to mention "the fog of war," an expression often attributed to Clausewitz.

On the other hand, Clausewitz, a 19th-century Prussian soldier and author of On War, the most hallowed tome on military theory, never actually used the term.

"Clausewitz neither uses fog of war nor gives fog significant weight in his argument," Eugenia C. Kiesling, a military historian at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., wrote in an article in Military Review two years ago.

She is not the only military historian bemused by the constant use of the phrase and its attribution to Clausewitz. "I have read [On War] carefully, I have taken careful notes on it, and I have taught it for years, and I don't think `fog of war' comes from Clausewitz," says Ira Gruber, a Rice University historian. "On the other hand, people attribute it to him all the time."

Kiesling admits she penned her article - her biting article - in a fit of vexation after two Army colonels completely dismissed her at a war college symposium when she pointed out their mistake in pinning "the fog of war" on Clausewitz.

For a fuming Kiesling, it was time to put an end to those who, out of vanity, ignorance or intellectual sloppiness, misconstrued her dear Clausewitz. Stop attributing "fog of war" to him, she said. In fact, stop using the term altogether.

"I think `fog of war' is generally used pretentiously," she said by phone from West Point last week. "It think it is just a trope."

Trope or not, it seems unlikely it will disappear as long as wars are fought and words are written about them. People relish the term; since the war started, it has appeared in hundreds of articles and broadcasts. It always sounds nice, even if, as Shakespeare wrote, it often signifies nothing.

"Like a beacon shining through the fog of war," a Los Angeles Times reporter writes, "the daring rescue of 19-year-old Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch has instantly become, in Hollywood terms, the first feel-good story of the war."

"U.S. Aid Is Getting Lost In the Fog of War," a Business Week headline proclaims.

"Some may prove out to be really significant," CNN's Aaron Brown says in cataloging the day's war news. "Others may drift away as they often do in the fog of war."

Kiesling chortles over such usages. "It's a collection of idiocy," she says. "It demonstrates that the phrase has become purely ornamental. It seems clever, but it really has no content at all. It is meaningless."

On War, Clausewitz's monumental treatise, is long and complex, Kiesling says, "more often cited than read." Not constrained by what Clausewitz actually said, Kiesling says, people feel free to ascribe what they wish to him. "Fog of war" sounds poetic, even eloquent, she agrees, but she believes use of the term diminishes what Clausewitz actually did have to say.

One of his most important concepts, and the one that many intermingle with the idea of fog, is his concept of "friction" in war.

Clausewitz portrayed battle as enormously unpredictable by its very nature. Warfare does not - will not - unfold according to even the most meticulously laid plans. Too many variables and unknowns are in play, too many separate and moving parts, too many possible eventualities.

Some friction relates to human performance - how will fear affect your troops and theirs in battle? Or exhaustion. Or zeal. (How hard will Iraqis fight?) Some friction applies to the purely mechanical - a truck carrying reserves has a flat tire and arrives at the front lines hours later than expected, a computer glitch grounds an F-15 fighter jet. Some friction involves the vagaries of weather, a sandstorm, for example - or actual fog.

"Friction," Clausewitz concludes, "is the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult."

The successful commander, he says, must not only appreciate that friction is a defining attribute of warfare that he must overcome. He is also "not to expect a standard of achievement in his operations which this very friction makes impossible."

Many use the term "fog of war" to refer to the general murkiness of information during a conflict. That is true enough of warfare, Kiesling says, but in using the term, they give it far greater weight than all the other challenges a commander must overcome. Clausewitz, she says, did not regard faulty or bad information as singularly debilitating for a commander compared to everything else that he had to face. It is just one more difficulty to overcome.

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