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Clausewitz’s Fog and Friction and the Military Transformation Fiction


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). 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). 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 manoeuvre 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.

Today, the relevance of Clausewitz’s thinking for countries’ ongoing quests to transform their armed forces into militaries suitable to the current security environment is as clear as ever. There was perhaps a brief moment of apparent clarity with regard to where efforts at transformation ought to be leading at the beginning of the 1990s. During the 1991 Gulf war the world was stunned to witness US military forces deploying previously unseen technologies that allowed them to achieve military victory in record time and with next to no need for risking its soldiers on the ground in traditional battle. Subsequent debates on military transformation in the US and elsewhere centred on the move from quantity to quality, where technological sophistication and precision would allow for dramatic cuts in the size of the armed forces.

The experience of the US military in Iraq seemed to offer a war-winning formula to serve as a guide to others for successful military transformation in the post-Cold war era. This formula became known in general parlance as the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, where ever more sophisticated technology would enable states to network their forces into a ‘system of systems’ that could overcome friction and the fog of war and provide an answer to any political and strategic problem. As is well known, however, it did not take long for world events to interfere with this apparently perfect solution. Protracted ethnic conflicts in the Balkans throughout the 1990s and the drawn-out wars in Afghanistan and Iraq served as a stark reminder that friction and uncertainty were enduring features of war, making undue technological optimism was unwarranted, if not dangerous.

Criticism of the merits of the revolution in military affairs and of related techno-centric concepts, such as network-centric warfare, has now become increasingly common. Calls have been made by some to ‘transform transformation’ away from the focus on technology and superior firepower and for a reorientation back towards the need for ‘boots on the ground’. Something about the character of war has been changing, but the exact nature of these changes and their implications for the utility of military force today and into the future is far from clear. What is far more certain is that Clausewitz’s concepts will continue to stand the test of time. Military transformation is a process that can never be completed. Fog and friction are enduring features of war’s character and will continue making the quest for a perfect war-winning formula an impossible undertaking.

Vladimir Rauta is the Editor of ‘Conflict & Security‘. He is a second year doctoral researcher in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on the phenomenon of contemporary forms of warfare, namely proxy warfare. 

Follow Vladimir on Twitter on @VladimirRauta

Dr Bettina Renz is a lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, as well as the Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Conflict, Security and Terrorism. Dr Renz’s main area of research is Russian security and defence policy. Specifically, she has researched civil-military relations, media-military relations, security sector reform, and the perception of security threats in contemporary Russia





Published inConflict & Security

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