Letter From Military History – March 2014

By Stephen Harding
12/27/2013 • MH Editorial

The Best-Laid Plans

A time-honored military adage says, quite accurately, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Even the best prepared and most successful commander—whether he leads clans of battle-tested horsemen or a high-tech combined-arms force expert at delivering shock and awe—may see his finely crafted and well-orchestrated attack stymied by unforeseen circumstances, his assumed victory evaporating before his eyes.

Such battlefield reversals may ensue from the attacker’s overconfidence or his opponent’s skill, preparation or motivation. They might also result from such mundane occurrences as unseasonable weather or vacillations in the political will of a nation’s leaders. Or they might stem from something far less easy to quantify, an elusive property whose merits and faults generals and philosophers have debated for as long as organized human conflict has existed. As military theorist Carl von Clausewitz succinctly put it, “War is the province of chance.”

While fortune—which, like luck, is simply another name for chance—rarely favors the foolish, the ill prepared or the incompetent, even the most accomplished armies may find it an irritatingly capricious companion.

History is replete with battles, campaigns, even entire wars whose outcome seemed at the outset a foregone conclusion yet ended in stunning upset. Barbarian hordes bent on rapine and slaughter, for example, have lost when opponents unexpectedly turned their own tactics against them. National armies have returned victorious from foreign wars only to be thrown into vicious colonial conflicts for which their usual tactics were poorly suited and that ultimately resulted in defeat at the hands of seemingly insignificant guerrillas—or terrorists, depending on one’s perspective.

Despite Napoléon Bonaparte’s oft-quoted preference for “lucky generals” over good ones, chance—or fortune, or serendipity—can never be written into an operations order, and no commander can assume that it, like God, is on his side. And when chance does decide the winners and losers, what do we call that? We call it history.

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