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Fog of War

The phrase “fog of war,” introduced by Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in his 1832 book On War, refers to both literal and figurative conditions present during battle.

The former include roiling curtains of dust raised by armies on the move, clouds of greasy smoke from flaming structures or vehicles or bodies, drifting veils of acrid vapor produced by artillery or massed musketry, and the concealing cloak of deliberately released smokescreens. Throughout history such conditions—and the equally disorienting effects of bad weather—have helped or hindered, defeated or delivered contending military forces, in the process negating the best-laid plans and intentions of the combatants.

As disruptive or helpful as the literal fog of war may be in the course of military operations, however, the figurative version is often a more decisive factor affecting the outcome of skirmishes, battles and even wars.

Poor planning or communication, or an inaccurate read of battlefield conditions, can induce leaders to claim victory where none truly exists, thereby influencing the course of a subsequent campaign. Inadequate training and inept leadership can, on contact with the enemy, precipitate the disintegration of a seemingly strong and well-equipped force. The failure to discern an opponent’s intentions or capabilities can lead commanders to discount the threats their forces face, leading to otherwise avoidable catastrophic losses. The breakdown of unit cohesion in the aftermath of a strategically unimportant tactical defeat can turn a momentary setback into a rout. And, of course, the corrosive effect of unreasoning fear can induce blind panic among armies and civilian populations—a panic that at best may lead to the unnecessary expenditure of both blood and treasure, and at worst may result in humiliating defeat. MH