The Fog of War

Well, it’s been a great week for firsts! My first ever book launch and my first interview as an author. I am fortunate to have been noticed by Mick Cook, an Australian artillery officer, who invited me to be interviewed for his podcast ‘The Dead Prussian’.

Students of conflict and military theory will no doubt be aware that the Dead Prussian in question is Carl von Clausewitz, a soldier and military theorists whose seminal work ‘On War’, published after his death in 1831. ‘On War’ is still studied by military thinkers and is required reading for officers as they progress through their careers. Clausewitz’s work is grounded in the fundamentals of inter-State conflict, which has led to its relevance for contemporary soldiers being questioned by some. My view is that whilst the character of conflict will evolve, the nature of conflict will endure, leading to the conclusion that the work should not be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, Clausewitz’s articulation of the difficulties posed by the fog of war and the assertion that war in reality will always fall short of war on paper are two lessons that any aspiring military leader should take on board. The adversarial nature of war means that the enemy will always have a vote in the outcome while uncertainty and chaos will play havoc with the best laid plans.

During my time in Afghanistan, the fog of war affected our operations on several occasions.  During the fighting in Mazdurak, the severe wounding of five men meant that the need to provide life-saving treatment and evacuation became the priority rather than pressing further into the village and becoming vulnerable as a result of our offensive action.  A reader once asked me if this meant that the patrol was pointless, expressing concern that the wounding of five men (including one of my medics) had been a heavy price to pay for such an insignificant gain. It was not. The patrol demonstrated our ability to infiltrate undetected into the enemy’s territory, making them feel less secure.  Whilst we were never going to hold that ground in the traditional sense, what we did achieve was a psychological victory; we could dominate the ground and strike at the enemy at our will. In a conflict in which the battle is as much mental as it is physical, demonstrating such ability was priceless.

Another time, the company was all prepped and ready to go on yet another fighting patrol when the message came through that all operations were cancelled. The reason given was that there were no intensive care beds available in the nearest field hospitals.  Consciously taking the risk of generating casualties at a time when the medical chain could not provide the best possible care was deemed too high a risk.  This is a challenge faced by modern commanders that their forebears would never have needed to concern themselves with.  The power of the media and the value placed on individual lives will have played a part in this decision. I am hesitant to judge the right or wrong of this decision and merely provide it as an example of a friction that is perhaps only faced by commanders who prosecute their campaign at the behest of liberal democratic nations.

I have commented elsewhere that I believe the extensive media coverage of military repatriations at Royal Wootton Basset swayed the public perception of the war in Afghanistan, leading them to believe that the strategic end-state was not worth the financial and physical cost. This belief, an example of the fog of war at home, ultimately led to our accelerated withdrawal from Helmand and the handover to Afghan forces. Ten years after Dr John Reid announced the deployment of British troops into Helmand, the fighting continues, it appears that the region is no better off for our having been there.  Success is notoriously difficult to measure in counter-insurgency. Whilst we won every tactical engagement, no matter what metrics you apply the final outcome feels like a failure.

On Afganistan’s Plains, by Barry Alexander is available in paperback and kindle edition in the US and the UK.

Listen to The Dead Prussian Podcast here.


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