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«Murphy’s Law is Alive and Well: Clausewitzian Friction on the Modern Battlefield E. P. Visco August 2012 Introduction More Than You Ever Wanted to ...»

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Murphy’s Law is Alive and Well:

Clausewitzian Friction on the Modern Battlefield

E. P. Visco

August 2012


More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Clausewitzian Friction


Why War is Different From the Analysis of War?


On the Battlefield, Is Murphy Still Alive and Well?

Why should you be interested in Friction on the battlefield?

Why examine Friction on the battlefield?

What is Friction on the Battlefield?

Can Friction be considered in analysis of the battlefield?

There is often considerable difference between our predictions (analyses) of the battlefield and the reality of the battlefield. Some reasons for the difference: We don’t really understand the synergy among battle systems (weapons, communications, information, morale, etc.); Our tools for analyses—particularly combat models—are inadequate; We make due with incorrect or incomplete data; We interpret the data we have incorrectly; We focus on ‘things’ rather than people. Perhaps all these reasons combined in different ways.

Understanding the idea of Clausewitzian Friction may contribute to a better understanding of our analytic weaknesses and hence may lead to improvements in our analyses.

Why is it called Clausewitzian Friction? Probably because only Clausewitz, of all the strategists and contributors to the art of war from Sun Tzu through the 19th Century, identified and defined the concept as a significant characteristic of war. How did he come to do that? Perhaps because he was a very smart guy and he knew and learned from some other very smart guys.

He first introduced the idea of friction in war when discussing bureaucratic behavior in the Prussian military hierarchy. In a 29 September 1806 letter to his future wife, Marie von Brühl, Clausewitz said: “…three commanders-in-chief and two chiefs of staff…How much must the effectiveness of a gifted man [referring to Scharnhorst, his mentor] be reduced when he is constantly confronted by obstacles of convenience and tradition, when he is paralyzed by constant friction with the opinions of others.” How does the application of physical phenomenon ‘friction’ fit with Clausewitz’s view of what really goes on during war? A suitable definition of the physical phenomenon is ‘the resistance to motion which exists when a solid object is moved tangentially with respect to the surface of another which it touches or when an attempt is made to produce such motion.’ The first laws of the coefficients of friction were promulgated during the 17th and 18th centuries, so it is highly likely that Clausewitz, a well-read person, was aware of the physical concept and saw it as a suitable metaphor for the explanation of why actual war and theoretical war were so different.1 Following the first remarks on friction, Clausewitz continued to consider the concept;

during a lecture in 1811 at the Berlin war college, he spoke about “the friction of the whole machinery” and referred to two sources of the friction: first, “the numerous chance events, which touch everything” and, second, “the numerous difficulties that inhibit accurate execution of the precise plans that theory tends to formulate.” In an April 1812 Essay to the Prussian Crown Prince (later Frederick William IV), Clausewitz listed eight major sources of ‘tremendous friction’—things that make simplest

plans and actions so difficult to execute in war:

• Insufficient knowledge of the enemy

• Rumors (information gained by remote observation or spies)

• Uncertainty about one’s own strength and positions

• The uncertainties that cause friendly troops to tend to exaggerate their own difficulties

• Differences between expectations and reality

• The fact that one’s own army is never as strong as it appears on paper

• The difficulty of keeping an army supplied

• The tendency to change or abandon well-thought-out plans when confronted with the vivid physical images and perceptions of the battlefield “…Friction was not simply a notion that Clausewitz toyed with from time to time.

Rather, the idea of 1806 grew over the course of more than two decades into a theoretical concept that lies at the very heart of his mature approach to the theory and conduct of war.”2 “By the time Clausewitz died in 1831, his original insight regarding friction’s debilitating effects on the campaign of 1806 had grown into a central theme of the unfinished manuscript that his widow published as Vom Kriege [On War].”3 Clausewitzian Friction Here is the full-blown concept in the version of Vom Kriege, published by his widow following his death, from Book One. On the Nature of War. Chapter 7. Friction in War (p. 119)4 The following quotation is the complete version of Chapter 7.

1 Alan Gropman: “Friction comes from people.” Visco: The physics of friction can be fully [?] described mathematically—once the materials in contact are known. Sometimes physical friction is desirable (e.g., drive belts and pulleys). Neither full mathematical description or desirability is true with the friction in war!

2 Roger Ashley Leonard, ed., A Short Guide to Clausewitz on War, Capricorn Books, 1967.

3 Barry Watts, Clausewitzian Friction and Future War, McNair Paper 52, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, October 1996, 133 pp.

4 The ‘Fog of War’ is not mentioned in Table of Contents.

2 “If one has never personally experienced war, one cannot understand in what the difficulties constantly mentioned really consist, nor why a commander should need any brilliance and exceptional ability. Everything looks simple; the knowledge required does not look remarkable, the strategic options are so obvious that by comparison the simplest problem of higher mathematics has an impressive scientific dignity. Once war has actually been seen the difficulties become clear; but it is still extremely hard to describe the unseen, all-pervading element that brings about this change of perspective.

“Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war. Imagine a traveler who late in the day decides to cover two more stages before nightfall. Only four or five hours more, on a paved highway with relays of horses;

it should be an easy trip. But at the next station he finds no fresh horses, or only poor ones; the country grows hilly, the road bad, night falls, and finally after many difficulties he is only too glad to reach a resting place with any kind of primitive accommodation. It is much the same in war. Countless minor incidents—the kind you can never really foresee—combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal. Iron will-power can overcome this friction; it pulverizes every obstacle, but of course it wears down the machine as well. We shall often return to this point. The proud spirit’s firm will dominates the art of war as an obelisk dominates the town square on which all roads converge.

“Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper. The military machine—the army and everything related to it—is basically very simple and therefore seems easy to manage. But we should bear in mind that none of its components is of one piece; each part is composed of individuals, every one of whom retains his potential of friction. In theory it sounds reasonable enough: a battalion commander’s duty is to carry out his orders; discipline welds the battalion together, its commander must be a man of tested capacity, and so the great beam turns on its iron pivot with a minimum of friction. In fact, it is different, and every fault and exaggeration of the theory is instantly exposed in war. A battalion is made up of individuals, the least important of whom may chance to delay things or somehow make them go wrong. The dangers inseparable from war and the physical exertions war demands can aggravate the problem to such an extent that they must be ranked among its principal causes.

“This tremendous friction, which cannot, as in mechanics, be reduced to a few points, is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance. One, for example, is the weather. Fog can prevent the enemy from being seen in time, a gun from firing when it should, a report from reaching the commanding officer. Rain can prevent a battalion from arriving, make another late by keeping it not three but eight hours on the march, ruin a cavalry charge by bogging the horses down in mud, etc.

3 “We give these examples simply for illustration, to help the reader follow the argument.

It would take volumes to cover all difficulties. We could exhaust the reader with illustrations along if we really tried to deal with the whole range of minor troubles that must be faced in war. The few we have given will be excused by those readers who have long since understood what we are after.

“Action in war is like movement in a resistant element. Just as the simplest and most natural of movements, walking, cannot easily be performed in water, so in war it is difficult for normal efforts to achieve even moderate results. A genuine theorist is like a swimming teacher, who makes his pupils practice motions on land that are meant to be performed in water. To those who are not thinking of swimming the motions will appear grotesque and exaggerated. By the same token, theorists who have never swum, or who have not learned to generalize from experience, are impractical and even ridiculous; they teach only what is already common knowledge: how to walk.

“Moreover, every war is rich in unique episodes. Each is an uncharted sea, full of reefs.

The commander may suspect the reefs’ existence without every having seen them; now he has to steer past them in the dark. If a contrary wind springs up, if some major mischance appears, he will need the greatest skill and personal exertion, and the utmost presence of mind, though from a distance everything may seem to be proceeding automatically. An understanding of friction is a large part of that much-admired sense of warfare which a good general is supposed to possess. To be sure, the best general is not the one who is most familiar with the idea of friction, and who takes it most to heart (he belongs to the anxious type so common among experienced commanders). The good general must know friction in order to overcome it whenever possible, and in order not to expect a standard of achievement in his operations which this very friction makes impossible. Incidentally, it is a force that theory can never quite define. Even if it could, the development of instinct and tact would still be needed, a form of judgment much more necessary in an area littered by endless minor obstacles than in great, momentous questions, which are settled in solitary deliberation or in discussion with others. As with a man of the world instinct becomes almost habit so that he always acts, speaks, and moves appropriately, so only the experienced officer will make the right decision in major and

minor matters—at every pulsebeat of war. Practice and experience dictate the answer:

‘this is possible, that is not.’ So he rarely makes a serious mistake, such as can, in war, shatter confidence and become extremely dangerous if it occurs often.

“Friction, as we choose to call it, is the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.

We shall frequently revert to this subject, and it will become evident that any eminent commander needs more than experience and a strong will. He must have other exceptional abilities as well.”5 5 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976 and 1984 (indexed—names, places, wars, and campaigns only—version).

4 Clausewitz experienced war during the late 18th and 19th centuries; his philosophy derives from that experience. Is friction alive and well on today’s battlefield? Or has technology—e.g., total battlefield awareness—done away with Clausewitzian friction?

A first observation is that friction is a two-way street; it affects the enemy as it does you—and that what counts is differential friction: the difference between the effects of your friction on you and the effects of his friction on him.

Historical Examples of Friction on the Battlefield Before dealing with the question of change brought about by technology, let’s look at some examples of friction on the battlefield in the past.

In January 1863, after a very bad command performance at Fredericksburg, VA, Burnside was replaced as commanding general, Army of the Potomac. ‘Fighting Joe’ Hooker was given command; the nickname came about by a typesetter’s accident and Hooker didn’t particularly like it. Hooker was an admirable staff man; during the winter quarters there were substantial improvements in food, clothing, equipment, training, and hygiene for the troopers of the Army of the Potomac. The same could not be said for the Army of Northern Virginia, also in winter quarters; shortages of clothing, shoes, food, and equipment persisted. By springtime, the Army of the Potomac was not only better equipped with positive changes in morale, but it was also considerably larger than the Army of Northern Virginia, about twice as big.

Hooker’s plan for the spring operations was a double envelopment or pincer attack, with roughly equal forces attacking Lee’s army from the north (vicinity of Chancellorsville) and from the east (Fredericksburg). At the outset, the eastern prong was to be a holding force to pin down major elements of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee’s counter was to recognize the limit of the holding force and thus provide only a minimal force to face the Union troops at Fredericksburg and to be more aggressive in facing the assault from the north.

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