Fog of War

I have heard people reject military service as one of the least valuable of human endeavors. In my experience, these people are left-leaning elitists that would never place themselves in harms way for another human being, or any cause or idea more important than themselves. They are only capable of living in the comfort and safety provided by others. Whenever I heard such disparaging remarks, I immediately know that the speaker has never served in uniform, and most assuredly never served in combat.

Beyond its obvious lethality, war is a complex business and there is nothing easy or simple about it. It does not matter whether the foe represents a first rate nation, or a ragtag militia of a fourth-world cesspool. The battlefield is a crucible where everything capable of overwhelming human senses arrives suddenly, and at once. Only individuals that possess superior intellect, resourcefulness, quick wit, and determination have a chance to survive this onslaught and lead others to victory and safety. Combat without victory is only a temporary respite. The term for uncertainty of situational awareness in combat is Fog of War; within it, one not only finds ambiguities about their own capability, they also find confusion about the capacities of their opposing force.Von Clausewitz 001

“War is an area of uncertainty; three quarters of the things on which all action in war is based are lying in a fog of uncertainty to a greater or lesser extent. The first thing needed here is a fine, piercing mind, to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgment.”

—Carl von Clausewitz

The Marine Corps instructs its personnel to expect murkiness and confusion in combat. In fact, squad leaders begin to worry at anytime events seem to progress as planned. We do not relegate confusion to small unit leaders, for even higher commanders must confront and conquer confusion and doubt. Anxiety stems from not knowing the enemy’s strength, his intention, or his mission. These things will reveal themselves in time and so what must then transpire is reliance on the employment of sound tactics and aggressive, albeit thoughtful action. In the Marines, this equates to locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver. All combat organizations should expect a dearth of information about the enemy, as previously noted.

Here is one good example of the fog of war, recounted from World War I:

On July 14, 1918, the U. S. 30th Infantry held a defensive sector south of the Marne, with its com­mand post in the Bois d’Aigremont. The reinforced 1st Battalion defended an area north of the Fossoy-Crézancy Road. Companies B and C out posted the riverbank from Mézy to the Rû Chailly Farm. The rest of the regiment, reinforced by two additional companies of the 38th Infantry, had organized the Bois d’Aigremont in depth.

Communications between the 1st Battalion and the regiment included two independent telephone lines, one buzzer, one TPS (earth telegraphy), a projector, pigeons, and runners.

Artillery Barrage 001Near midnight on the 14th, American artillery opened a violent bombardment against the German line; a few minutes later, German artillery answered and in a few moments the entire 1st Battalion area was under intense fires. Soon after the German bombardment had gotten under way, the battalion commander reasoned that a long-expected German attack had begun. The signal equipment was tested and found worthless. The CO ordered a rocket sent aloft calling for artillery fire on the north bank of the Marne because it was impossible for anyone to tell whether the American artillery was even firing. He periodically continued to send up rockets, signaling a request for artillery support. The CO also sent runners to his three subordinate companies informing them of an expected German attack; informing them that they must hold their positions.

At 0200, an excited runner arrived at the Battalion CP n from Company C. He reported the presence of an overwhelming German force at the company location and swarms of Germans between the Battalion CP and front line units. A few moments later, another runner arrived reporting the destruction of two full platoons within Company B; the company commander urgently requested reinforcements. The Battalion Commander realized the folly of attempting to move troops through forest in darkness during artillery barrage. Accordingly, he made no move to reinforce Company B. Finally, a messenger arrived from Company A, informing the battalion commander that all of its officers had been killed. Runners sent out for additional information never returned.

At dawn, the battalion commander sent out four officers’ patrols. One of these, commanded by the battalion intelligence officer, returned shortly and reported that a hostile skirmish line was only fifty yards in front of the woods. In view of these alarming reports, the battalion commander decided to move his command post 500 yards to the rear. He believed this location would facili­tate better control and greater access to runners. He sent messengers to subordinate units informing them of this change of location. The Commanding Officer of Company D construed this message to mean that the Battalion was retreating, and so he withdrew his company to the Bois d’Aigremont via Crézancy. The battalion commander was unaware of this movement at the time.

US Soldier WW I 001At this point, the 1st Battalion commander received a message from regiment asking for his report on the situation. From the context of the message, it was clear that the Regimental Commander had not received any of the messages sent back over the previous five hours.

Although the battle had only been in progress for a few hours, the battalion commander had no idea about his own front line, or that of the enemy. He did not know the status of his forward units; he was unaware of the situation on his flanks. He had to decide what to do based on reasoned judgment, and he had to rely on common sense and previous training. While true that situational awareness does provide challenges in the business environment, nothing quite compares with this —which is not atypical of any hostile action.

The battalion commander in the foregoing case was Major Fred L. Walker, who retired as a major general in 1946. I am quite certain that as Major Walker left his regimental commander’s office with maps in hand, he had a very clear idea about the mission assigned to his 1st Battalion. I am equally certain that when the company commanders left Walker’s office with maps in hand, they too had a good idea about their sectors of responsibility. No matter how well the planning process, everything goes to hell the moment the first shot is fired … and this is just the beginning of that terrible fog.


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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

10 thoughts on “Fog of War”

  1. “. . . war is a complex business and there is nothing easy or simple about it.” When what most people know it is based upon the depiction of battles whether that be in movies, through books or, now, video games, what can we expect?


    1. I recently heard someone on a cable program say, “Most Americans are terrified of the ISIS threat, yet a clear majority of Americans have no interest in meeting them on the field of battle and defeating them. Instead, they would rather see Iraqis and Kurds to the fighting.” I certainly do support the notion that this is a fight that must involve Iraqis and Kurds, but the idea of Americans hiding behind others to protect them is utterly repugnant to me. Those who are not willing to fight to preserve their liberty are not deserving of liberty.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A tremendous synopsis of just a few moments of war. While our troops today have some technical advantages, they would revert to the situation Major Walker was in – SNAFU. But the entitled, spoiled mentalities of those who believe men and women in our uniforms are the least value of human endeavors, I’d like to see how soiled their shorts are when they are rescued from jihadists by a young, bloodied man proudly proclaiming, “US Marine Corps!”


  3. Rick Atkinson’s “Liberation Trilogy” of the Second WW is a continuing series of SNAFUs. One wonders how we won at all.

    There is a news clip of a Marine Reservist running toward the collapsed towers on 9/11 shouting “US.Marine here to help.” If I had been in the rubble that would have given me great hope.


    1. My guess is, “Perseverance.” You know better than most that you have to play the cards you are dealt. You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it—if you want to survive.


  4. “In my experience, these people are left-leaning elitists that would never place themselves in harms way for another human being, or any cause or idea more important than themselves. They are only capable of living in the comfort and safety provided by others.”

    YES! Will we ever see another Presidential nominee/candidate who actually served in [regular] military service? I have always thought of that as an important prerequisite, although, of course, not required . YEAH, OK I guess It didn’t do too much for Carter and the “Texas Turd”. Anyway it’s still a [plus] to me!


  5. “…everything goes to hell the moment the first shot is fired…”
    And you KNOW everything is gonna go to hell when you have a butter-bar lieutenant pointing out where the objective is and he’s reading the map upside down. It was a long four days.


    1. … which is why Marine NCOs are so critical to preserving the fighting capacity of our Corps.


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