READING: Carl von Clausewitz: "On War": Friction
Everything is very simple... but the simplest thing is difficult... movement in a resistant medium...
Carl von Clausewitz: On War: Friction: ‘All appears so simple, all the requisite branches of knowledge appear so plain, all the combinations so unimportant…. But if we have seen war, all becomes intelligible; and still, after all, it is extremely difficult to describe what it is which brings about this change, to specify this invisible and completely efficient Factor.
Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war. Suppose now a traveller, who, towards evening, expects to accomplish the two stages at the end of his day’s journey, four or five leagues, with post horses, on the high road—it is nothing. He arrives now at the last station but one, finds no horses, or very bad ones; then a hilly country, bad roads; it is a dark night, and he is glad when, after a great deal of trouble, he reaches the next station, and finds there some miserable accommodation.
So in war, through the influence of an infinity of petty circumstances, which cannot properly be described on paper, things disappoint us, and we fall short of the mark. A powerful iron will overcomes this friction, it crushes the obstacles, but certainly the machine along with them. We shall often meet with this result. Like an obelisk, towards which the principal streets of a place converge, the strong will of a proud spirit, stands prominent and commanding, in the middle of the art of war.
Friction is the only conception which, in a general way, corresponds to that which distinguishes real war from war on paper. The military machine, the army and all belonging to it, is in fact simple; and appears, on this account, easy to manage. But let us reflect that no part of it is in one piece, that it is composed entirely of individuals, each of which keeps up its own friction in all directions. Theoretically all sounds very well; the commander of a battalion is responsible for the execution of the order given; and as the battalion by its discipline is glued together into one piece, and the chief must be a man of acknowledged zeal, the beam turns on an iron pin with little friction.
But it is not so in reality, and all that is exaggerated and false in such a conception manifests itself at once in war. The battalion always remains composed of a number of men, of whom, if chance so wills, the most insignificant is able to occasion delay, and even irregularity. The danger which war brings with it, the bodily exertions which it requires, augment this evil so much, that they may be regarded as the greatest causes of it.
This enormous friction, which is not concentrated, as in mechanics, at a few points, is therefore everywhere brought into contact with chance, and thus facts take place upon which it was impossible to calculate, their chief origin being chance, As an instance of one such chance, take the weather. Here, the fog prevents the enemy from being discovered in time, a battery from firing at the right moment, a report from reaching the general; there, the rain prevents a battalion from arriving, another from reaching in right time, because, instead of three, it had to march perhaps eight hours; the cavalry from charging effectively because it is stuck fast in heavy ground.
These are only a few incidents of detail by way of elucidation, that the reader may be able to follow the author, for whole volumes might be written on these difficulties. To avoid this, and still to give a clear conception of the host of small difficulties to be contended with in war, we might go on heaping up illustrations, if we were not afraid of being tiresome. But those who have already comprehended us will permit us to add a few more.
Activity in war is movement in a resistant medium. Just as a man in water is unable to perform with ease and regularity the most natural and simplest movement, that of walking, so in war, with ordinary powers, one cannot keep even the line of mediocrity. This is the reason that the correct theorist is like a swimming master, who teaches on dry land movements which are required in the water, which must appear grotesque and ludicrous to those who forget about the water. This is also why theorists, who have never plunged in themselves, or who cannot deduce any generalities from their experience, are unpractical and even absurd, because they only teach what every one knows—how to walk.
Further, every war is rich in particular facts; while, at the same time, each is an unexplored sea, full of rocks, which the general may have a suspicion of, but which he has never seen with his eye, and round which, moreover, he must steer in the night. If a contrary wind also springs up, that is, if any great accidental event declares itself adverse to him, then the most consummate skill, presence of mind and energy, are required; whilst to those who only look on from a distance, all seems to proceed with the utmost ease. The knowledge of this friction is a chief part of that so often talked of, experience in war, which is required in a good general. Certainly, he is not the best general in whose mind it assumes the greatest dimensions, who is the most overawed by it (this includes that class of over-anxious generals, of whom there are so many amongst the experienced); but a general must be aware of it that he may overcome it, where that is possible; and that he may not expect a degree of precision in results which is impossible on account of this very friction.
Besides, it can never be learnt theoretically; and if it could, there would still be wanting that experience of judgment which is called tact, and which is always more necessary in a field full of innumerable small and diversified objects, than in great and decisive cases, when one’s own judgment may be aided by consultation with others. Just as the man of the world, through tact of judgment which has become habit, speaks, acts, and moves only as suits the occasion, so the officer, experienced in war, will always, in great and small matters, at every pulsation of war as we may say, decide and determine suitably to the occasion. Through this experience and practice, the idea comes to his mind of itself, that so and so will not suit. And thus he will not easily place himself in a position by which he is compromised, which, if it often occurs in war, shakes all the foundations of confidence, and becomes extremely dangerous.
It is, therefore, this friction, or what is so termed here, which makes that which appears easy in war difficult in reality. As we proceed, we shall often meet with this subject again, and it will hereafter become plain that, besides experience and a strong will, there are still many other rare qualities of the mind required to make a man a consummate general…
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Wonderful Clausewitz excerpt. It reminds me of one of my favorite passages from "War and Peace" where Tolstoy, a fierce opponent of the Great Man theory of history, writes brilliantly about how both friction and inertia constrain and confine commanders' decision. This, after the hugely consequential battle of Borodino in 1812:
"Kutúzov’s wish was to attack next day, and the whole army desired to do so. But to make an attack the wish to do so is not sufficient, there must also be a possibility of doing it, and that possibility did not exist. It was impossible not to retreat a day’s march, and then in the same way it was impossible not to retreat another and a third day’s march, and at last, on the first of September when the army drew near Moscow—despite the strength of the feeling that had arisen in all ranks—the force of circumstances compelled it to retire beyond Moscow. And the troops retired one more, last, day’s march, and abandoned Moscow to the enemy.
For people accustomed to think that plans of campaign and battles are made by generals—as anyone of us sitting over a map in his study may imagine how he would have arranged things in this or that battle—the questions present themselves: Why did Kutúzov during the retreat not do this or that? Why did he not take up a position before reaching Filí? Why did he not retire at once by the Kalúga road, abandoning Moscow? and so on. People accustomed to think in that way forget, or do not know, the inevitable conditions which always limit the activities of any commander in chief. The activity of a commander in chief does not at all resemble the activity we imagine to ourselves when we sit at ease in our studies examining some campaign on the map, with a certain number of troops on this and that side in a certain known locality, and begin our plans from some given moment. A commander in chief is never dealing with the beginning of any event—the position from which we always contemplate it. The commander in chief is always in the midst of a series of shifting events and so he never can at any moment consider the whole import of an event that is occurring. Moment by moment the event is imperceptibly shaping itself, and at every moment of this continuous, uninterrupted shaping of events the commander in chief is in the midst of a most complex play of intrigues, worries, contingencies, authorities, projects, counsels, threats, and deceptions and is continually obliged to reply to innumerable questions addressed to him, which constantly conflict with one another.
Learned military authorities quite seriously tell us that Kutúzov should have moved his army to the Kalúga road long before reaching Filí, and that somebody actually submitted such a proposal to him. But a commander in chief, especially at a difficult moment, has always before him not one proposal but dozens simultaneously. And all these proposals, based on strategics and tactics, contradict each other.
A commander in chief’s business, it would seem, is simply to choose one of these projects. But even that he cannot do. Events and time do not wait. For instance, on the twenty-eighth it is suggested to him to cross to the Kalúga road, but just then an adjutant gallops up from Milorádovich asking whether he is to engage the French or retire. An order must be given him at once, that instant. And the order to retreat carries us past the turn to the Kalúga road. And after the adjutant comes the commissary general asking where the stores are to be taken, and the chief of the hospitals asks where the wounded are to go, and a courier from Petersburg brings a letter from the sovereign which does not admit of the possibility of abandoning Moscow, and the commander in chief’s rival, the man who is undermining him (and there are always not merely one but several such), presents a new project diametrically opposed to that of turning to the Kalúga road, and the commander in chief himself needs sleep and refreshment to maintain his energy and a respectable general who has been overlooked in the distribution of rewards comes to complain, and the inhabitants of the district pray to be defended, and an officer sent to inspect the locality comes in and gives a report quite contrary to what was said by the officer previously sent; and a spy, a prisoner, and a general who has been on reconnaissance, all describe the position of the enemy’s army differently. People accustomed to misunderstand or to forget these inevitable conditions of a commander in chief’s actions describe to us, for instance, the position of the army at Filí and assume that the commander in chief could, on the first of September, quite freely decide whether to abandon Moscow or defend it; whereas, with the Russian army less than four miles from Moscow, no such question existed. When had that question been settled? At Drissa and at Smolénsk and most palpably of all on the twenty-fourth of August at Shevárdino and on the twenty-sixth at Borodinó, and each day and hour and minute of the retreat from Borodinó to Filí."
Book Eleven, Chapter 2 (https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2600/2600-h/2600-h.htm)