One of the more useful and intriguing concepts that we have to deal with in the study of military history is the fog of war . This fog of war, as might be imagined, takes many different forms and is itself a matter worthy of discussion. After all, the fog of war is one of the key elements of what prevents the grand strategies of armies from being realized on the ground, and it is something we would do well to consider as military strategy is merely the most ferocious of strategies in general. It is is in this light, therefore, that we will look at the fog of war as a concept from two points of view. First, we will look at the physical fog of war, and then we will look at the fog of war from a mental and conceptual level. Hopefully by the end of this brief discussion we will have at least some idea of some of the kinds of of fogs that can affect our own lives.
It is perhaps fairly natural that a great of attention should be paid to the literal fog of war, as this is admittedly pretty extensive. During the Battles of Perryville and Five Forks during the Civil War, for example, acoustic shadow had a dramatic effect on the battle. In the first case, the sounds of battle could not be heard by nearby units, which meant that the battle that was going on could not be heard by nearby units that could reinforce, and as a result a vast portion of the Union army never participated in the battle at all because they didn’t know it was going on. In Five Forks, the consequences affected the Confederate side, as the leaders of the rebels went to a shad bake and their leaderless soldiers were dealt a decisive defeat that led to the loss of Richmond and the surrender of the Robert E. Lee’s army after that. Pickett, of course, the rebel commander, was not viewed particularly highly for this dereliction of duty.
Besides this, there is a type of fog of war that goes on between the ears of people involved in war. We have already discussed one example of this above, where the acoustic shadow merely exacerbated the mental fog that led Pickett to leave troops in the middle of a battle in order to attend a shad bake. Nor is this the only example of the fog of war between the ears of military commanders that has drastically affected the course of warfare. Examples could be multiplied of occasions where people felt the pressure of command weighing on them to the extent that they were unable to do anything productive because they could not think straight. Some of these have medical causes–witness Joseph Hooker’s dazed post-concussive behavior at Chancellorsville, for example, which is something that a later generation would have a great deal of sympathy for. At other times, though, the fog of confusion is a result of moral cowardice, the fear of making the wrong decision that paralyzes many people into making no decision at all, which is far worse than making a mistake but doing something in many cases. It is my belief that a great deal of the fog of war that is complained about is a mental fog and not a physical one, even if this mental fog is not always a matter of personal or moral judgment.
There is yet another cause of fog of war, though, that is worthy of discussion, especially because it is particularly relevant to our lives on a regular basis. Charles B. McDonald is best known among readers of military history for his insightful little book Company Commander, which details his life as a WWII company commander from D-Day through the Battle of the Bulge. This same man was later promoted and wrote a thoughtful large history of the Battle of the Bulge that made reference to his own experiences in a subtle and thoughtful way. Warfare is highly contingent and an activity that depends on the behavior of others and not only oneself. In that sense it is much like business and sports and chess and other activities where there is a high degree of competitiveness and an actively thinking and acting and reacting opponent. In such situations there is a fog of war in terms of the lag between thinking and acting. To some extent there is a delayed reaction of this sort within ourselves. This is even more true of organizations and institutions where there is a significant delay between the understanding of the facts on the ground and the devising and revising of plans and strategies to overcome that. Such gaps in decision loops can be immensely dangerous in military operations.
Having briefly discussed the problem of the fog of war, it is important to note at least some parallels that may be drawn among these various types of fog. The physical fog of war often reflects questions of physical terrain, where there are limitations in the ground that make it hard to understand the conditions nearby. Hills and valleys and bodies of water and trees and so on shape our ability to understand what is around us. The mental fog of war has the same kind of affect, but it does not affect us in terms of our ability to gain the sense data itself from the outside world but rather affects our own ability to work with it and to make decisions and come to conclusions about it. The net result is the same in that we are left unaware of our surroundings and of what to do. The third one is the one that allows for the most profitable solution, in that networks of information gathering and communication can be strengthened. That is not to say it is easy to make these changes but that it is at least possible to do so. There is enough fog we have to deal with in life–we should at least improve those areas where we can.
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