Clausewitz, in his seminal work On War, introduced the concepts of fog, friction, and chance. If, as Clausewitz claimed, warfare is an extension of politics by other means, and if man is a political animal, then logic concludes war at its very foundation is a uniquely human phenomenon full of these three elements. Moreover, fog, friction, and chance are critical to the centrality of violence in warfare. Fog is the uncertainty in war, friction is the countless minor incidents that make the simple very difficult, and chance is the unpredictable circumstances that consistently occur in war.
When national leaders argue for the use of land power, and the nation follows suit by employing ground forces to resolve a crisis or conflict, they are employing the most unpredictable weapon in the strategic arsenal: the human. As strategic planners and leaders make the argument for using land power to solve our nation’s problems, they have a responsibility to mention the risks land power entails. Moreover, employing “boots on the ground” should no more be recognized as a solution to the challenges born of fog, friction, and chance in warfare than the latest precision-guided munition or cyber gadget developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The commitment of ground forces is the ultimate expression of national will; it commits time, blood, and treasure, and every measure should be considered to ensure it is not the first, nor the last resort, but the correct resort.
As described in the recently-published Army Operating Concept, American military power is indeed joint power. The decision to employ joint power should reflect the consideration of a number of factors, to include the national interest at stake (which may also include the interests of our partners) and the political risk involved. Limited ends further constrain limited means. The commitment of ground forces is the ultimate expression of national will; it commits time, blood, and treasure, and every measure should be considered to ensure it is not the first, nor the last resort, but the correct resort. Indeed, it is paramount to understand that once the nation commits major land forces to execute decisive operations, a commitment to follow on phases of an operation is sure to follow.
Moreover, when committing land forces to a conflict, one should understand that the commitment and expense might last for decades. It may be in the form of physical presence such as Iraq, Kosovo, Germany, or Japan, or in expenditures. With regard to the latter, the Department of Veterans Affairs is still providing benefits 65 years after the end of the Second World War. Battles may last days and weeks, but Post Traumatic Stress and other battle-related physical and psychological maladies will last a lifetime.
Indeed, not only does the employment of land power not guarantee a successful outcome any more than launching Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles from afar, introducing humans into the conflict carries with it its own risks to the conflict and to the nation. With every additional boot on the ground, the fog, friction, and chance in warfare increase. Humans are unpredictable.
Ultimately, the placement of soldiers or marines on the ground does not eliminate the fog of warfare.
As we can see from the past thirteen years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the United States puts hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the ground, outcomes at the three levels of war (tactical, operational, and strategic) become all the more unpredictable. Precision-guided close air support can be strike the wrong target and kill people attending a wedding or a funeral if that’s where its directed, just as soldiers can fire at a non-threat car approaching a checkpoint or following too closely to a convoy. Ultimately, the placement of soldiers or marines on the ground does not eliminate the fog of warfare. Moreover, as witnessed in our recent conflicts when precision-guided munitions following ground-based laser designation engage the wrong target, the problem is as much a land power issue as it is an air power issue.
According to Human Rights Watch, over the past decade in Afghanistan, instances of civilian and Afghan Security Force casualties from allied aircraft were often the outcome of allied air power responding on behalf friendly troops in contact. The fog of battle applies to both air and land power in these situations; distinguishing between the two creates a false dichotomy. In other words, humans on the ground, operating with the fog and friction of warfare can lead to the terrible outcomes often attributed to air power alone.
Humans are fallible, and never more so than in war. Fallibility, however, is not always limited to the dichotomy between those who earn the Medal of Honor and war criminals.
Not only does the fog of warfare remain thick when humans are sent into conflict, but the friction created by actions of ground forces remains unmitigated. It seems war crimes occur on every battlefield, so believing every American soldier who deploys to combat will fight in an ethical manner is delusional. When making the decision to employ “boots on the ground,” leadership should honestly acknowledge the risk of war crimes, and in today’s age of social media recognize these incidents are easily broadcast for the world to see. Each of these incidents adds to the friction we must overcome to achieve our strategic objectives. Contemporary examples of this include Abu Ghraib, Nasoor Square, and Yusifiyah. For every Dakota Meyer or William Swenson, we have a Steven Green or Robert Bales whose tactical actions have dire strategic consequences. Humans are fallible, and never more so than in war. Fallibility, however, is not always limited to the dichotomy between those who earn the Medal of Honor and war criminals. Fallibility is not always a conscientious choice in war. When choosing the “boots on the ground” option as a solution to our national problems, morally ambiguous actions that lead to the scenarios of Khosrow Sofia and Tarok Kolache tend to occur.
Additionally, the employment of combat power today requires more than just soldiers and marines on the ground. Under the current U.S. way of warfare, land power and the employment of forces to control land over sustained periods of time demands the use of contractors and private military firms. Again, when leadership discusses the number of “boots on the ground,” they must acknowledge these individuals. From an adversary or foreign nation point of view, the distinction between a contractor and soldier is irrelevant. S/he is a person on the ground advancing U.S. foreign policy. Moreover, when the U.S. conducts coalition operations, we assume the fog, friction, and chance that partner nation members bring into the conflict. Not only should these numbers count, but they are a factor in the overall fog, friction, and chance on the battlefield. Indeed, war crime incidents over the past fifteen years have also included contractors. Nasoor Square, Abu Ghraib, and the sexual trafficking incidents in Bosnia conducted by Dyncorps employees are but a few examples. Humans making the wrong tactical decisions in warfare often contribute in aggregate to strategic consequences. Sometimes these are a result of true malevolent intent. In other cases, these situations arise pursuant to the human condition of cognitive frailty, but regardless both exhibit the truth in the fog, friction, and chance.
War is absurd. Most everything that occurs in combat is absurd. Despite the absurdity of war, the decision to wage it must remain subordinate to rational policy. Rational policy should consider all that occurs when humans are placed into combat, regardless of where they fight in the air, land, or sea.
War is absurd. Most everything that occurs in combat is absurd. Despite the absurdity of war, the decision to wage it must remain subordinate to rational policy. Rational policy should consider all that occurs when humans are placed into combat, regardless of where they fight in the air, land, or sea. The more humans that are thrown into combat the more fallible souls there are in the conflict. The decisions of individuals involved in combat operations create fog, friction, and chance. The most accurate books on warfare are not the memoirs of retired generals such as Tommy Franks, but the fictional novels like The Naked and the Dead and Slaughterhouse Five. Each of us in combat is subject to our own faults and the baggage we carry with us into the combat zone that no amount of training will ever solve. Fallible humans create the chances for absurd scenes, be it a general officer in charge of a prison claiming she had no influence on what happened there, or the execution of a soldier for stealing a teapot in the midst of a city of ruin. War can bring out the very best, and simultaneously, the very worst in humans. The nation that opts for the use of land power in war should be prepared for both.
The employment of land forces is indeed the strongest and loudest commitment the U.S. can make to our partners and allies, and is essential when an enemy must be destroyed or a regime overthrown.
The employment of land forces is indeed the strongest and loudest commitment the U.S. can make to our partners and allies, and is essential when an enemy must be destroyed or a regime overthrown. But we must be cautious in our advancement of ideas pertaining to land power, especially that “boots on the ground” is any more a panacea to our nation’s problems than air strikes, precision-guided munitions, or even economic sanctions. No specific element of national or military power has universal application. The use of land forces should be measured against the nation’s interests and policy ends, and balanced in complement with what can be used from other domains and services. We should take good measure to know and understand that fog, friction, and chance do not end when you put boots on the ground; in fact, doing so can increase these elements, paradoxically complicating the crisis. This is not to create a dichotomy between land forces and other forms of power, but there should be a recognition that the use of land power may not apply universally, and that when it is applied it has a real cost exacerbated by fog, friction, and chance.
Strategic thinkers from Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie to Lieutenant General (retired) Daniel Bolger generally agree that to control an area or a population, you need a human on the ground with a gun. This control carries with it a compelling argument for the use of land forces. However, controlling the land or population of a foreign nation rarely lasts forever in the modern world. As Bolger wrote in his recent book, in a prolonged conflict, the home team tends to win. When Israeli Defense Forces invaded Lebanon in 1982 to root out terrorism, the subsequent occupation lasted 18 years. This period of occupation would see the rise and institutionalization of Hezbollah, an organization now solidly in control of parts of Lebanon. Moreover, the commitment of land forces by Israel created a “Catch-22.” Each instance of relative peace and calm meant ground forces were effective and required to stay to maintain security. Each instance of violence meant ground forces were required to quell the disorder. The decision to apply ground forces to a problem should consider the risk of becoming a self-licking ice cream cone. This type of experience is not unique to the State of Israel.
…the use of land forces is always messy, and should never become a panacea for American strategic thought.
The U.S. has committed land power on numerous occasions over the past century. At times, land power, as a part of all elements of national power, was committed properly. Examples here include both World Wars and Operation Desert Storm. Juxtaposed against these examples are Vietnam, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Land power can bring a quick and decisive end to a conflict, but incurs a risk of rapid escalation of a conflict creating the conditions for long-term quagmire at great cost to the nation. Recently, the United States has employed land forces to combat Ebola in West Africa and to reassure our Polish and other NATO allies when Russia invaded Ukraine. In both circumstances, land power was essential to advance American interests. On the other hand, some have argued for an increase in American land forces to combat the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL).
When President Obama defined his strategy to the nation of relying on coalition air strikes and the specific commitment of Special Forces, some criticized the strategy for not employing a decisive number of “boots on the ground” to crush ISIL. Moreover, some asserted the President did not understand the nature of warfare. But those same pundits must acknowledge the use of land forces is always messy, and should never become a panacea for American strategic thought. If the past thirteen years of war has taught policy makers anything, it is that the use land forces is the ultimate expression of political will, and placing men and women in the unforgiving and unpredictable circumstances of war is never without tradeoffs, including great cost.
Daniel Sukman is a strategist in the US Army, a Military Fellow at the Project for International Peace & Security (PIPS), and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the DoD, or the U.S. Government.
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 “Troops in Contact” Airstrikes and Civilian Deaths in Afghanistan.” Human Rights Watch. September 2008. Accessed 17 December 2014.http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/afghanistan0908web_0.pdf
 Joshua Foust. 2011. “How Short-Term Thinking is Causing Long-Term Failure in Afghanistan.” The Atlantic. Accessed 16 December 2014.http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/01/how-short-term-thinking-is-causing-long-term-failure-in-afghanistan/70048/?single_page=true