Wars are not only ‘a continuation of politics by other means’, as the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote: they are extreme cases of the wider problem in life of taking decisions in conditions of uncertainty, planning for the future despite knowing that the future will not go according to plan.
To quote another famous military theorist, Sun Tzu (c.544-496 BC):
There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune on his army: By commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey… By attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army… By employing the officers of his army without discrimination, through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to circumstances.
In times of war, military operations are, among other things, battles between ignorance and knowledge, attempting to keep the enemy ignorant of one’s plans while trying to discover theirs. As the Duke of Wellington liked to say, ‘the whole art of war consists in getting at what is on the other side of the hill’. The penalty for failure is high: war is a zero-sum game in which rapid response to the enemy’s moves is crucial, and errors are swiftly punished.
In war, both sides suffer from ignorance: the victorious commander is the one who makes fewer (or lesser) mistakes, thanks to being better informed. For example, during Napoleon’s campaign against the Russians in 1806-1807, he made a ‘false assumption’ at the Battle of Jena, misjudging the position of part of the Prussian forces. Four months later, at the Battle of Eylau, it was the turn of the Russian commander, Theophil von Bennigsen, who was unaware that Napoleon had used up his reserves and so missed an opportunity for victory.
The fundamental question of whether battles and wars can be won by planning remains controversial. On one side, in two famous 19th-century novels, Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma (1839) and Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869), battles – Waterloo in the first case and Borodino in the second – are presented as sheer chaos in which everyone is equally ignorant of what is happening more than a few yards away. On the other side, some commanders, notably Napoleon and Wellington, appear to have exerted a considerable degree of control over the battles they won.
Wellington, armed with his telescope, would look for a hill or a tower from which to observe the lie of the land and the position of the enemy, then move round the battlefield on horseback, responding to both threats and opportunities. Wellington was ‘adept at absorbing information’, while ‘his powers of concentration were prodigious’, and he put these qualities to good use.
For their part, Stendhal and Tolstoy may have loaded the dice in favour of their chaos theory by presenting the two battles to their readers through the eyes of observers who were ignorant of war. Nonetheless, their testimonies are worth taking seriously because both of them had experience of battle: Stendhal, a former lieutenant in a regiment of cavalry, served in Napoleon’s army in Russia in 1812; while Tolstoy served as an officer in the artillery in the Crimean War.
The two novelists’ emphasis on chaos received support from a later military theorist, Colonel Lonsdale Hale, the Englishman who coined the memorable phrase ‘the fog of war’. Hale described this fog as ‘the state of ignorance in which commanders frequently find themselves as regards the real strength and position, not only of their foes, but also of their friends’. Two famous battles in which Napoleon was in command reveal both ignorance and planning: Austerlitz and Waterloo. At Austerlitz, the position of the Austro-Russian army, ‘based on erroneous assumptions regarding the French strength and intentions’, placed it ‘in a situation where defeat was likely from the outset’. As the fog lifted, Napoleon, observing from the Zuran Hill, was able to plan his moves and to modify them in rapid response to those of the enemy. Although the French army was outnumbered, Napoleon and his generals made good use of ‘local numerical superiority’. As Tsar Alexander admitted afterwards: ‘you were everywhere twice as numerous as we’.
Before Waterloo, Wellington was uncertain about Napoleon’s intentions. When he learned the true direction of the French forces, he burst out: ‘Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours’ march on me.’ On the battlefield, Wellington expected an attack on his flank that did not in fact occur. Nevertheless, he was able to respond adequately to French challenges until the arrival of the Prussian forces placed victory within his reach.
Battles may be lost owing to different kinds of ignorance. One is the result of arrogance: underestimating the enemy. A vivid medieval example is the Battle of Crécy, where French knights did not take English bowmen seriously and were killed trying to ride them down.
Another kind of ignorance is the failure to keep up with new developments in military technology, including unawareness that the enemy has guns capable of firing more rapidly, more accurately or at a longer range than your own. What was once an effective tactic, the charge for instance, can become suicidal, as the Charge of the Light Brigade (1854) and Pickett’s Charge (1863) remind us.
The charge of the British light cavalry against Russian guns took place at the Battle of Balaclava, during the Crimean War. The charge into the so-called ‘Valley of Death’, apparently the result of the misunderstanding of an order, led to the destruction of the brigade. In contrast, Pickett’s Charge was an infantry attack by the Confederates at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. In the attack, under heavy fire, half the attackers were either killed or wounded. The Confederates lost the battle, and soon they lost the war as well.
These charges took place at a time when improvements in artillery were making attacks of this kind an invitation to a massacre, even in situations where the two sides were equally matched. However, there was no equality at the Battle of Omdurman (1898), an encounter between the British army, with their cannon and Maxim machine-guns, and the followers of the Mahdi (an Arab Messiah), armed with swords and spears. The Arabs may well have been ignorant of the consequences of charging at guns. To quote Hilaire Belloc’s sarcastic verses, ‘Whatever happens, we have got/The Maxim gun and they have not’.
Stratagems and surprises
In these cases, the artillery was visible, but it has sometimes been possible to conceal it, leading the enemy into a devastating trap. Some of the most famous commanders in history – Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, Napoleon, Nelson – were masters of deception. Hannibal, for instance, destroyed a larger Roman army at Cannae by devising a trap. He presented an apparently weak centre to the enemy to encourage an attack that allowed him to surround the attackers with a pincer movement.
Hannibal’s stratagems were admired by generals in the 19th and 20th centuries, among them Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, architect of Prussian victories against the Austrians and the French; Alfred von Schlieffen, the chief of the German General Staff, whose plan of attack was followed in 1914; and, more recently, Norman Schwarzkopf, the US commander in the First Gulf War (1991), in which deceiving the Iraqi forces played a significant part.
Napoleon studied the battles of the most famous European commanders of the past and sometimes won by setting traps for the enemy. At Austerlitz, for instance, he pretended to retreat so as to lure the Austrians and Russians to attack, and made his right flank appear to be weak, distracting the enemy while he attacked their centre.
For his part, Wellington surprised the French on occasion with a pretended attack in one direction that hid a more serious attack in another part of the field. A French general praised Wellington’s tactics at the Battle of Salamanca, for example, because ‘he kept his dispositions concealed for almost the whole day’.
In the war against Napoleon at sea, meanwhile, Admiral Nelson surprised the enemy by disregarding the prevailing conventions for sea battles. At the Battle of the Nile, his first major victory, the French were at anchor, off guard because, as the larger force, they did not expect the British to attack at all. Nelson ordered his attack when it was ‘nearly dark’, whereas the normal decision would have been to wait till the next day. The French commander expected an attack on the outer side of his ships, which was the normal procedure, but the captain at the head of the British line did the opposite, in order ‘to find the Frenchman unprepared for action on the inner side’.
In the Second World War, deception again played an important part. For example, the surrender of the Germans in Stalingrad in January 1943 followed the encirclement of their forces by Marshal Zhukov in Operation Uranus. Deception was maintained during the operation by reducing communication, by marching at night, and by giving the Germans the impression of activity in other sectors. While encirclement was taking place, the German army was ‘blinded by the absence of clear information’. On the day of the Russian attack, 19 November 1942, there was a freezing mist followed by a blizzard, so that it was ‘not even possible to get an overview of the situation through air reconnaissance’, as a German general noted at the time. As at Austerlitz, the ‘fog of war’ came true in a literal sense.
Guerrilla warfare: 1839-1842 & 1896-1897
Disasters are particularly likely where regular armies encounter local guerrillas, when arrogant and ‘breathtakingly ignorant’ generals underestimate the enemy – as a comparative study of ‘Great Military Disasters’ reveals.
The First Afghan War remains memorable for the tragic retreat of the British army from Kabul in 1842, when the force was virtually annihilated. In hindsight, it can be said that the British made every mistake in the book. Essentially this was due to their ignorance of local conditions: the terrain, the weather, and the weapons of the enemy. The British commanders had not realised how easy it would be for the Afghans to lay an ambush for the army while it marched through the narrow mountain passes. They also seem to have been unaware that the Afghan muskets, the famous jezails, had a longer range than British muskets, so that Afghans could fire down from the top of the cliffs, secure in the knowledge that British bullets could not reach them.
The British made the mistake, too, of retreating during the winter, despite being warned to delay until spring. Lacking winter clothing, soldiers froze to death at night. If they survived, frostbitten hands and feet rendered them ineffective against the enemy. In the narrow Jugdulluck Pass, an ambush turned into a massacre. Only one man returned to tell the tale, represented in Lady Butler’s painting The Remnants of an Army (1879). According to the 19th-century traveller Richard Burton, who prided himself on his knowledge of the ‘East’, the British defeat was the result of ‘crass ignorance concerning the Oriental peoples’.
As we can now see, similar mistakes were made in our own time in the course of the Russian and American invasions of Afghanistan, in 1979 and 2001 respectively – emphasising the dangers of ignoring the past. Eleven years after the US invasion, the historian William Dalrymple published a history of the British Afghan War in which he drew parallels between the British invasion of 1839 and the events of 2001. Soon after publication, Dalrymple was invited to brief ‘National Security, CIA, and Defense’ on the history of Afghanistan. It seemed that the Americans had finally learned their lesson, although their hurried and disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 suggests otherwise.
The Vietnam war
The role of American ignorance in Vietnam was crucial. As the sociologist James Gibson remarks in his study of the war, there were many ‘absences of knowledge’. ‘Some are simply blank spaces’, while others ‘indicate places where knowledge… was discounted and ignored’. At a conference held in 1983 to reconsider the war, ‘there runs like a red thread the question of ignorance… as to what Vietnam was, what it was about, and even where it was geographically’.
The American commanders made similar mistakes in Vietnam to the ones made later in Afghanistan. In both cases, they were encouraged by awareness of their superiority in artillery, bombs, helicopters, and technology to fight what Gibson calls a ‘technowar’ against ‘a nation of peasants with bicycles’. What they did not take into account was the force of ideas and people’s willingness to fight in defence of their fundamental values, as the Americans themselves had done in 1776. In Vietnam, the Americans were outsiders, most of them ignorant of the country’s language, customs, terrain, and climate. Confronting this regular army was a force of guerrillas, the Viet Cong, who possessed both local knowledge and civilian support.
The Americans paid a high price for these ignorances: 20 years of fighting, nearly 60,000 American dead, $168bn spent, and, despite that, ignominious defeat. Like the military, the US government failed to take ideas into account. They did not learn from the past, since ‘the longevity of Vietnamese resistance to foreign rule could have been learned from any history book on Indochina’. The government was aware of Vietnamese nationalism and anti-colonialism, side by side with Communism, but ‘ignored the implication of this information’. In other words, they did not want to know that most Vietnamese were against them, in the South as well as the North.
The US government was itself starved of essential information. For example, the CIA had not studied the possible effects of the bombing of the North (operation ‘Rolling Thunder’), so that President Johnson ‘was left to stumble into one of the most crucial decisions of the war with no intelligence guidance’. Separately, some of the CIA’s field agents were well aware of the corruption of the South Vietnamese army, but they were forbidden by their immediate superiors to mention this in their reports to headquarters.
One study of the war concludes that each side ‘grossly underestimated’ the staying power of the other. To make matters worse, organisational ignorance played a part in failure. Robert McNamara, the American Secretary for Defense from 1961 to 1968, failed to realise that ‘the intense pressure he placed on the military to provide palpable signposts of progress led many of those who reported to him… to fabricate the information they were providing’, especially the body counts. There was ‘systematic falsification of battle reports’ in order to meet what Gibson calls the ‘production quotas’ ordered by management. In other words, there was a serious knowledge gap between the men with boots on the ground and the managers far away in Washington.
McNamara came to believe that the war was a mistake. Among the reasons he listed for US failure were misjudgments that ‘reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area’. Other commentators have also emphasised the place of ignorance in the American defeat, and some of them mention arrogance as well. Prejudices, including racism, played a part. The American commanders regarded the enemy leaders as amateurs, while ordinary soldiers despised the Vietnamese, whom they called ‘gooks’. As in Afghanistan, underestimating the enemy had fatal consequences.
A middle way?
Are defeats and victories the result of planning or chaos? In the controversy between admirers of famous generals and followers of Tolstoy, the truth probably lies, as usual, between the two extremes. Clausewitz claimed that war is the realm of uncertainty, since ‘all action takes place… in a kind of twilight, which, like fog or moonlight, often tends to make things seem grotesque and larger than they really are’ – a simile that inspired Colonel Hale’s famous phrase about the ‘fog of war’. Despite this, Clausewitz continued to believe that courage, self-confidence, and intelligence did make a difference to a general’s results.
Another testimony in favour of this middle way comes from Vasily Grossman, a Russian reporter who covered the siege of Stalingrad in 1942 and made use of this experience in two novels, Stalingrad and Life and Fate. In Stalingrad, staff officer Novikov ‘was surprised by his ability to make sense of a chaos that often seemed beyond understanding’, while Life and Fate describes a kind of military intuition, ‘the sense that allows a soldier to judge the true correlation of forces in a battle and to predict the outcome’. Grossman sometimes uses the term ‘chaos’, but his narrative suggests that this chaos is more apparent than real.
Distinctions are of course in order: between pitched battles and guerrilla warfare; between war on land, at sea, or in the air; between theatres of war and periods of history. In all periods and places, though, ignorance can be fatal.
The German invasion of Russia in 1941 offers a spectacular case of the toxic combination of ignorance and arrogance. One of the major weaknesses of the campaign was Hitler’s determination to control what his generals were doing, although they were on the spot while he was distant, indeed virtually isolated, issuing orders from his ‘wolf’s lair’.
A messenger who reported to Hitler in January 1943 on the dire situation of the German forces watched him look at the map studded with flags representing German divisions, as if he was ignorant of the fact that these divisions were no longer at full strength. The messenger later commented, ‘I saw then that he had lost touch with reality. He lived in a fantasy world of maps and flags.’
On a larger scale, the whole campaign testifies to the risk involved in the attempt to control military operations from the rear. Unaware of or uninterested in the situation, Hitler forbade retreat when it became necessary and robbed commanders in the field of the opportunity to respond to events with the necessary flexibility. More generally, his self-confidence, not to say arrogance, prevented him from learning the lessons of Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812.
Peter Burke is Emeritus Professor of Cultural History at the University of Cambridge. This is an edited extract from his latest book, Ignorance: a global history, published in hardback on 24 January (Yale, £20). © Yale University Press
All images: Wikimedia Commons