'Shadows of Uncertainty': Clausewitz's Timeless Analysis of Chance in war

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The concept of chance has often been approached by military thinkers in either an unreasonably fatalistic or complacently dismissive manner. However, Carl von Clausewitz (1780‐1831) developed a more accurate and realistic conception. For him, chance in war is an inescapable yet ambiguous phenomenon: it can create opportunities to be exploited or equally dash the best laid plans. Frequently disregarded in theory, Clausewitz maintained that chance, uncertainty, and friction are central to the nature of war, along with the human qualities required to overcome them such as courage, determination, and adaptability. Modern developments have not rendered these insights obsolete and, if anything, they hold even greater relevance to contemporary warfare. Western militaries fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have been continually challenged by chance events and unforeseeable setbacks. Overconfidence bred by technological superiority has contributed to militaries inadequately capable of confronting unexpected developments in all of war’s dimensions. Understanding Clausewitz’s ideas can help prepare military leaders for the unpredictable in war.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)336-368
Number of pages33
JournalDefence Studies
Issue number3
Early online date20 Sept 2010
Publication statusPublished - 2010

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