BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: UK
Front Page 
Northern Ireland 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Saturday, 27 October, 2001, 14:10 GMT 15:10 UK
War View: 'We can't predict the outcome but action is vital'
The inherent unpredictability of war should not be mistaken for an excuse for pacifism, says Dr Christopher Bassford, of the US National War College, in a personal view.

One of the oddest phrases in the English language is 'the foreseeable future'. The time period it describes varies with the phenomenon under discussion.

In economics, for instance, it lasts until the next report from the stock market, the Fed, or the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In domestic life, it lasts until the next poorly phrased remark to one's spouse. But as a matter of fundamental truth, the 'foreseeable future' is over before the echo of the words has faded from the room.

The penalties for falsely imagining a predictable universe are particularly unpleasant in war

This is no truer in war than in many other aspects of life. In war, however, the penalties for falsely imagining a predictable universe are particularly unpleasant. People die in large numbers. Governments are overturned, economies destroyed, empires turned to ashes, civilisations turned to dust. We know this not from prediction but from experience, a somewhat more reliable guide.

Unfortunately, even historical experience is misleading, because we know - or think we know - how things turned out. We therefore tend to think that this outcome was inevitable, and so assume that some outcome of current events is similarly inevitable.

We therefore could hope to get the future right, if only we were good enough at gathering the right data. Only very smart professional historians - which is to say a very small minority even of that profession - come to appreciate how contingent on chance and coincidence the actual outcomes were.

Indeed, once one knows how fragmentary our understanding of past events really is, it's nearly as hard to 'postdict' the past as it is to predict the future. Why, precisely, did Milosevic give up in the recent war over Kosovo? Why did the Union win the American Civil War? Why did the Roman Empire fall - if, in fact, it fell at all? There are as many answers as there are people interested in the issue - plus the correct one, of course, which has probably eluded us all.

Much up to chance

Why are military events, in particular, so unpredictable? It is because the events of war are driven by the strange interaction of three completely different kinds of forces.

Unpredictability is also down to sheer chance: does it rain the night before your great offensive?

The first is the rational calculations of the opposing leaders. Given that they actively seek to frustrate and fool one another, it should not surprise us that they routinely succeed in derailing each other's visions of the future.

The second force is the gut emotions of leaders and the populations they try to control. Hatred makes people do things not remotely in their own predictable 'best interests', as understood by any rational standard.

And a third source of unpredictability is sheer chance: does it rain the night before your great offensive is to begin - and did you know that your new artillery fuzes don't function well when they land in mud?

Victory by accident, not design

These sources of uncertainty interact with one another, sometimes vastly increasing the effect. Consider the possible impact of a chance occurrence, say, that a stray bomb (or an earthquake) had killed Osama Bin Laden on the first night of air raids on Afghanistan.

Consider the impact of a chance occurrence, say, that a stray bomb (or an earthquake) had killed Bin Laden

American leaders probably would have recognised it as an unbelievable stroke of luck - though they would be fools to say so and US Air Force budgeteers would have immediately sought the credit and bigger budgets.

Everyone else would have assumed it was intentional. This would have vastly increased the paranoia of those who had already suspected the Feds knew where everybody was at every moment. Allies might have been so impressed that they dropped out of the anti-terrorism effort - after all, the Americans didn't need any help from them.

It might have paralyzed the terrorist leadership, who certainly understand the value of terror. But it would also have made American citizens cocky and dismissive of their leaders' pleas for more patience, internal security, and funding of necessary conventional forces.

Who knows what its emotional effect on the Muslim masses might have been? Would they be overawed by American power, or infuriated and driven to even deeper, more opaque conspiracies? Would the long-term result be to strengthen or to weaken the US position? Do you know? I don't.

Strategy a 'poor bet'

Because of these interactions between the opponents and among the forces of reason, emotion and chance, military strategy is by its very nature a poor bet.

Even in an ideal case, strategy has a dubious success rate of 50%

Assume the simplest possible military problem, Army A versus Army B in a one-on-one contest in which one side wins in a single clash of arms. Even then, strategy has a dubious success rate of 50%.

In the real world, wars seldom involve only two players, very seldom are won by either side using its initial strategy, and frequently lack any clear winner at all. In most cases, the surviving strategists aren't even the ones who started the war in the first place - the originators having fallen to bullets, internal intrigues, or revolutions.

Consider this: my father was born in 1917, when Europe was ruled by kaisers, czars, and sultans. Those emperors are gone, victims of wars they set in motion themselves. They were replaced by revolutionaries, then by führers, duces, party general secretaries, and most recently by elected yuppies.

The mighty Third Reich, passionately defended by millions of true believers and the most formidable armies the modern world has ever seen, lasted 12 years. The Soviet Union lasted less than a single human lifetime.

Had someone told you (or the CIA) in 1979 that a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would: a) be defeated, b) lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union within a dozen years, and c) set the stage for demolition of the World Trade Center in 2001, you (and the CIA) probably would have suggested medication. But in the end, my father outlived the USSR by more than a decade.

'Action is imperative'

So no one knows - or can know - how the current crisis will turn out.

Objectively, then, it is safe to say that warfare is an extraordinarily risky 'instrument of policy'.

The effective strategist makes plans, but does not delude himself that they will unfold as intended

The inherent unpredictability of war should not be mistaken, however, as an excuse for pacifism or as a reason not to act. Neither is it a reason for timid or insubstantial action. Confronted by barbarism, a civilised society must fight or die.

Indeed, the unpredictability of war makes action imperative. Oftentimes, the bold, sweeping action is the safest course. Sometimes, such bold action is necessary even when it opens nasty cans of worms we'd prefer to avoid, if those cans are likely destined to be opened anyway and under less favourable conditions.

What war's fundamental unpredictability does mean is that strategy is a full-time, ongoing job that never ends. The effective strategist makes plans, but does not delude himself that they will unfold as intended. He constantly envisions what's desirable, pursues - and protects against - what's possible, acts on what's probable, and constantly adjusts for what actually happens.

And he never gives up. Eventually, someone will get it right. We'd damned well better make certain that it's us.

Christopher Bassford is a former US Army artillery officer and currently professor of strategy at the National War College. He is also the editor of The Clausewitz Homepage [see Internet Links]. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Your comments so far:

You can add your comments to this or other personal opinions we are publishing during the current situation. Add them using the form below.

Your comments:

Your remark: "Confronted by barbarism, a civilised society must fight or die" is particularly perceptive. When barbarism is sufficiently weak, we can fight it with police action. But if barbarism kills thousands from within the boundaries of a nation state, which refuses to extradite the perpetrators, there is no alternative to war.

A fine riposte to those who would have us believe that the US brought all this upon itself through its malign foreign policy. Much has been made of the negative view of the West in Islamic countries, particularly policies and polities pursued by the US and UK. Frankly, were I Tony Blair or George Bush, I'd be proud of the fact that such a rum bunch disliked me.
Finn C, Australia

The professor says that the unpredictability of the outcome should not be used as an excuse for inaction or pacifism. I believe he is mistaken, as any conservative engineer or doctor will confirm. Our society is not in peril, but large numbers of individuals are. Our forces hold all the good cards. September 11 was Al-Qaeda's best shot. They did not win any substantial victory. Now is not the time to shuffle the pack, however twitchy our fingers are.
Matt Smith, UK

Send us your comments:

Your E-mail Address:



Disclaimer: The BBC will put up as many of your comments as possible but we cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published. The BBC reserves the right to edit comments that are published.
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more UK stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more UK stories