The Fog of War: Then and Now

by / 0 Comments / 450 View / August 16, 2014

The phrase “fog of war” is meant to convey the lack of information and uncertainty experienced by forces engaged in war; a result of limited intelligence, ignorance about the battlefield, and/or restricted lines of communication. It can occur on a tactical level with small squads of soldiers, or it can even affect the Secretary of Defense of the United States. Coincidentally, there is a 2003 documentary which receives its title from this concept: The Fog of War, by Errol Morris. It examines certain flashpoints of American foreign policy from 1940 to 1970 through the lens of Army Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, Ford Motors President, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—one of the most hated figures in American history. His statements in the documentary, chronicling some of the greatest crises in American history, mesh well with the recent events in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip to display the murky perils of war.

There are countless historical examples of the fog of war, but certain ones described in The Fog of War by Secretary McNamara are especially noteworthy. One such anecdote—involving the Cuban Missile Crisis—was particularly chilling. During that crisis, the U.S., under the Kennedy administration, discovered that the USSR was building nuclear missile sites on Cuba. Debate on the American response swayed between airstrikes on the missile sites and a naval quarantine to prevent missiles from reaching Cuba. Many among the administration and military establishment, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff and CIA Director McCone, supported the use of airstrikes. Kennedy, thankfully, ended up deciding on a naval blockade, and the crisis was resolved peacefully. In 1992, 29 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, went to a meeting in Cuba chaired by Castro and learned that Cuba had had more than 100 nuclear warheads on the island during the crisis—and Castro had recommended to Khrushchev (the Soviet Prime Minister at the time) that they be used. This was news to McNamara; US intelligence had no idea that there were nuclear warheads on Cuba. This underscores just how close we came to nuclear war during the crisis. We had known that airstrikes and/or an invasion of Cuba could have led to nuclear war with the USSR, but we had no idea that Cuba had nukes—exemplifying the perils of limited intelligence.

On July 17th, 2014, 298 people lost their lives, and it appears that they were claimed by the fog of war. Ukraine has been fighting a brutal civil war (of sorts) against Russian backed separatists in the east since Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The fighting has escalated from small arms fire to feature more severe artillery and air strikes. Meanwhile, the separatists have been using anti-aircraft weapons—either taken from captured Ukrainian military outposts or received from Russia—to counter Ukraine’s air superiority. It is believed that Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was brought down by the BUK missile system, as American intelligence revealed that the missile was fired from separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine. Since there is not any reason why the rebels would want to destroy a passenger jet, it is very plausible that they mistook the plane for a military aircraft, a suspicion compounded by the fact that the BUK missile system cannot differentiate between civilian and military planes without being connected to an extra radar system. Therefore, evidence shows that the accidental destruction of the passenger plane is a tragic, unintended consequence of a raging insurgency: a victim of the fog of war.

The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Gaza strip is also a case study of this phenomenon. Israel’s attempts to destroy the terrorist group Hamas have led to more than one thousand Palestinian deaths, mostly civilians. Although Israel has taken several steps to mitigate civilian casualties they have not been very successful, and as a result civilian casualties continue to mount. Israel’s problem is exacerbated by Hamas’ frequent use of human shields and the urban, overcrowded environment of the Gaza Strip. There have been several reports of Israeli artillery fire hitting UN schools and shelters, prompting international condemnation. In one such instance, a UN shelter was hit by artillery and 15 were killed. The Israeli military spokesperson asserts that soldiers were returning fire on Hamas militants in the area, but did not claim responsibility. It is very likely that the shelter was inadvertently struck by return fire. Further complicating the issue, Hamas rockets have been discovered hidden at several UN shelters. The confused situation on the ground as well as difficulty with differentiating militants from civilians and Hamas’ use of human shields heightens the effect of the fog of war, leading to tragic consequences such as the one described above.
It is true that parties are responsible for the destruction they cause during war. Yet, it is important to understand that war is, by nature, tragic. Often the fog of war, the mysterious force attributed to clouding people’s judgments and perceptions, results in unintended deaths. A very excellent documentary (hint: watch it!) by Errol Morris about Robert McNamara recounts this phenomenon, highlighting an intelligence oversight during the Cuban Missile Crisis which brought us to the brink of Nuclear Armageddon. This knowledge gives us further insight on the conflicts in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip, which led to the downing of MA17 and the shelling of a UN shelter, respectively.


Casey, Nicholas. U.N. blames Israel for Shelter Attack. The Wall Street Journal. Web. 2 August 2014.

The Guardian. MH17 Crash: Kerry lays out evidence of pro-Russian Separtists’ responsibility. Web. 2 August 2014.

Karmanau, Yuras and Leonard, Peter. What Happened? The Day MH17 was downed. Yahoo News. Web. 2 August 2014.

The Kennedy Tapes. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2001. Print.

The World Tribune. UN admits its schools in Gaza were used to store Hamas rockets. Web. 2 August 2014.

Image Credit: Majdi Mohammed, Associated Press (AP)

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