“Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war.” — Carl von Clausewitz
Clausewitz called it friction. He described it as “that which distinguishes real war from war on paper.” War, which is a fundamentally human endeavor, is the realm of confusion. Where the fog of war – the uncertainties that pervade warfighting due to imperfect or incomplete information – has a profound impact on decision making, friction is that confounding element that drives leaders to unthinkable levels of frustration.
Decades after the death of Clausewitz, British mathematician Augustus De Morgan unknowingly added definition to the dead Prussian’s theory of friction, writing on June 23, 1866, “The first experiment already illustrates a truth of the theory, well confirmed by practice, whatever can happen will happen if we make trials enough.” Whatever can happen will happen. By the time it was cast in its contemporary form, “if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong,” it became known simply as Murphy’s Law.
Murphy’s Law implores us to plan for failure. But we rarely do. Instead, we stumble on and flail about when things inevitably go wrong, wondering all the while why we set lofty goals without feasible fallback options. Visualizing failure is a necessity when conceiving plans. You’re not planning to fail, but conceptualizing your options when friction comes into play. In coding, it’s the if-then component of a program. If something happens, then what? What do you have to do to regain momentum and stay on track?
YES MEN AND SYCOPHANTS
The events of the past weeks have given new life to Murphy’s Law. As Russian President Vladimir Putin wages war against Ukraine, friction has been a constant enemy of his forces. Putin is learning the hard lessons that Napoleon and Hitler learned before him. For example, maneuvering during the Rasputitsa – the Russian term for the two muddiest seasons of the year where roads are often impassable – is problematic, at best. Logistics are also very important, especially when you plan for a quick operation and don’t have the assets in place to support a long, slow slog through deep mud. Finally, the enemy gets a vote: never underestimate the lengths your opponent will go to when facing an existential crisis.
But when you surround yourself with yes men and sycophants, no one is going to tell you what you need to hear. They’re going to tell you what you want to hear. Rather than point out the obvious – Murphy is alive and well in Ukraine – the advisors surrounding Putin likely told him that Ukraine would be a quick trip across country punctuated by an equally quick regime change. And true to form for a leader like Putin, he basked in the glow of their optimism and launched an operation that would see more friction than a wintertime march on Moscow.
MURPHY’S LAWs of combat – Especially for Putin
The irony is brutal, like getting hit by an ambulance on your way to the hospital. Putin is getting a personal lesson in Murphy’s Laws of Combat. After Afghanistan, after Chechnya, after any number of other Russian incursions, you would think those laws would be chiseled in stone somewhere in Red Square. As someone who earned his stripes in the KGB during the Cold War, you might think he even had a few of the tattooed somewhere on his body. But apparently that’s not the case, and Putin is getting another harsh lesson in the realities of warfare.
Murphy’s Laws of Combat are nothing new. They’ve been around in one form or another for decades. Anyone who’s spent any time around military forces knew there were laws, even if they didn’t have names for them. If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. I’ve seen lists that stretch to fifty or more laws, all of which are timeless. Some painfully so. For Putin, though, ten of them seem particularly relevant.
1. No plan survives first contact intact.
A lesson Putin was brutally reminded of within the first 24 hours after invading Ukraine.
2. If it’s stupid, but it works, it isn’t stupid.
The Russian equipment losses due to farm tractors is higher than actual combat losses. Let that sink in.
3. Don’t look conspicuous – it draws fire.
Three Russian generals killed in the first two weeks is a harsh reality to face.
4. The radios will fail as soon as you need fire support.
This also happens when you destroy the very towers you need to use your digital communications equipment.
5. Never forget that your weapon was made by the lowest bidder.
And the bidders don’t get any lower than they did in the former Soviet Union.
6. The easy way is always mined.
Or covered by direct and indirect fire, drones, and the Ghost of Kyiv. And surrounded by mud. Lots of it.
7. The simple things are always hard.
No more so than when you plan for a quick, successful operation. Once your plan goes out the window, everything becomes that much harder. Including finding a way out of the mess that you’re in.
8. When you have secured an area, don’t forget to tell the enemy.
Secure has a very specific military definition. It’s a tactical task that involves preventing something from being damaged or destroyed by your enemy. Russia is learning this lesson every single day, usually on an hourly basis.
9. Incoming fire has right of way.
The shoulder-launched missiles are getting through in ways the Russians never imagined. The lowest bidder always yields right of way in a street fight.
10. Professional soldiers are predictable, but the world is full of amateurs.
There are two painful truisms here. One, a conscript army is not a professional force. Two, Ukraine is filled with amateurs who will make the outcome of any Russian offensive that much more unpredictable.
Finally, let’s not forget the coup de grace: Murphy was grunt. In this case, Murphy is a Ukrainian grunt. And he (or she) is making life miserable for a whole lot of Russians right now.