The Fog of War

Let us cross the river and rest in the shade.

General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s last words


There’s France’s finance jefe on TV, Bruno Le Maire, wearing a scarf. And there’s the Infosys CEO in a hooded parka. They may have flown in on carbon-spewing private jets…but when they get in front of the cameras, they go green. ‘Turn down the thermostat’ is the message.

The news media is back on the Davos story — riding its usual hobby horses, bowing to its sacred gods, and promoting its favourite bamboozles.

This year, Ms Zelenska, the wife of Mr Zelenskyy, is the queen of the prom. Speaking at the confab, words came out of her mouth and were greeted by wide approval:

We are all internally convinced that there is no such global problem that humanity cannot solve…This is more important now when Russia’s aggression in Europe poses various challenges.

Of course, there are plenty of ‘problems’ humans can’t do much about. Rats in Baltimore. Bores at social functions. Morons in Congress. Few people want to die…but everybody does.

Then, turning to the war:

‘…there are no day offs from war…everyone in Ukraine has to risk their lives every day.

Of course, that is not true either. Most people in Ukraine are nowhere near the combat zone…and the civilian casualty count is low; Russia has apparently tried to limit the collateral damage. The figures show about 8,000 civilian deaths in the country last year caused by the war. Out of a population of 43 million, that’s a violent death rate of 18 per 100,000.

Volley and thunder

The Russians will have to do a lot more killing than that to equal the violent death rate in American cities. In Baltimore last year, for instance, the rate was 55 — three times as high.

Later in the program, Ms Zelenska’s husband took the stage.

He and his wife must share the same speechwriter. There are ‘no accidents at wartime’, said the man on the podium. He was speaking only a few hours after a helicopter crashed in Kyiv. On board was the Ukrainian interior minister, now dead.

That there are no accidents in war is surely incorrect too. Military history is full of them. In almost every battle, the fog of war is thick with mistakes, lies, and accidents.

In the famous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, for example, the English cavalry rode valiantly ‘into the valley of death’, as Kipling put it, in Crimea. (Britain was the US of the era — ready to throw its weight around all over the planet.)

But the Light Brigade was going the wrong way. The commander, Lord Cardigan, had spent so much time out on his private yacht, anchored offshore in the Black Sea, with its own chef aboard, that he was confused by the lay of the land. Lord Lucan, his brother-in-law, whom he detested, ordered him to advance on a Russian gun emplacement and waved his hand generally in the direction to which the Light Brigade later went. Soon, there were indeed cannons to the left of them, cannons to the right of them, and cannons in front of them. All volleyed and thundered. And cut the poor English cavalry to pieces.

The Light Brigade had blundered into the wrong place. And when the dust settled, it had lost more than 200 men and 300 horses. For his part, Lord Cardigan rode all the way up the valley to the Russian guns. The Russian commander recognised him as he rode…the two had enjoyed parties together in London before the war. He told his men not to kill him but to capture him. Perhaps he was looking forward to a more charming dinner conversation. But Cardigan, realising that he was about to be captured, spurred his horse, jumped over the breastworks of the gun emplacement, and dashed back down the valley. Leaving the dead and wounded behind him, he went back to his yacht in time for dinner.

Fatal equations

Take out the accidents, mistakes, and miscalculations, and not much military history would remain. What was Napoleon’s attack on Moscow if not a giant, boneheaded error? Adolf Hitler might have thought that mechanised transport made it possible for him to succeed where Gustavus Adolphus and Napoleon Bonaparte had failed. But the Soviets had machines too. They moved their heavy industry to the East…and when they got rolling, so to speak, they could turn out dozens of tanks in the time the Germans produced only one.

New York Times Economist Paul Krugman writes to say that the secret to war is there:

I’m not a defense expert. But I do know something about applied math — and contemporary wars are, to a large extent, about arithmetic.

And yes, of course, numbers play a part.

But, Paul, riddle us this:

At Rorke’s Drift, in South Africa, 1879, a rag-tag bunch of British soldiers, local militia, and hospital patients were outnumbered by Zulu warriors, 40 to 1. The arithmetic was terrible. But they won. How come?

And Robert McNamara was a numbers guy. He provided detailed statistics, showing our overwhelming superiority against the North Vietnamese. We had more guns, tanks, helicopters, coca cola, and prostitutes in Saigon. Who won?

The same question could be posed about Afghanistan — now in the hands of the Taliban…and Iraq, now run by Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia killed some 600 US troops after the US invasion. In both countries, the numbers left no doubt; the US would prevail. What happened?

Krugman says Ukraine will win its battle with Russia because it’s backed by NATO, which has bigger numbers. But ‘accidents’ still happen.


One of the most famous of them occurred in central Virginia in 1863. That was when General Stonewall Jackson was riding back to his lines after reconnoitring the terrain for the morrow’s battle. He had just inflicted a stunning defeat on Union troops, in what came to be known as the Battle of Chancellorsville.

The confederates were outnumbered, 2 to 1, but Jackson still managed to split away from Lee’s army and attack the Northerners from the flank. Then, after dusk, Jackson prepared another assault on the demoralised Yankees. Had he been able to follow up, he might have inflicted such a devastating defeat on the Army of the Potomac, that Lincoln might have been forced to make peace.

After the first day of battle, Jackson studied the lay of the land in the twilight and headed back to his camp. But in the half-light, he was mistaken for the enemy. Jackson was hit by three bullets from his own troops. His arm had to be amputated. He crossed the river soon after.

You have lost your left arm’, General Lee wrote to him on his deathbed, ‘and I have lost my right’.

But we are not here to quibble with silly talk from Davos. We don’t know why the Ukrainian helicopter crashed. And the only way Zelenskyy can be sure that it wasn’t an accident is if he caused it to crash himself.


Dan Denning Signature

Bill Bonner,
For The Daily Reckoning Australia

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