Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of friction

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“Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult,” Carl von Clausewitz writes in On War, adding: “The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.” He illustrates this with an example to which most of us can relate:

Imagine a traveler who late in the day decides to cover two more stages before nightfall. Only four or five hours more, on a paved highway with relays of horses: it should be an easy trip. But at the next station he finds no fresh horses, or only poor ones; the country grows hilly, the road bad, night falls, and finally after many difficulties he is only too glad to reach a resting place with any kind of primitive accommodation. It is much the same in war. Countless minor incidents—the kind you can never really foresee—combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal.

Clausewitz refers to the sum of these minor incidents as “friction,” which he defines as “the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.” To put it another way, friction is whatever leads to the familiar gap between our expectations and reality, in any activity that is vulnerable to unforeseeable factors that interact with one another in unpredictable ways. In statistics, it’s known as epsilon, a catchall variable for the amount by which an observation differs from its expected value, and it can be most accurately defined by subtracting theory from practice and studying what remains: “Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.”

This sort of friction is visible everywhere, but it feels more heightened in war, which is part of why we insist on using military metaphors even in contexts in which they’re misleading or inappropriate. The war on drugs, the war on terror, and the war on cancer, to take just the first three that come to mind, are rallying cries that turn complicated issues into battles against a monolithic enemy that may not even exist, and they’re often used to score political points or to sell messy initiatives to the public. More generously, if we’re drawn to such analogies, it’s because war seems like a particularly stark manifestation of a phenomenon that we recognize in our everyday lives. “War is the province of friction,” Joe Haldeman writes in The Forever War, with a nod to “Chuck von Clausewitz,” who observes:   

If one has never personally experienced war, one cannot understand in what the difficulties constantly mentioned really consist, nor why a commander should need any brilliance and exceptional ability. Everything looks simple; the knowledge required does not look remarkable, the strategic options are so obvious that by comparison that simplest problem of higher mathematics has an impressive scientific dignity. Once war has actually been seen the difficulties become clear.

War, in other words, is the setting that reminds us most vividly of how little we can plan in advance, and how useless the obvious answers can be—which doesn’t prevent armchair generals from making the same mistake time and again.

As far as the solution is concerned, Clausewitz isn’t always helpful. He writes: “Iron willpower can overcome this friction; it pulverizes every obstacle, but of course it wears down the machine as well…The proud spirit’s firm will dominates the art of war as an obelisk dominates the town square on which all roads converge.” This is stirring, but not particularly convincing. More usefully, he adds that the only known lubricant for this kind of friction is experience, which teaches us to say: “This is possible, that is not.” Above all else, it requires that we enter every conflict with realistic expectations, as well as a quality of personality that is hard to pin down:

The good general must know friction in order to overcome it whenever possible, and in order not to expect a standard of achievement in his operations which this very friction makes impossible. Incidentally, it is a force that theory can never quite define. Even if it could, the development of instinct and tact would still be needed, a form of judgment much more necessary in an area littered by endless minor obstacles than in great, momentous questions, which are settled in solitary deliberation or in discussion with others.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about the importance of instinct, or intuition, but the term translated here as “tact” might be even more profound. Clausewitz never really defines it, but in German, Takt means something more like “pulse,” a unit of rhythm corresponding to the beat in music or the foot in poetry. (The German word for a conductor’s baton is Taktstock.) It might be more accurately rendered as “good timing,” which is central to both tactfulness and tactics—which are derived, respectively, from roots meaning “to touch” and “to arrange.”

And this constellation of meaning around the word “tact” comes as close as anything I know to capturing the state of mind that all human life demands. If war has generated more pages of discussion on the subject than any other activity, it’s partially because of the apparent scale and complexity involved. Clausewitz writes:

Each part [of the military machine] is composed of individuals, every one of whom retains his potential of friction…This tremendous friction, which cannot, as in mechanics, be reduced to a few points, is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance.

Just as weather forecasting has become the favorite subject of chaos theory, war is the arena in which such factors seem the most challenging—which may be an illusion in itself. A moment of reflection suggests that peace is even more complicated than war, and we fail to realize this because its complexity is so pervasive that we take it for granted. The consequences for faulty decisions are also less immediate. Economics and sociology, the two leading academic disciplines devoted to making sense of human behavior in peacetime, can be wrong for decades without anyone taking the blame. War, at least, seems to enforce a punishing form of natural selection, even as it allows us to attribute the results of chance to the genius of generals, or to any one of a multitude of “decisive” factors, depending on what point we want to make. Even “friction” is a kind of x factor, and its explanatory power derives from the fact that it doesn’t try to explain anything. If friction is the question, tact is the answer. This may not seem to tell us much. But we also can’t afford to forget it.

Written by nevalalee

May 31, 2017 at 9:30 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

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