Air University Review, July-August 1984

The commander must trust his judgment and stand like a rock on which the waves break in vain. It is not an easy thing to do. If he does not have a buoyant disposition, if experience of war has not trained him and matured his judgment, he had better make it a rule to suppress his personal convictions, and give his hopes and not his fears the benefit of the doubt only thus can he preserve a proper balance.

Carl von Clausewitz, On War

Clausewitz and Modern War Gaming

losing can be better than winning

Raymond B. Furlong
Lieutenant General, USAF (Ret)

ONE of the great paradoxes of the military profession is that experience is the best teacher where war is concerned, yet most military men learn of war predominantly from peacetime studies. Today, our combat experience is rapidly disappearing. All those who participated in World War II and most of those who served in Korea have left the service. Even those who fought in the Vietnam War are dwindling in numbers. In the absence of real war, war games help us learn about war and evaluate military concepts.

War gaming in the modern context was introduced during the Napoleonic era by George Heinrich Rudolph Johann von Resswitz, a Prussian artillery officer. In the United States, the war gaming tradition began in the 1890s with the use of war games by the Naval War College, while in the Air Force we find the origins of way gaming in the 1930s when young captains and majors at Maxwell Field, Alabama, used such games to work out strategic concepts--concepts that later helped bring victory to the Allied forces in 1945.

Now, in the 1980s, the computer revolution has carried us into a new era of war gaming, one in which the potential of war games is greatly expanded. As we seek to take full advantage of computer simulations, it seems to me that we would do well to review some of the generalizations about war that are found in Carl von Clausewitz's classic study On War. Indeed, it might be worthwhile for all those involved with developing war games, including programmers, to take a special, intense course on the thoughts of Clausewitz.

GENERALLY, Clausewitz believed that war involved two basic types of factors: material and moral. The first of these refers to the things that can be counted in war--troops, wings, airplanes, tons of supplies, etc. Because every military commander must master the material factors of warfare, our modern war games must continue to train our officers in these more or less mechanical aspects of warfare. Logistical crises, such as airlift shortfalls, must be represented in the games. Adverse realities of warfare, such as a disrupted base structure, should be included also. These kinds of problems help commanders to understand the types of material problems they are quite likely to face in such operations as the wartime deployment of a unit to Europe. Other material problems help them to prepare for the process of actually directing their units and fighting in a wartime environment.

It is in the second area of war, the moral, where the designer of the modern war game will find his greatest challenge. And it is here that On War can be most helpful.

The moral factors in war, Clausewitz tells us, "are among the most important . . . ."1 Certainly, one of the most significant of these moral factors is the character of the commander. A major concern in developing war games must be to produce a game that will help us to identify and develop those officers who have the character and intellect essential for success in warfare. Clausewitz's chapter "On Military Genius" is particularly useful in its description of the two qualities indispensable in the commander. The first is "an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth . . . . " The second quality is " the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead. " (p. 102) In other words, intuition and determination are the special characteristics to be sought in the effective commander, and these are most likely found in "a strong rather than a brilliant" mind. (p. 103) Taken together, these two qualities (intuition and determination) give the commander the "presence of mind" he needs to deal with the unexpected that is so much a part of the atmosphere of war. (p. 103)

All of this is summed up by Clausewitz in a statement about the "sort of mind" that is "likeliest to display the qualities of military genius." It is "the inquiring rather than the creative mind, the comprehensive rather than the specialized approach, the calm rather than the excitable head to which in war we would choose to entrust the fate of our brothers and children, and the safety and honor of our country. " (p. 112) I believe that modern military war games can play an important role in identifying and developing such individuals.

The war game that develops and identifies the officer with the qualities desired for command must reproduce the elements of war: "danger, exertion, uncertainty, and chance." (p. 104) While the presence of danger might lie only in the minds of the participants, exertion, uncertainty, and chance must lie in the design of the game. A war game should always overtax its players, giving them too much to do and too little time in which to do it. Warfare is the realm of uncertainty; "three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a log of greater or lesser uncertainty."(p. 101) Part of the reason for this fog of uncertainty is the poor quality of intelligence. It is no less true today what Clausewitz found: "Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain." (p. 117) The battlefield commander must learn to expect the unexpected and must be able to live with the stress that is concomitant with decision making under conditions of uncertainty. If our games are to reflect reality, they must provide the kinds of information that commanders will receive in combat: correct, wrong, late, and unavailable. The war game that provides only timely and accurate information is unrealistic and counterproductive. A good war game will immerse the commander in a sea of poor information and faulty or inadequate intelligence. Only this kind of war game equips the commander for the circumstances he will encounter in real war.

The absence of information about some factors in war introduces a close relative of uncertainty--the unknown. The unknown, like uncertainty, will result in surprises for the commander, but it need not paralyze him. Instead, the wise commander will seek to identify what he does not know, aware that knowledge of what one does not know can help illuminate darkness and ease fear. It is fear that is most dangerous, for fear can drive commanders into despair and inaction.

To those things Clausewitz wrote about uncertainty and chance, I would add a few comments on unknown unknowns--those things that a commander doesn't even know he doesn't know. Participants in a war game would describe an unknown unknown as unfair, beyond the ground rules of the game. But real war does not follow ground rules, and I would urge that games be "unfair" by introducing unknown unknowns. How many war games introduce players to new, even imaginary, enemy weapons that have capabilities previously unascribed to a prospective enemy? How many present the player with the catastrophic failure of his own critical systems?

The relationship between training and the surprise that uncertainty, chance, and the unknown unknown produce in wartime was perhaps expressed best by General Curtis LeMay:

What little schooling I got, I found was more likely to be wrong than right when you got out where the lead was flying around. So, we can be surprised, and we should expect to be surprised. That means that our training should provide for this. People should be trained to be surprised and react properly when it happens. This means to me that we should be prepared for this not only in training our people, but in being prepared with our weapons systems. This is the primary reason that I think we have to have manned systems in our strategic forces. They can react to surprise much better than the unmanned systems. And I'm sure we're going to be surprised.2

In addition, because warfare is a quintessentially human experience, war games need to reflect the fallible human element. If the game assures commanders that their orders will be carried out flawlessly, the game is unrealistic. One of Clausewitz's most useful insights is his idea of friction, "the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper [or in a computer]." (p. 119) In the real world, some orders are carried out, some are executed poorly or too late, and others are not carried out at all. War games must expose commanders to these realworld frustrations.

INDEED, if a war game is developed properly, encompassing all of those aspects and factors that I have described, it may well end in the ultimate frustration for a game player--defeat. Because Americans like to win, games won are likely to be validated, while games lost may be viewed as unfair, unrealistic, or both. Thus, a properly developed war game may well be not only an unpleasant experience for most participants but also an unpopular feature of one's military career. We must make our prospective commanders understand that where war games are concerned, we all might learn more by losing than by winning. Let us be prepared to win where victory really counts.

Montgomery, Alabama


1. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 184. All other quotations cited with page numbers are from this edition of On War.

2. General Curtis E. LeMay, U.S. Air Force Oral History Interview, Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, March 1965, p. 24.


Lieutenant General Raymond B. Furlong, USAF (Ret) (B.S., Ursinus College; M.B.A., Harvard University; Ph.D., Auburn University) is Headmaster, St. James School, Montgomery, Alabama. He was Commander, Air University, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, at the time of his retirement from active duty after a 35-year career, and he has served as Assistant Director for Finance, Alabama Commission on Higher Education. General Furlong is a previous contributor to the Review and other military and professional journals.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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