Last Updated: 28 February, 2016
“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”
I first came into contact with the above quotation whilst serving with the British Army, it was bandied about during several courses I participated in; although, at the time I did not realise that it is just a laconic version of a more nuanced quotation by one of, arguably, the greatest military planners/strategists of modern times (more about him later).
However, the quotation in its various forms has been accredited to a variety of well-known characters, for example: Colin Powell (US General during the first Gulf War); Dwight D. Eisenhower (a WW2 General); Helmuth von Molkte (a German Field Marshal); The Duke of Wellington (a British General during the Napoleonic wars); Carl von Clausewitz (perennial military theorist); Sun Tzu (The Art of War); and even Napoleon Bonaparte himself (apparently a one-time French bigwig).
In truth they will all have thought, if not said, it to some degree. That quote has at one time or another also been referred to as one of the following: an old military adage; military truism; one of the most basic axioms of modern war; time-honoured military dictum; and Murphy’s Law of combat operations (currently being compiled).
“Nothing is certain but death and taxes.” (Martin, 2015).
The purpose of this article is to provide some meaning, context, background and history to the quote; it is not intended to be all-encompassing or definitive. Links and access to documents for further reading or more in-depth analysis is provided for this purpose.
“A perfect tactical plan is like a unicorn because anyone can tell you what one looks like, but no one has actually ever seen one.” (Unknown)
2.0 Variations on a Theme
- No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.
- No plan ever survives contact with the enemy.
- No battle plan ever survived first contact with the enemy.
- No plan survives the first shot.
- No plan survives first contact with the enemy.
- No plan survives its initial implementation.
- “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” (Barnett, 1963, p.35).
- “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” (Detzer, 2005, p.233).
However just like the main quote, all of its variants are just pithy progeny of the original quotation which we can now look at.
3.0 The Moltke Quotation
Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (26 October 1800 to 24 April 1891) was Chief of Staff of the Prussian General Staff from 1857 to 1871 and then of the Great General Staff from 1871 to 1888. He was an architect of Germany’s Wars of Unification (1864 to 1871). He is often referred to as Moltke the Elder to distinguish him from his nephew, Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke (the Younger). He is also considered, by some, to possibly be the most committed disciple of Clausewitz (discussed below) and considered by many as the most brilliant military person since Napoleon.
The context for Moltke’s quotation is his essay ‘Ueber Strategie’ or On Strategy, written in 1871 as part of Militarische Werke (Military Works). Moltke (1900, p.291-292) wrote:
“The material and moral consequences of every major battle are so far-reaching that they usually bring about a completely altered situation, a new basis for the adoption of new measures. One cannot be at all sure that any operational plan will survive the first encounter with the main body of the enemy. Only a layman could suppose that the development of a campaign represents the strict application of a prior concept that has been worked out in every detail and followed through to the very end.”
Moltke then continues:
“Certainly the commander in chief will keep his great objective continuously in mind, undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events. But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance. Throughout the campaign he must make a series of decisions on the basis of situations that cannot be foreseen. The successive acts of war are thus not premeditated designs, but on the contrary are spontaneous acts guided by military measures. Everything depends on penetrating the uncertainty of veiled situations to evaluate the facts, to clarify the unknown, to make decisions rapidly, and then to carry them out with strength and constancy.”
3.1 Variations of the Moltke Quotation
There are a number of variations of Moltke’s quotation, highlighted below, which is, in part, due to how researchers and academics have translated from German to English.
- “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength.”
- “The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle.”
- “No operations plan will ever extend with any sort of certainty beyond the first encounter with the hostile main force.” (Tsouras, 2000, p.363).
- “No operation extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main body of the enemy.” (Keyes, n.d.).
- “[No] plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.” (Keyes, 2006, p.xi).
“‘That will depend on the enemy, sir. They might want to get stuck in all the same, despite our plans. That’s one thing in life the army teaches you early on: the other side doesn’t always play along with the plan.’.” (Scarrow, 2015, p.279).
4.0 Moltke Was Not the First
Although Moltke may have given us the original quotation, the principles behind it where elucidated by other famous characters before him.
Only three personalities are discussed in this section (Carl von Clausewitz, Napoleon Bonaparte and Sun Tzu) because they, through research, are the most closely associated with Moltke’s quote (i.e. they are incorrectly credited with the original quote).
4.1 Carl von Clausewitz
Carl Philipp Gottfried (or Gottlieb) von Clausewitz (01 June 1780 to 16 November 1831) was a Prussian general and military theorist who stressed the ‘moral’ (psychological in the modern vernacular) and political aspects of war. His most notable work, Vom Kriege (On War), was unfinished at his death but published posthumously in 1832.
As part of his writings, Clausewitz stressed the need to understand a range of diverse factors in the planning and conduct of war, such as how unexpected developments unfolding under the Nebel des Krieges or ‘fog of war’ (though he did not coin the phrase) called for rapid decisions by alert commanders (situational awareness). In fog, Clausewitz (1989, p.101) meant uncertainty:
“War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.”
Clausewitz then goes on to state (1989, p.101-102):
“War is the realm of chance. No other human activity gives it greater scope: no other has such incessant and varied dealings with this intruder. Chance makes everything more uncertain and interferes with the whole course of events. Since all information and assumptions are open to doubt, and with chance at work everywhere, the commander continually finds that things are not as he expected. This is bound to influence his plans, or at least the assumptions underlying them. If this influence is sufficiently powerful to cause a change in his plans, he must usually work out new ones; but for these the necessary information may not be immediately available. During an operation, decisions have usually to be made at once: there may be no time to review the situation or even to think it through. Usually, of course, new information and reevaluation are not enough to make us give up our intentions: they only call them into question. We now know more, but this makes us more, not less uncertain. The latest reports do not arrive all at once: they merely trickle in. They continually impinge on our decisions, and our mind must be permanently armed, so to speak, to deal with them.”
Clausewitz (1989, p.103) also talked about ‘presence of mind’ in which he stated:
“This must play a great role in war, the domain of the unexpected, since it is nothing but an increased capacity of dealing with the unexpected.”
Prior to writing ‘On War’, Clausewitz had written an essay (in 1812) for his pupil, the sixteen year old Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm (later King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, r.1840 to 1858) whose military tutor he had become in 1810. The essay was titled: Die wichtigsten Grundsätze des Kriegführens zur Ergänzung meines Unterrichts bei Sr. Königlichen Hoheit dem Kronprinzen or The most important principles of the art of war to complete my course of instruction for his Royal Highness the Crown Prince. However, the essay is historically referred to as the Principles of War.
In the essay Clausewitz (2003, p.63-64) states:
“We must, therefore, be confident that the general measures we have adopted will produce the results we expect. [and] If we have made appropriate preparations, taking into account all possible misfortunes, so that we shall not be lost immediately if they occur, we must boldly advance into the shadows of uncertainty.”
The essay represented Clausewitz’s theoretical development up to that point (1812) and was translated into a form suitable for the audience (a 16-year old). It has also, on occasion, been viewed as a summary of Clausewitz’s mature theory but with hindsight it was only a precursor for his magnum opus (or great work) ‘On War’.
According to Beatrice Heuser (2002, p.89), Clausewitz “…wrote that no war plan outlasts the first encounter with the enemy, a view that was echoed by Moltke.” However, Terence Holmes (2007, p.129) argues “That is indeed a well-known opinion of Field Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke’s, but it is not a quotation from Clausewitz.” Clausewitz, from the books I have read, certainly did not originate the quote, Moltke did. However, after reading Clausewitz’s On War and the Principles of War, I can see the foundations being laid for Moltke’s quote.
4.2 Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military and political leader who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and its associated wars. As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 until 1814, and again in 1815.
“Je n’ai jamais eu un plan d’opérations.” (Chandler, 2009, p.134).
This is translated as “I have never had a plan of operations.” Chandler suggests that this meant that Napoleon was never dominated by a hard and fast plan worked out in advance. This is probably a truism, but it is well-known that Berthier, Napoleon’s chief of staff, translated Napoleon’s vision in a well-coordinated plan (Zabecki, 2008a; Chandler, 2009).
There are a plethora of quotes, supposedly, attributed to Napoleon which can be linked to our main quote. However, the problem for me is that they are uncited and perennially duplicated across the internet (as if that makes them real and true). Anyway, below is a mix of cited and uncited quotations.
- “Forethought we may have, undoubtedly, but not foresight.”
- “Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.”
- “The torment of precautions often exceeds the dangers to be avoided. It is sometimes better to abandon one’s self to destiny.”
- “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.”
- “If the art of war were nothing but the art of avoiding risks, glory would become the prey of mediocre minds …[and]… I have made all the calculations; fate will do the rest.” Statement at the beginning of the 1813 campaign, as quoted in The Mind of Napoleon (1955, p.45) translated by J. Christopher Herold.
- Napoleon: In His Own Words (1916) edited by Jules Bertaut, as translated by Herbert Edward Law and Charles Lincoln Rhodes:
- “The laws of circumstance are abolished by new circumstances.” (Bonaparte, 1916, p.48).
- “A commander in chief ought to say to himself several times a day: If the enemy should appear on my front, on my right, on my left, what would I do? And if the question finds him uncertain, he is not well placed, he is not as he should be, and he should remedy it.” (Bonaparte, 1916, p.118).
- “In war, theory is all right so far as general principles are concerned; but in reducing general principles to practice there will always be danger. Theory and practice are the axis about which the sphere of accomplishment revolves. (Bonaparte, 1916, p.124).
4.3 Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu was a Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher who lived in ancient China (544BC to 496BC). He is traditionally credited as the author of The Art of War, an extremely influential ancient Chinese book on military strategy. Sun Tzu has had a significant impact on Chinese and Asian history and culture, both as the author of The Art of War and as a legendary historical figure.
In the Art of War as translated by Lionel Giles, Sun Tzu provides the reader with two statements that can be associated with Moltke’s quote:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” (Sun Tzu, 2009, p.10).
“The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: How much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.” (Sun Tzu, 2009, p101).
4.4 Modern Application
Elizabeth Knowles, in her 2006 (p.n.k.) book What They Didn’t Say: A Book of Misquotations, provides us with a modern twist of Moltke’s quotation:
“No plan survives first contact with the enemy: A piece of military wisdom deriving from a formulation by the nineteenth-century Prussian military commander Helmuth van Moltke. He wrote in 1880, “No plan of operations reaches with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main force.” The warning has been further modified, as in Sean Naylor’s article on Operation Anaconda (the hunt for Osama bin Laden) in Afghanistan, published in the New York Times of March 2003: “That the operation didn’t go as planned is no disgrace. It is a cliché that no plan survives the first shot fired, but it is no less true for being one.”
I also found this quotation by Mike Tyson (Berardino, 2012) which I think is quite amusing:
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
An article on the origins of the quote can be found here.
5.0 Factors Affecting Moltke’s Quotation
- Uncertainty about the adversary:
- Intention (both political and military).
- Structure, strength and disposition of offensive and defensive assets.
- Logistical strength.
- Strategic modelling and data derived from open-source intelligence.
- Accuracy of ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) picture.
- Effects of counter-intelligence (active deception, subversion and/or electronic attack on communications).
- Ability of adversary intelligence to present a superior picture allowing one’s own decision-making cycle to be compromised.
- Uncertainty about the natural environment:
- Weather and meteorological aspects.
- Terrain (mode of transport, terrain to cross, distance etc.).
- Uncertainty about friendly forces:
- Up to date information on structure, strength, capabilities and disposition of own offensive and defensive assets.
- Unreported material deficiencies or concerns (which can lead to an optimistic view of own capabilities).
- Own directive uncertainty emanating from the grand strategic or military strategic levels (i.e. the commander not having the full sight/grasp of the strategic imperative).
- Delays in communication at the tactical or operational level, and the ebb and flow of own force, and adversary force, interaction.
The practical application of uncertainty is most easily demonstrated in the tactical battlespace. It may include a military commander’s incomplete or inaccurate intelligence about the adversary’s numbers, disposition, capabilities, intent, features of the battlefield, and incomplete knowledge of the state of their own forces. Uncertainty can be caused by the limits of reconnaissance, by the adversary’s feints/deceptions and disinformation, by delays in receiving intelligence and difficulties in passing orders, and by the difficult task of forming a cogent picture from a very large (or very small) amount of diverse data.
When a force engages in combat and the urgency for good intelligence increases, so does uncertainty and the chaos of the battlefield, while military units become preoccupied with fighting or are lost (either destroyed by enemy fire or literally lose their way), reconnaissance and liaison elements become unavailable, the minimum distance for effective communication increases, and sometimes real fog and smoke obscure vision (hence obscuring communication).
More on uncertainty can be found in the Useful Documents section.
6.0 Contrasting Quotation
“Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.”
Colloquially known, to me, in the military as the 7Ps (or the 6Ps if one omits the colourful metaphor!), it means that commanders have to make some sort of plan for what they are going to do; the level of military planning depending on job role and time constraints.
For example, Western military organisations utilise the NATO Orders Process for the production of an operational plan (or orders) and this incorporates the use of the abbreviated term SOPs (or standard operating procedures) when issuing those orders.
However, SOPs can be mean different things to different people and they are also contextual. For example, the SOP for encountering a numerically superior adversary is different from that of a numerically inferior adversary; numerically superior/inferior being contextual based on the size of your own force (amongst other factors).
Further, a commander’s interpretation of the various factors identified in the previous section will also have an impact on the formulation of their plan and subsequent SOPs. Moltke understood that military planning was an important process in the preparation (and conduct) of war, and understanding one’s adversary or adversaries and their strengths, weaknesses and likely courses of action was a military imperative. Analysis by military historians would suggest that he managed to do this pretty well! (Gorlitz, 1953; Zabecki, 2008a).
7.0 Collaborative Planning and Situation Awareness
Development of the concept, and a framework (Gorman et al., 2006) of collaborative planning (action prior to the operation) and situation awareness (action during the operation) has been an important step in ameliorating the effects of our quote. However, a number of commentators stress the complexity and change that can occur within the military environment due to heterogeneous and distributed factors (Gorman et al., 2006; Riley et al., 2006).
George Santayana (16 December 1863 to 26 September 1952), who was a philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist, is well-known for the following quote (which also enjoys a number of variations) (Santayana & Project Gutenberg, 2005):
“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
However, as is the way of words, someone else said it earlier. Edmund Burke (12 January 1729 to 09 July 1797), a British statesman and philosopher, wrote (Burke & Project Gutenberg, 2013):
“In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.”
Burke is also credited, on a number of websites, with the following quote (although I have yet to find a credible source): “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” This is often attributed to Mark Twain and its origin is subject to debate (Quote Investigator, 2014; Wikipedia, 2014).
Playing devil’s advocate, Burke is also alleged to have written the following to a Member of the National Assembly in 1791 (Wikipedia, 2015):
“You can never plan the future by the past.”
I suspect the best (or at least well-known) example of this collaboration of prior planning and future guesswork is D-Day on 06 June 1945, aka Operation Overlord. The preparation for D-Day was undertaken, in some form, over a period of years and comprehensive plans were drawn up (Zabecki, 2008b). A critical element of the plan concerned German resistance, as the Germans had created a fortified line of defence across Northern France. On D-Day it became apparent that some elements of the plan regarding resistance were way out; on some beaches soldiers literally strolled across the beach with no Germans in sight whilst on other beaches soldiers where ‘bogged down’ for days and the casualty toll was horrendous.
Military planning would seem antagonistic, almost anathema, to the chaos that is seemingly created by the above quotes. However, some sort of planning prior to the operation is required (even if it is just a few minutes before setting up a snap ambush). If a commander has not developed an appreciation for their adversary before the operation, then the operation may deliver a fatal lesson. Also, lessons learned from previous encounters can also help to influence the outcome of the operation (preferably in your favour).
The current iteration of collaborative planning and situation awareness, for the Americans, is known as the Adaptive Planning and Execution (APEX) enterprise (CJCS, 2015; Santacroce, 2015), which is a “…family of documents [that] provide the standard policies and procedures to plan for and execute military activities.” (CJCS, 2015, p.A-1).
When analysing the APEX framework it is worth noting that situation awareness is, from the American perspective, one of four operational activities for commanders to appreciate (the other three being planning, execution and assessment).
Who said what quote is largely academic and (somewhat) irrelevant, the meaning behind them is the important point. If a commander lacks appreciation for their own forces, their adversary’s capabilities and intent, the chance of the quote being realised is greatly enhanced.
Planning prior to an operation is important to ensure the right personnel and materials etc. are in the right position, but so is adapting to the situation on the ground once the operation starts. Finally, learning lessons from history is essential otherwise a commander will end up making the same mistake as Napoleon and Hitler!
9.0 Useful Documents, Links and References
9.1 Useful Documents
- On War Without the Fog (Kiesling, 2001), who talks about Clausewitz’s use of the words fog and friction.
- Fog of War, Effects of Uncertainty on Airpower Employment (Shepherd, 1997).
- British Army Doctrine Publication, Operations (2010-12).
- Joint Doctrine Publication 04, Understanding (2010-12).
- JSP 912 – Human Factors Integration for Defence Systems, v2i (2013-06-25).
- Combat Situation Awareness… (Murray et al, 2010).
- Friction, Chaos & Orders – Clauswitz, Boyd & Command Approaches (Samuels, 2014).
- Military Psychology, Situation Awareness (Kass, 2009).
- Napoleon, In his Own Words (Napoleon, 1916).
- On War, Chapter 1 & 8 (Clausewitz, 1989).
- Planning versus Chaos in Clausewitz’s On War (Holmes, 2007).
- Preparing Soldiers for Uncertainty (Due et al., 2015).
- Principles of War (Clausewitz, 1812).
- Simulating the Fog of War (Setear, 1989).
- Sensemaking, Final Report (Leedom, 2001).
- Measurement of Situation Awareness In A C4ISR Experiment (French & Hutchinson, 2002).
- Organizing Ambiguity, A Grounded Theory of Leadership & Sensemaking within Dangerous Contexts (Bran & Scott, 2010).
- Functional Analysis of the Next Generation Common Operating Picture (Leedom, n.d.).
- Operational Risk Management (Marine Corps Institute, 2002).
- Situational Awareness (Data) Bases in Military Command & Control (Sandor, 2004).
- Microblogging During Two Natural Hazards Events: What Twitter May Contribute to Situational Awareness (Vieweg et al., 2010).
- Chapter 2 The Evolving Definition of Cognitive Readiness for Military Operations (Fletcher & Wind, 2014).
- An Empirical Study of the Relationship between Situation Awareness & Decision Making (Stanners & French, 2005).
- Coordinated Awareness of Situation by Teams (Gorman et al., 2006).
- Recent Human Factors Contributions to Improve Military Operations (Andrews et al., 2003).
- A Human Factors Approach to Analysing Military Command & Control (Walker et al., 2010).
- Adaptive Planning & Execution Overview & Policy Framework (JCS, 2015-05-29).
9.2 Useful Links and Other Stuff
- Military Operations Research Society (MORS): http://www.mors.org/
- The Journal of Military Operations (TJOMO): https://www.tjomo.com/
- The Centre for Law and Military Operations (CLAMO): http://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/Military_Law/CLAMO.html
- Clausewitz Dedicated website: http://www.clausewitz.com.
- McKay, B. & McKay, K. (2015) How to Develop the Situational Awareness of Jason Bourne. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.artofmanliness.com/2015/02/05/how-to-develop-the-situational-awareness-of-jason-bourne/. [Accessed: 05 September, 2015].
- Adaptive Planning and Execution (APEX) for U.S. Joint Forces Command: http://www.icfi.com/insights/projects/defense/adaptive-planning-and-execution-for-us-joint-forces-command.
- BOOK: ‘Embracing the Fog of War: Assessment and Metrics in Counterinsurgency’ by Ben Connable (2012, RAND Corporation).
- PPT: ‘Closing the Gap between Strategic Development and Strategic Execution’ by Richard Rierson. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.slideshare.net/WMCCCommunications/closing-the-gap-between-strategic-development-strategic-execution-by-richard-rierson. [Accessed: 08 September, 2015].
- ‘Efficient Effects-based Military Planning’ sponsored by the Army Research Office. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.ecse.rpi.edu/~cvrl/EBO/ebo.htm. [Accessed: 08 September, 2015].
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