Monday, April 4, 2011

The Fog of War

There is a peculiar state of mind called the “fog of war” that affects soldiers engaged in military operations. The phrase was coined by the early nineteenth century military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, to describe how uncertainty, ambiguity, and fear, “…gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance.” He maintained that it is a challenge to see things as they really are on the battlefield because  the stakes are so high – literally life or death – and vitally important information is often incomplete or inaccurate. The natural impulse is to over-react and see phantoms and ghoulish enemies that are not actually there. How soldiers and commanders deal with this fog, von Clausewitz maintains, is one of the biggest determinants of who will win the battle.

It has been my experience that this fog of war is not limited to the battlefield. Rather, many of us wake up every day and engage in a perceived fight for our lives against forces that seem to be attacking us from all directions. We are constantly either on the defensive or the attack and often “over-react and see ghoulish enemies that are not actually there.” Life is seen as a constant competition and if, “I’m not winning,” then I am in mortal danger. It is an exhausting way to live and can lead to all sorts of physical and psychological problems. 

There are a variety of techniques designed to help us navigate through this fog: mindfulness exercises like yoga and meditation help us focus on what is real and “stay in the moment;” aerobic exercise clears the mind and dumps endorphins into our systems, helping us to regain balance and vital energy; anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications regulate the chemicals in our body so we can better cope with the stressors of life; going out into nature “recharges the batteries,” etc. For soldiers, repeating the same tasks over and over during training helps them switch into autopilot when the fog hits so that they are able to do what needs to be done even in the most horrifying and extreme situations.

While all these techniques are effective to one degree or another, they do not address the root of the problem. According to Chassidic philosophy, the most basic and fundamental answer to the fog of war is to simply stop viewing the world as a battlefield. Chassidism teaches that our purpose in life is to help bring about the Messianic era, when all violence, hatred, lack, and evil will be removed from the earth and that every time we act in a way that draws people together rather than pushing them apart, we bring this utopian state closer to fruition.  According to the Chassidic masters, the best way to stay in this mindset is to act “as if” the Messianic era had already arrived.

Obviously, anyone who scans the geopolitical landscape would struggle with a statement like that. Unfortunately, thousands of events rock our planet daily that demonstrate conclusively that the Messiah has not yet arrived. However, in our personal lives – where we exhibit at least a modicum of control – we do have the ability to live as if we are in the Messianic era by resisting our initial impulse to see everyone around us as competitors and instead start viewing them as partners. I have been involved in several effective collaborative projects, and the tipping point towards success always occurs when we start to see ourselves as sharing common interests and benefiting equally from the cooperative effort. We push through traditional rivalries because it becomes obvious that the old saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” is actually true.

It is this sort of spirit that will epitomize the Messianic era. So why not get a head start on the benefits of that age by living as if it has already arrived? It is as simple as tweaking one’s mindset. That is, when I start to see the person next to me as a potential partner rather than a competitor threatening to take my “last piece of pie,” then I will truly push this world one step closer to perfection.  Chassidic philosophy promises that over the course of time, small actions on the personal level can actually impact and change the wider world. Along the way, I will experience much more success and happiness in my personal life because I will have finally emerged from the fog of war into the brightness of day.


  1. Changing from the PTS mindset of life in a world filled with cruelty and tsunamis to a Chassidic perspective is an amazing gift - and takes letting go of the defensive postures we all learn as coping strategies...

  2. Wow, well written and easily relatable, giving gravity to individual action in a type of group cognitive behavioral therapy. Soothing our basic fight or flight reaction makes easier the daily decision which is happiness.

  3. As the winter turns to spring, as the wildflowers strain to put their faces to the sun, as the olive trees think of blossoming and push their roots deeper searching for strength and vitality, as the sun seeks to force its life giving energy past the filth they are spewing into our skies, as the force of good that is the universe and is the force of creation weeps for its lost children and pours forth its hope and its certainty, at this last ditch moment where all could be lost and yet all could be gained, what will you do?

    What will you do?