On Luck In Practical Warfare

The following essay is an excerpt taken from Col. South’s upcoming book, his commentary on “The Art Of War”, and is exclusively available to readers of the Planets Magazine. The original essay was based on the text of a speech delivered before the Federation War College on Charmed World shortly before the first League War.

I’ve been studying Sun Tzu my entire professional life, from the Academy on. He’s the ultimate authority on the art of war, and in crisis after crisis in which I’ve found myself, his “Art Of War” has held the answer. Thirteen short chapters, less than twenty thousand words, dating from long before the age of space flight — and yet it is as valid and useful today as when it was first written.

If there exists a factor in warfare which Sun Tzu neglects, however, it must certainly be that of luck. I’ve seen too many people die due to random chance, too many attacks fail due to the influence of the unforeseeable, to neglect the power of luck in combat — and yet all he ever observes on the subject is that to rely on it is to lose. 

What would have happened had Harold Godwinson not taken a crossbow bolt to the eye at Hastings? Would the nucleus of his force have been able to fall back and regroup? Could William’s army have conquered, if opposed by a popular and charismatic leader? 

What would have been the results at Antietam had the famous Lost Orders not been lost, but instead burned as cigar-lighters? Might not Lee’s invasion of the North have succeeded, with a dilatory McClellan incapable of stopping the razing of Harrisburg, and then losing the bulk of his force at the subsequent Battle of Pipe Creek? 

And what if Hitler, one of the few survivors of a corps of runners that lost nine of every ten men, had fallen to a wild bullet or failed to survive his eventual gassing in the Ypres Salient during the First World War? Could the inevitable German revival have been achieved peaceably, and perhaps without igniting that insanity which became the Holocaust? 

There is a place for mathematical certainty in warfare; for example, when a small force is hopelessly outmatched by its adversary, their destruction is inevitable. We sometimes forget that the famed Spartans at Thermopylae were eventually surrounded and slaughtered. Wars are certainly decided long before armies clash; for instance, the German schwerpunkt in France was successful due not to the superiority of German tanks (which were in fact weaker, not only in guns and armor but also quantity) or the vastness of their army (which was smaller) but instead to the failure of the French generals to create an independent mobile armored reserve corps capable of responding to a lightning advance. 

But when forces and factors are more evenly matched, much indeed comes down to luck in the end, and not through the incompetence of the generals. Had Bittrich’s II SS Panzers not been posted just north of Arnhem to refit just before Operation Market Garden, the Allied airdrop there would very likely have succeeded — and yet the Germans certainly didn’t foresee the possibility. On the other hand, they had to be posted somewhere; just imagine if they’d instead set up their repair yards in Nijmegen, cutting off even more airborne troopers. Luck, like the weather, is loyal to no flag.

There exists a school of thought which holds that luck evens out over time, and that from any larger perspective, probability overrules it: For example, had it not been for Hitler, another dictator would certainly have arisen in his place. He was just the tip of the iceberg, or perhaps more appropriately, the pus at the head of the boil. Remove only him and the infection remains, though this would not have been evident at the time.

And yet, further study, both of these factors and of the Art Of War, reveals a common thread, one to which Sun Tzu does refer, when in his chapter on Energy he speaks of cloaking order with disorder and form with formlessness. By so doing, each commander may deny the enemy knowledge of his forces, reducing the knowledge equation to zero by increasing that apparent chaos known as the fog of war.

It follows, then, that that chaos which is an inevitable and observable part of war is composed largely of the sum of everything which was unknown before its influence was felt. Chaos itself can be said to be an illusion based in the fog of war; the more we know, the less the fog. Given enough knowledge of detail, and sufficiently sound intelligence, everything resolves into a perfect mathematical predictability.

I hold that, while certainly valid, such a view is useless for any practical purpose.

Intelligence-gathering technology is limited; as it improves, so does that of concealment: the development of Cloaking gave rise to the Loki, which in turn led races to Loki immunity. In the future surely the Advanced Loki will be created, and so on and so forth. Practicably, it is now and likely always will be impossible to know everything in advance. There are inviolable limits to the reliability of what intelligence can be gathered, to say nothing of the quantity that can even be collected or the time and attention required to process it. Once one has approached those limits, the difference between the unknown and the unknowable becomes academic. 

After that point, call it chaos or luck just as you will. From any practical standpoint, there’s no difference, so I call it luck.


The impact of luck on battle cannot be underestimated. An army’s morale will sometimes break after a very minor defeat. The will of the commander can hinge on a single bad omen, a lost paycheck, or a case of food poisoning. A general leading from the front may well inspire his troops, but he’s also very likely to fall in the opening shots of the engagement; any commander who habitually exposes himself to danger will eventually, inevitably, die in battle, the only question being when. The death of “Stonewall” Jackson is a perfect example of this.

For the responsible unit commander, this question must remain in the forefront of their mind. There are times when inspiration outweighs risk as a factor, and when courage trumps prudence. When the time is right, risk must be embraced without hesitation. Knowing this alone is not enough; knowing and then acting appropriately requires courage. It is the proper place for valor in the leader where individual acts of heroism are proper to a soldier.  

The same lesson, writ larger, exists for the force commander. For him, it is not a matter of personal risk but rather danger for the army as a whole — through it the war, and through that the nation itself. When loss is otherwise certain and victory can be achieved only at great risk, that risk must be taken, and damn the consequences. Logistics, strategies, tactics: Mastery of these preserves the army, generates momentum, and creates opportunity. But the true acme of a general’s art lies in knowing when and how to toss the dice.

The flip side of the coin is just as vital: When victory depends on the enemy making a mistake, the wise general must give him every opportunity to do so — and at the same time avoid taking chances. The enemy’s awareness of this changes the math; when a risk is expected, the odds get worse, and when unexpected much better – which is why one must always conceal one’s condition from one’s adversary. This in turn increases their fog of war, creates apparent chaos in their front, and so makes luck more of a factor for the enemy than oneself.

All war, after all, is based on deception.

Tolliver South, Lt. Col., USFN (Ret.) 
Charmed World 
0127 N.E. 


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