Friction in War & Life

In “On War,” Clausewitz discusses friction extensively. The small difficulties experienced on the battlefield, Clausewitz successfully argued, cannot be entirely conceived. And while many of these difficulties are not that impactful on their own, combined with the myriad of other challenges one will likely face, even the easiest of tasks becomes challenging. One of the Laws of Combat espoused by Jocko Willink in “Extreme Ownership” is the concept of Simple.  However, simple does not imply easy. By relating the concepts of simple and friction, in War especially, plans, orders, actions must be kept simple because as Clausewitz states, “everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult.” Such as in life.

War is an extreme example of these friction forces and their impact on the most extreme environment an individual can experience. But in life, we feel these frictions everyday. The small, compounding factors in our lives can easily take us to a place where it feels as though we cannot accomplish even the simplest of tasks. In “Essentialism” a major part of the challenge we all face in life is determining how we spend our limited time and who we invite into our lives. Unfortunately, Clausewitz also points out that “through the influence of an infinity of petty circumstances, which cannot properly be described on paper, things disappoint us, and we fall short of the mark.”

How do we overcome these frictions. Here Clausewitz also provides some suggestions. Here, a strong will and unwavering discipline can overcome friction, but at a cost. “A powerful iron will overcomes this friction; it crushes the obstacles, but certainly the machine along with them.” The effort expending to overcome the friction comes at a cost. Sometimes the cost of that effort results in accomplishing the mission or achieving your desired end state but with the complete destruction of the machine itself.

So how do we deal with the consequences of overcoming this friction? First, keep things simple. Second, get comfortable being uncomfortable. That means you will not and cannot know everything or plan for every conceivable contingency. Accept that the fate of chance will rear its ugly head and that you must deal with it. Finally, realize that reality and life are going to be the greatest teachers. Theory and study will only take you so far meaning that “War is movement in a resistant medium. Just as a man immersed in water is unable to perform with ease and regularity the most natural and simplest movement, that of walking, so in War, with ordinary powers, one cannot keep even the line of mediocrity. This is the reason that the correct theorist is like a swimming master, who teaches on dry land movements which are required in the water, which must appear grotesque and ludicrous to those who forget about the water.”


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