Information in War
By the word “Information,” we denote all the knowledge which we have of the enemy and his country; therefore, in fact, the foundation of all our ideas and actions. Let us just consider the nature of this foundation, its want of trustworthiness, its changefulness, and we shall soon feel what a dangerous edifice war is, how easily it may fall to pieces and bury us in its ruins. For although it is a maxim in all books that we should trust only certain information, that we must be always suspicious; that is only a miserable book-comfort, belonging to that description of knowledge in which writers of systems and compendiums take refuge for want of anything better.
Great part of the information obtained in war is contradictory, a still greater part is false, and by far the greatest part is of a doubtful character. What is required of an officer is a certain power of discrimination, which only knowledge of men and things and good judgment can give. The law of probability must be his guide. This is not a trifling difficulty even in respect of the first plans, which can be formed in the chamber outside the real sphere of war; but it is enormously increased when in the thick of war itself one report follows hard upon the heels of another; it is then fortunate if these reports in contradicting each other, show a certain balance of probability, and thus themselves call forth a scrutiny. It is much worse for the inexperienced when accident does not render him this service, but one report supports another, confirms it, magnifies it, finishes off the picture with fresh touches of color, until necessity in urgent haste forces from us a resolution which will soon be discovered to be folly, all those reports having been lies, exaggerations, errors, &c., &c. In a few words, most reports are false, and the timidity of men acts as a multiplier of lies and untruths. As a general rule every one is more inclined to lend credence to the bad than the good. Every one is inclined to magnify the bad in some measure, and although the alarms which are thus propagated, like the waves of the sea, subside into themselves, still, like them, without any apparent cause they rise again. Firm in reliance on his own better convictions, the chief must stand like a rock against which the sea breaks its fury in vain. The role is not easy; he who is not by nature of a buoyant disposition, or trained by experience in war, and matured in judgment, may let it be his rule to do violence to his own natural conviction by inclining from the side of fear to that of hope; only by that means will he be able to preserve his balance. This difficulty of seeing things correctly, which is one of the greatest frictions in war makes things appear quite different to what was expected. The impression of the senses is stronger than the force of the ideas resulting from methodical reflection, and this goes so far that no important undertaking was ever yet carried out without the Commander having to subdue new doubts in himself at the time of commencing the execution of his work. Ordinary men who follow the suggestions of others become, therefore, generally undecided on the spot; they think that they have found circumstances different to what they had expected, and this view gains strength by their again yielding to the suggestions of others. But even the man who has made his own plans when he comes to see things with his own eyes, will often think he has done wrong. Firm reliance on self must make him proof against the seeming pressure of the moment; his first conviction will in the end prove true, when the foreground scenery which fate has pushed on to the stage of war, with its accompaniments of terrific objects is drawn aside, and the horizon extended. This is one of the great chasms which separate conception from execution.