The week I was born – at the end of July in 1956 – the big news was the sinking of the Italian luxury ship the SS Andrea Doria. It had collided with the MS Stockholm of the Swedish American Line off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts. The Stockholm eventually limped into port, but the Andrea Doria found its way to the bottom of the Atlantic, following a famous lingering list.
The Andrea Doria had been traveling in heavy fog for several hours before the collision.
When the surface is shrouded by cloud-like mist, the prudent thing for anyone trying to navigate is to exercise caution. Fog is not favorable to a full-speed-ahead approach. You crawl cautiously through fog if you hope to emerge safely. The fog can be especially disorienting, so it calls for the clearest thinking and decision-making.
In his classic treatise On War, Prussian military analyst Carl Von Clausewitz noted:
“The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not frequently – like the effect of a fog or moonshine – gives to things exaggerated dimensions an unnatural appearance.”
Thus was born the concept, the fog of war – the idea that decision-making is, at best, marked by ambiguity while a conflict or crisis is raging. Of course, leaders don’t always have the luxury of prolonged periods of reflection while bombs are dropping, and instinct must kick in. But generally the best decisions made in the heat of battle have been thought through earlier.
Using the warfare metaphor for dealing with economic crisis is nothing new. FDR invoked it during his 1933 “fear itself” inaugural. LBJ declared war on poverty and Jimmy Carter talked about “the moral equivalent of war” during a pre-malaise address on the energy crisis in the early days of his soon-to-fail administration.