Strategy as Fiction

Editor's Note: This article is a response to Brett Friedmans's "Strategy as Narrative." His article will help illuminate the origin of the points made here.

War is absolutely an act of communication.

Joseph Campbell’s classic Hero with a Thousand Faces reveals how deeply ingrained the arc of epic stories is in all human cultures. Campbell shows us that heroes, quests, challenges…stories where a “hero” must go fetch a boon for his tribe have so many similarities across so many cultures its as if the skeletal plotline is part of our hippocampus and cultural particularism merely attaches names and places. This brings up the question of whether these concepts are hardwired into our minds, and whether epics have to play out a certain way. War is certainly an epic tale.

Brett gives mention to Charles Hill’s Grand Strategy, Literature, and Statecraft,but admitting that he hasn’t read it, he has actually rendered something unique that compliments Hill. I think Hill does great work explaining how narrative can distill understanding of identity and crisis (the two define each other) that allows people to harmonize with a strategy often without recognizing it. Hill also paints an excellent picture of how robust a connection there is between great strategists and their love of certain epic stories, but Friedman extends that to say that strategy itself must be a kind of story.

I’m borrowing this from some of my forthcoming writing (may be a while) on this topic:

Strategy must convince your adversary of your will; your intention to impose your will; your ability to impose your will; and your adversary must be convinced that you can understand changes in his intent well enough to adapt your actions. Strategy is communication through war. …
Strategy convinces an adversary of the likelihood of an alternative future. Strategy must develop a fictional reality in the mind of the adversary sufficient to convince that adversary that he can shape the fiction, but that you can enforce it. Strategy is a fiction that your adversary believes you can make real. …
So who can write good strategy? One test could be to find who can write good fiction (Renken, Political Efficacy, forthcoming).

I wrote this two years ago and I’ve since spent a lot of time swimming with philosophy, theory of mind, and the neural correlates of consciousness (I highly recommend T. Metzingers Being No One) to propose some testable hypotheses about just how hard-wired our mind is to absorb stories differently than other kinds of information. Remember, we are in a very rational age and we assume that all thoughts either contribute to our “reason” or constitute something like irrelevant internal weather. That vastly under-appreciates how complex our neurology is, our thoughts are, and our minds are.

Consider a few ideas about what we consider “consciousness.” I want to stay away from folk philosophy and apply an idea from Metzinger. Consciousness is a unique state where information available in one part of the brain/body is made “globally available” for use in all the various areas of the brain that occasionally work in isolation. That is to say, when a thought, sensation, perception enters your consciousness it stops being just an element of a process that may occur subconsciously or pre-reflectively and starts being something about which you may apply executive faculties. By executive faculty I really just mean it is something about which you can contribute decisions.

You rarely think about the beating of your heart and make that sensation globally available to all of your contemplative faculties, but it keeps occurring. You can decide to think about it, and may even decide to try to slow or speed your heart, but when you don’t bring executive function to bear it goes on in the background. The fright that you experience when the wind, or something more sinister, blows the door open invokes a series of responses you had reflected upon in the past (where is the other door, a gun, my wife, etc.). Those memories / “plans” were dormant until elevated to conscious awareness by the upsetting perception of an unexpected breach. That is to say, memories and bodily functions can be elevated to “consciousness” by a sensation or decision, but they exists full time below the threshold of consciousness.

Just like many of your body’s physical actions, controlled by the brain, occur transparently (digestion, respiration, motor control), your mind also has cognitive functions that are essentially transparent to your consciousness because they do not trigger the need for executive function.

Think of art appreciation, comedy and learning. These activities require very little executive function, but they all depend upon generating understanding in the subject. Art soaks in. You can choose to try to make decisions about its meaning, but that almost always hinders a raw understanding that the artist was trying to create. In comedy, there’s often a cadence of returning to a thematic punch-line with a new twist. The “hook” of repetition enables the audience to rapidly get the “turn” of the joke in a way our minds find satisfying. Likewise, in learning, we don’t “decide” to understand something. Often through repetition and exposure we arrive at understanding. We know that upon exposure to an idea, the brain has areas that begin working towards understanding without elevating that process to a globally available conscious state. Suddenly, we can just work out the problem.

It is an interesting aside that some of that subconscious learning mode,understanding role, may integrate nicely with concepts in evolutionary anthropology that hypothesize how humans learned to “think.” Our brains need the calories of animal flesh, but our bipedal structure makes us a relatively poor hunter in most ways save one. We can run. We run relatively slowly, but our ability to regulate respiration independently of pace, and do thermal management through sweat rather than panting makes humans the greatest “persistence hunters” of all (check out Born to Run by Christopher McDougall).

We can run a deer to death because it bolts when frightened and cannot recover in the minimal interim it takes our persistent human hunter to catch up to it, threatening it again and forcing it to bolt until it is exhausted to the point of collapse or death. But that means that the deer spends much of its time out of sight well ahead of the pursuer, forcing humans to begin deciding what to do about the animal without having the subject of their intention apparent to react to. The running caveman follows his fleeing quarry along a game trail until it splits, and then he must decide which way to go based upon secondary indicators that force him to imagine where the deer would choose to go.

This executive action has to be optimized for speed since time not closing with the deer allows it to recover and run again, costing further calories until the hunter can replenish. On the other hand, understanding has time to develop. Learning to recognize repeated indicators and draw better conclusions (follow wet tracks rather than dry) allows the caveman better orientation and improves the quality of future decisions, but understanding takes time because it has time. The mind is designed to decide quickly and learn slowly.

Back to the connection to stories.

Stories do not require executive function, they develop understanding. One of the reasons war, as a fiction the strategist “writes” on the pages of reality, has attributes like literature is because it is not over until the enemy “understands.” The goal of strategy is control, but one of the best kids of control over humans is one where they control themselves because they understand that self-censure is in their best interest. This is also the basis of morality education.

No doubt there will be many executive functions in war, but wars are not over just because one side decides to capitulate, they are over when one side understands that it has lost and the other has won. The role of narrative is to develop that understanding. To that end, the narrative doesn’t have to appeal to our conscious, executive mind — it has to work on our unconscious learning mind. People who poo-poo narrative for want of something a little more calculable have deprived themselves of a powerful tool.

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