Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our first annual writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.
Now, we are pleased to present the second place essay from Samuel Žilinčík of Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic.
Introduction: The Neglected Part of Cognition
War is a social phenomenon, and it is therefore all about humans; indeed, it is a continuation of human desires by violent means. Furthermore, it is important to recognize that human cognitive processes are a complex amalgamation of both rational and irrational elements. For millennia, emotions were considered to be the opposite of rational judgment, but a growing body of research points to a more nuanced relationship between the two. Emotions seem to be capable of influencing cognitive judgment in a complex and mutually interdependent manner. Emotions may also be perfectly rational, depending on the reasons for their emergence and their proportionality with regard to stimulus. Most comprehensive meta-analysis of contemporary research on the influence of emotions concludes “emotions have small to large effects on cognitive outcomes that vary based on the emotion type and the type of cognitive task.” Recent research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience indicates effective decision-making without the presence of emotions is hardly possible. It is therefore safe to assume that the traditional dichotomy between irrational emotions and rational cognition is illusory.
Emotions are abundantly present in contemporary warfare, and various non-state actors, in particular, use acts of terror to invoke fear in target audiences. The same emotion is also central to the successes or failures of deterrence. Various intra-state conflicts in Central Africa are waged for the most emotional of causes, usually a mixture of greed and grievances. It seems the role of moral factors has actually expanded in modern warfare due to the influence of real-time mass media on public opinion.
Despite their abundance, emotions are largely ignored by students of strategic studies. The research that has been done usually operates with a vague notion of passion, without really conceptualizing it and without due attention to particular passions or emotions. Compared to the volumes devoted to other aspects of strategy, the understanding of emotions is in a poor place.
This ignorance impedes understanding of war and warfare. One of the most important functions of strategy is to understand the nature of war in general and the character of the wars at hand. It is impossible to understand the wars at hand when the influence of emotions on decision-making process is neglected, and, as a result some scholars of strategy openly call for strategic studies to devote more attention to the role of emotions in contemporary strategic practice in order to rectify the gap.
The purpose of this essay is to contribute to this end by providing an overview of the instrumental role of emotions in strategic theory. Two research questions guide this essay. Which emotions are useful for strategic purpose? And how are particular emotions instilled by the manipulation of violence? Answers to these questions should provide us with a clearer picture of the strategic utility of the emotions.
This essay begins by defining the concepts underpinning the rest of the work. In the subsequent section, theoretical analysis is used to identify the characteristics of each emotion, the impact on cognitive processes, and the relationship to strategic purpose. The last section then deals with the specific ways in which emotions can be instilled in strategic practice. In the conclusion, the findings are summarized and avenues for further research are discussed.
Basic Concepts and Levels of Analysis
For the purpose of this essay, emotions are defined as feelings produced as a consequence of an appraisal of the reality. This analysis is based on the paradigm of basic emotions, which is a dominant tradition in the strand of psychology closely related to the biological underpinnings of emotions. Opposed to social constructionism, this paradigm holds that there is a limited number of emotions universal to all cultures across the globe and through time. Various psychologists have offered lists of basic emotions with some variations. There are some emotions present in the majority of the lists, however—fear, anger, sadness, happiness, surprise and disgust—and this research will focus on these particular emotions and their variations.
Strategy is here understood as the manipulation of organized violence to produce desired effects. Strategy in general consists of means, ways, and purpose. The only relevant means of strategy are violence and the particular resources for its application. Ways stand for various strategic practices in which violence is manipulated. Purposes may vary, but in general the purpose of strategy is to reduce the enemy’s will and capacity to fight. This essay is focused on the former as the latter cannot be easily achieved at the chosen level of analysis.
With regard to the levels and the units of analysis, this essay focuses on the strategic level of war and decision-making bodies of political collectives. This means those invoking emotions are leaders with the capacity to use armed force to pursue political objectives, while targets of emotions are adversary political bodies responsible for decision-making in war.
The scale of these bodies has varied considerably across military history, from thousand-strong audiences in ancient Greece to cabinets of modern times consisting of just a few people. Since a decision-making body is rarely composed of only one person, it is necessary to examine the possibility of evoking emotions in groups of people. Recent research in psychology and organizational science indicates that evocation of collective emotions is possible, though there is some disagreement as to how exactly the emotions are spread at the level of the collective.
Psychological explanations of group emotions tend to be applicable to larger groups, and they emphasize the identity aspects of individuals as crucial in experiencing collective emotion. In this approach, individuals can experience the same emotions across a whole group depending on how much they identify with the collective. When there is a strong identification between individuals and the group, the individuals tend to perceive events affecting the group as affecting them as individuals too, even if they are not actually affected in practice. So, one possible way of instilling emotion into an adversary’s decision-making body is a situation where members of that body are known to identify with the collective against which the attacking force is targeting activities designed to provoke emotional responses.
Organizational science, focusing on smaller groups, provides an alternative explanation for the emergence of group emotions. The key mechanism for the spread of emotions is an interaction between individuals. Emotions are spread just like ideas, through contagion with other members of the collective. In this sense an individual’s emotions influence the emotions of others in their respective collectives. Hence, even if not all members of a decision-making body are immediately influenced by the perception of the adversary’s actions, the chances are that they will gradually become influenced by their colleagues.
Theoretical Analysis of Individual Emotions
Scared people are uncertain about the future, and people who are afraid tend to choose risk-free options. Fear influences judgment to be strongly pessimistic about future events and especially about the risk of occurrence of negative events. Since war is all about risk, chance, and uncertainty, scared individuals are likely to avoid using military forces for extended periods of time. This quality contributes to the strategic purpose.
People under the influence of fear also tend to expect a great deal of effort to obtain or even maintain their goals. This decreases their will to fight, because the chances of gaining or maintaining their objectives are scarce. As a consequence, they are likely to become demotivated and give up resistance to the enemy. Fear, therefore contributes to the strategic purpose.
Sad individuals tend to seek risk-free options and over-estimate the probability for the occurrence of negative events. In order to avoid these events, they tend to choose options which are as risk-free as possible. Since war is always a risky choice, sad individuals prefer to avoid it at all cost. This means they are more willing to submit to the adversary then to resist him. This characteristic contributes to the strategic purpose as it decreases the will of its victims to continue waging war.
Sadness also influences an individual’s judgment so that they feel unable to achieve or maintain desired objectives. Sad subjects perceive the flow of events to be largely independent of their actions. In other words, they feel the external environment is what decides their fate. Additionally, subjects under the influence of sadness perceive the effort required to improve their situation to be disproportionately high. These qualities lead sad people to submit to the adversary rather than resist, because they perceive any kind of resistance to be futile. This characteristic contributes to the strategic purpose, as it decreases the will of subjects to wage war.
Surprised people feel uncertain about the unfolding future, and such uncertainty is a product of the interruption of ongoing thoughts and processes. This uncertainty tends to frustrate the capacity to understand complex reality, as surprised individuals are simply not certain their actions will have the desired effect. Consequently, they do not understand what is going on, and thus prefer not to act in any manner. This leads to the effective paralysis of decision-making processes and contributes to the strategic purpose as it effectively nullifies subject’s will to fight.
Happy people tend to choose risky options, because happiness influences judgment so as to create optimistic estimates of the occurrence of negative events and capabilities at one’s disposal. Consequently, individuals under the influence of happiness feel strongly in control of their situation. This characteristic goes against the strategic purpose because it motivates individuals to ignore risks inherent in war and it motivates them to wage it with eagerness.
Happiness also encourages people to perceive their goals as easily achievable and maintainable. This means that those waging war expect low levels of effort to accomplish their goals. This further increases their will to fight. This goes directly against the strategic purpose as it promises easy victories in war.
Both primary characteristics of happiness go against the strategic purpose. Certainty about the future and the perception that everything is under control lead happy decision-makers to choose risky options. This is augmented by the low amount of effort expected to achieve war aims. Both of these characteristics increase the will to fight and thus go directly against the strategic purpose.
Angry individuals prefer risky choices, because they underestimate the likelihood of negative events. Anger thus influences cognitive processes to under-estimate failure and over-estimate chances of success. This tendency to prefer high-risk choices goes directly against the strategic purpose, because the waging of war is one of the riskiest human activities possible.
Anger is triggered by an appraisal of reality in which the subject suspects that some other agency is responsible for his failure to achieve or maintain his desired goals. Angry individuals tend to desire punishment for the wrong-doings they have suffered. The fact that a particular actor is to blame indicates that anger is more likely to influence judgment to produce aggressive actions rather than any decrease of effort. This characteristic goes directly against the strategic purpose as it motivates individuals to seek revenge at all cost.
From an analysis of its characteristics, anger does not seem to be capable of influencing judgment so as to fulfill the strategic purpose. Rather it seems to do quite the opposite. It influences judgment so as to increase the one’s will to fight. The risk-taking characteristic motivates individuals to ignore the risks of waging war. The strong emphasis on the responsibility of another agency motivates to wage war at all cost. For these reasons, instilling anger in the adversary seems to be unable to produce the desired strategic purpose.
Disgust fills the individuals with a perception of dangerous contamination. This motivates individuals to either get rid of the contaminated object or to avoid contact with it. This can both increase and decrease the will to fight. Disgust can motivate people to fight and get rid of the “contaminated enemy,” or it can motivate them to avoid fighting, because there is a serious risk of contamination.
Disgust is an ambiguous emotion. It has the potential to militate both for and against the strategic purpose. On one hand, it can motivate subjects to pursue war even more eagerly. On the other, it can motivate them to keep away from the possible source of contamination. The precise way it influences judgment is probably determined by the particular circumstances of any given situation.
The theoretical analysis above has revealed that all of the basic emotions, except anger and happiness, have a potential to be utilized for strategic purpose. The analysis yields a framework for actual examination of the use of emotions in strategic practice. In the following section, the literature is examined to find out whether and how the four basic emotions have been used in strategic practice to achieve strategic purpose.
Invoking Emotions in Strategic Practice
Classical strategists identify two ways in which violence can be manipulated to invoke fear in the adversary’s decision-making bodies. The first is the use of terror. Thucydides gives a good example of this when he describes how Cleon wanted to use indiscriminate violence against the rebels from the city of Mytilene. In this case the genocide of the insurgents would frighten other potential rebels from similar attempts. Sun Tzu was also well aware of the strategic potential of fear. When given a chance to train his prince’s concubines into professional troops, he had disobedient leaders beheaded so as to frighten the rest of them into submission. Niccolo Machiavelli illustrates the same point with anecdotal examples. He shows how Hannibal “…with cruelty, violence, robbery, and every type of faithlessness produced the same effect that Scipio had produced in Spain…for all the cities of Italy rebelled to Hannibal, all the peoples followed him.” Indeed, most often whomsoever makes himself feared is more likely to be followed and more obeyed than whomsoever makes himself loved. Similarly, Giulio Douhet advocated using the newly invented tool of airpower to bomb the populations of enemy cities so that people would want to surrender due to sheer horror and terror at the bombardment...even before land and naval forces engaged in any kind of combat.
The second way of instilling fear is by reliance on the prospect of potential violence. In this strand of thought, violence is held in reserve and not used in practice. This approach is identified by Carl von Clausewitz when he emphasizes that “we must also be willing to wage such minimal wars, which consist in merely threatening the enemy, with negotiations held in reserve.”  In other words, the very possibility of combat may render the actual combat unnecessary, because the adversary’s will to fight may collapse as a consequence of fear instilled by the possibility of combat. This way of manipulating violence gained even more prominence with the advent of nuclear weapons. Bernard Brodie wrote long treaties on how to build particular weapon systems so as to frighten the enemy most effectively. Similarly, Thomas Schelling emphasized the utility of “power to hurt,” arguing violence held in reserve so as to frighten the enemy is more effective than the actual use of violence.
There are two ways of invoking sadness in strategic practice. The first is based on deliberately protracted war. Thucydides gives an example of instilling sadness in the protracted warfare waged by Athenians against the Peloponnesians. Clausewitz points to a similar approach when he claims it is perfectly possible to wear an enemy down using the duration of a war to bring about the gradual exhaustion of his moral forces. Mao Zedong recommends avoidance of large-scale battles while harassing an enemy in order to instill sadness into the decision-making bodies of an adversary. He describes the effects of this approach with the following words, “Signs of exhaustion are beginning to appear in his (enemy’s) finances and economy; war-weariness is beginning to set in among his people and troops and within the clique at the helm of the war, ‘frustrations’ are beginning to manifest themselves and pessimism about the prospects of the war is growing.”
The second way of instilling sadness by the manipulation of violence is also identified by Clausewitz. The Prussian writes that defeating the opponent’s armed force in a series of engagements can inculcate sadness into the enemy’s decision-making bodies. The sadness produced by repeated defeats gradually moves from the tactical to the strategic level of war. When it reaches the decision-makers it reduces their will to wage war.
There are two ways in which surprise can be produced by manipulation of violence. The first is deception with regard to the disposition of means for inflicting violence. According to Sun Tzu, all warfare is based on deception, and he offers an eloquent passage on precisely how it is to be employed to instill surprise, stating, “When able, seem to be unable; when ready, seem unready; when nearby, seem far away; and when far away, seem near.” Thucydides also gives an example of how surprise can produced. He describes how in 424 B.C. the Athenians wanted to capture certain major cities by surprise, generated by a concentric attack from three different sides. The attack was based on the assumption the enemy decision-making body would be unable to decide which threat to eliminate first and an overall paralysis of the adversary would ensue. In the end, the plan failed, but its fundamental logic was sound. Clausewitz also considers invoking surprise to be at the very core of warfare. One of the key prerequisites for the instilling of surprise is secrecy, which is hard at the strategic level. Nevertheless it is possible and potent if everything goes well.
The second way of instilling surprise by the manipulation of violence is the speed of its delivery. Clausewitz mentions speed as the second fundamental prerequisite for invoking surprise. Basil Liddell Hart claims it is speed of movement in the physical sphere which influences the inculcation of surprise in the psychological sphere. According to John Boyd, the speed is absolutely crucial for surprise. Taking the necessary actions at a faster pace than the enemy ensures the latter gradually loses conception of what is happening and his mental images become disoriented. This leads to the paralysis of his entire mental processes and his will to fight gradually collapses.
A brief review of the key writings of pre-eminent classical strategists yielded the following results: fear is invoked by terror and by violence withheld in reserve; sadness is invoked by deliberately protracted warfare and by cumulative strings of defeats; surprise is invoked by deception and fast movement of violent means. However, other strategic thinkers reviewed are completely silent on the potential use of disgust in strategic practice.
Conclusion: Toward the Emotion-Centric Perspective
This essay sought answers to two research questions. First, which emotions are useful for strategic purpose? Theoretical analysis indicates that fear, surprise, sadness and disgust have the potential to contribute to strategic purpose. Anger and happiness seem to go against the strategic purpose.
Second, how are particular emotions invoked by the manipulation of violence? The review of strategic theory yields the following findings: fear is invoked by terror and by violence withheld in reserve; sadness is invoked by deliberately protracted warfare and by cumulative strings of defeats; surprise is invoked by deception and fast movements of the violent means.
The findings of this research are consistent with a popular theme of contemporary strategic theory. Colin Gray has for decades claimed the essence of strategy is eternal and that technological innovations do not change the fundamental logic of strategy. The findings of this research support these observations. The particular strategic practices used to inculcate particular emotions seem to be consistent across centuries.
This essay has important academic implications. First, the emotion-centric perspective should provide scholars with a useful lens to analyze the conduct of war throughout history. This valuable new perspective could complement the well-established model of ends-ways-means. A combination of these perspectives should generate a better understanding of strategy and its individual components. With recent developments in neuroscience and psychology, there is no excuse for students of strategy to exclude the emotional perspective from their toolkit.
The real-world implications of the essay could also be inspirational. The essay demonstrates that to master the strategy-making process it is necessary to understand the complexities of human cognition. The potential reward is well-worth the effort. The large pool of strategically useful emotions offers opportunities for creativity in the process of crafting strategies. Decision-makers should employ an emotion-centric perspective to understand the full spectrum of consequences generated by the manipulation of violence.
A caveat at least as important as the rest of this essay is in order. Military instruments often have a hard time creating desired kinetic effects due to the friction inherent in war itself. Invoking particular emotional effects is even harder, because these are inevitably dependent on the perception of the adversary. Thus, the findings of this essay should be taken with the greatest caution possible. In the abstract research, the invocation of emotions may seem simple, but in the real world it is never an easy process. For example, armed forces intending to invoke fear may very well invoke anger instead. And the latter has a very different influence on the strategic purpose than the former. One contemporary instance of this may be seen with the rotating NATO battalions in the Baltic States. Do these forces frighten the Russian political circles or do they make them angry? It is impossible to tell without reading the latter’s minds but the border between the two emotions can sometimes be thin, while the different consequences may be dire.
This essay should not be regarded as the final word on the subject, as the modest scope does not allow for such an ambitious claim. Rather, it could provide a stepping stone for research in this fascinating and under-explored area of strategic theory. There are many possible avenues for further research. The emotion of anger should be examined carefully with regard to its potential to gain control over the enemy’s decision-making body. While anger cannot decrease the enemy’s will, increasing it may still produce great benefits for the instigator. The strategic practice of the Peloponnesians against the Athenians could provide a case study for this. Disgust remains an enigma among emotions, as it is completely ignored by strategic thinkers. For this reason case studies combined with process tracing might prove useful in examining its potential. Additionally, the use of various emotions to increase the morale of armed forces should provide students a fruitful area of research with plenty of examples to examine.
Samuel Žilinčík holds degrees in Security and Strategic Studies from Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. In his research, he focuses on strategic theory and military history. He is the author of several scientific papers examining the character and nature of contemporary warfare, such as “Clausewitz and Hybrid War.” He also co-authored a monograph dealing with the historical evolution of operational concepts titled Development of Operational Concepts: History and Contemporary Practice.
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Header Image: A grief stricken American infantryman whose buddy has been killed in action is comforted by another soldier. In the background a corpsman methodically fills out casualty tags, Haktong-ni area Korea. (SFC Al Chang/National Archives)
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 Gray makes this argument in several volumes, for example in Gray, C. 2016. The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Also in Gray, C. Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy.