Emotional Strategy in War

Mike Asimos
4 min readMar 8, 2022

Military strategy is the pursuit of victory through military power. There are multiple models for visualizing and analyzing strategy, but for the purpose of this paper, it is both necessary and sufficient to focus on the main functions that strategy is supposed to serve. Three such functions stand out as particularly prominent in the writings of strategic theorists: strategy serves to understand the character of the war at hand, strategy is supposed to direct the course of war, and strategy is about the achievement of victory. Emotions play an important role in the fulfillment of all these functions.

First of all, strategy seeks to understand the character of the war at hand. Hew Strachan observes that “strategy’s primary mission is to enable an understanding of the character of the war to which armed forces are being committed.”46 Similarly, Antulio Echevarria points out that the most important, and the only real, principles of war are to understand the nature of war in general and the nature of the particular war at hand.47 The character of each war is shaped by many factors from politics to technology, as well as the interaction between these factors. Nonetheless, since strategy is inherently a human endeavor, people, notably their choices and their behavior, are most consequential for the character of any war. Thus, if one wishes to understand the character of a given war, one can do worse than to explore what people in that particular war care about. Such an understanding will help us to understand the changes in the character of a war as it unfolds. This is where emotions, especially emotional stimuli, enter the picture. As explained in the preceding section, emotional stimuli are those issues that people care about. Hence, we may learn what the people in a war care about by studying emotional stimuli.48 Importantly, studying emotional stimuli helps us to understand what the strategists do not care about, which may be equally illuminating. Therefore, emotional stimuli provide us with a window into the salient aspects of a war´s character.

The practice of military strategy can hence be understood as a large-scale emotional manipulation conducted for the purpose of victory.

Second, military strategists seek to direct the course of a war by constantly choosing among competing options. To a large extent, strategy is about decisions people make concerning the use of military power. Choices about the use of military power are usually tough because they require weighing out different and often contradictory values. Therefore, strategic choices are about prioritizing. For example, Beatrice Heuser argues that strategy is about preferring one enemy instead of another, one front over another, and one service over another.49 Perhaps overstating the issue a bit, Clausewitz observes that “a skilful ordering of priority of engagements … is what strategy is all about.”50 It follows that strategists have to select priorities related to three basic questions at all times and places: whether to apply military power, how to sequence its application, and by what means. Emotions enable this kind of strategic choice because they direct our cognitive processes toward the stimulus that matters the most in the given moment.51 Simply put, emotions make us capable of deciding about the use of military power.

Third, military strategy is about achieving victory, meaning the imposition of one’s will upon the adversary. As Lukas Milevski points out “the whole purpose of strategy as classically understood is to negate itself, to bring about a situation in which it is no longer necessary … because one belligerent has successfully imposed his will upon his opponent.”52 While choices are important, it is only through the actual performance, the employment of military power, that victory can be achieved.53 In the broadest terms, the achievement of victory requires the sustainment of military capability and the will to use it at the home front, as well as the disruption of the adversary’s capability and will to resist.54 Emotions are salient in the achievement of both preconditions. Emotions constitute the fuel that enables strategic performance in the first place because they sustain or even increase the will of the society to carry on fighting. They may also shatter the adversary’s will to fight, for example by altering risk perceptions and motivating submissive behavior. Alternatively, emotions may disrupt the adversary’s capability to control its society by nurturing adversity between the government, the population, and the armed forces. The practice of military strategy can hence be understood as large-scale emotional manipulation conducted for the purpose of victory.

In sum, military strategy students should incorporate emotions into their research by focusing on emotional stimuli in war, emotional influence on strategic choices, and emotional manipulation as a mechanism for the achievement of victory. The next three sections discuss each of these areas in more detail.

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Mike Asimos

CEO and Founder of Charleston Capital Holdings in South Carolina