Emotional Stimulation in War

Mike Asimos
4 min readMar 10, 2022

War, more so than other social activities, is particularly fertile ground for emotional stimuli because it is inherently uncertain and significantly affects people’s well-being. Uncertainty is inherent to war mostly because of its interactive nature.55 The actors in a war actively try to pursue their objectives and to frustrate the efforts of their adversary. This interaction produces uncertainty for all participants because they seldom know what the other side is going to do in the next moment. Since emotions are the main mechanism that people have to cope with uncertainty, they are likely to proliferate in war. War is also likely to produce emotional stimuli because it carries with it the possibility of death, harm, and status degradation.56 While it sometimes creates opportunities to satisfy one’s desires, more often it signifies mere misery and destruction.57 In all cases, war stimulates strong concerns for survival and well-being and, therefore, is a perfect environment for emotional stimuli to thrive in.

Systematic thinking about emotional stimuli in war requires categorization. The basic categories of emotional stimuli correspond to the main concerns of belligerents in a war. In the broadest sense, these are violence, chance and friction, and politics.58 Just as in Clausewitz’s thinking, the boundaries between these categories are not solid and there are overlaps. Nevertheless, differentiating between them is important because different stimuli elicit different kinds of emotions.

Violence, especially reciprocal violence, is the defining feature of war. By violence I mean inflicting intentional physical harm on other people.59 Because violence suggests the prospect of harm and death, it acts as a strong emotional stimulus for people who encounter it. Those experiencing violence in battles may well feel intense and diverse emotions because of the very real and immediate dangers of close combat.60 The farther away from the battle people are, the more their emotions vary depending on their interpretation of the situation. A military setback can stimulate sadness, fear, or anger, while success may stimulate a sense of relief or pride. Yet, ultimately, the emotional experience depends on the strategist’s appraisal of the whole situation. For example, after the bloody battle of Malplaquet in 1709, the commanding general of the French armies, Marshal Claude Louis Hector de Villars, expressed elation and perhaps even happiness at his adversaries’ military success. Understanding the Pyrrhic character of the adversaries’ tactical victory, he wrote to the French king that “if God gives us the grace to lose another similar battle, your Majesty can count on his enemies being destroyed.”61 There is no theoretical limit to the spectrum of emotions associated with violent stimuli, though in practice some emotions may occur more often than others.

Chance and friction are inevitable, though often under-appreciated, elements of strategic practice. Chance refers to events that are beyond the belligerents’ control or intention. Friction refers to organizational and technological obstacles that belligerents may face. Both phenomena often go hand-in-hand and are common stimuli of emotions in the conduct of military strategy. Experiencing logistical difficulties is the paramount example of how chance and friction can cause emotional responses. The Persian king and military strategist Xerxes I, for instance, famously had the waters of the Hellespont whipped after his bridges were destroyed by a storm, because it delayed his invasion of Greece. At another time, a mountain blocking his path inspired him to write an angry letter to the pile of rocks.62 These are humorous and perhaps fictional examples, but they convey an important point: There is much in our lives that is beyond our control, and yet we still care deeply about them. Across history, natural disasters have often produced “loss and horror, and with it suffering, pain, confusion, shock, chaos, trauma,” but the emotional responses have varied widely, including “fear, sorrow, guilt or repentance, but also awe, wonder, or even blame, hate and vengeance.”63 Yet, it does not take a hurricane to alter someone’s emotions. Even slight changes in the outdoor temperature or sunlight can have some impact on the emotions we experience.64 Chance and friction are, therefore, omnipresent and salient emotional stimuli that deserve close scrutiny.

Politics is simply the pursuit of human desires within and between social communities.65 Politics penetrates war in all its moments and is thus a particularly common emotional stimulus. Again, the type of emotion that results from politics varies depending on the meaning that people ascribe to the particular manifestation of politics in any given moment. Often, those responsible for the employment of military power become frustrated with political interference into what they erroneously consider to be solely a military affair. For example, Austrian Gen. Raimondo Montecuccoli once got extremely angry at his government in Vienna because it extensively limited his freedom of action during the wars against France in the early 1670s.66 Working with some military colleagues can be equally frustrating. For example, Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general during the American Civil War, elicited hatred in everyone he was supposed to cooperate with.67 Yet, politics can also be a source of positive emotions. For example, when an ally comes to one’s aid in a war, the latter is likely to feel hope, relief, or even “the greatest joy,” as in the case of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill when the United States finally entered World War II.68 Politics provides belligerents with an inexhaustible and diverse pool of emotional stimuli.

The key for a scholar of strategy is to disentangle integral emotions from the incidental ones. This is a challenging task. The hatred that originates from personal disagreements can carry over to the decision-making about the use of military power. Sadness about the death of a friend in battle can influence choices about political alliances. Nonetheless, only by tracing emotions back to their original stimuli can students understand the subsequent choices and people’s behavior in war. The next two sections elaborate further on the complex relationship between emotional stimuli, strategic choices, and the pursuit of victory.

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Mike Asimos

CEO and Founder of Charleston Capital Holdings in South Carolina