Emotional Strategy in Military Power

Mike Asimos
5 min readMar 12, 2022

Strategic choice is a core element of strategic practice. Making a strategic choice means making decisions about the employment of military power. While there are countless possible contexts in which military power might be used and, therefore, an infinite pool of potential questions facing a strategist, three questions are general enough that they are likely to be relevant in most scenarios. The first question is whether to apply military power at all. This is arguably the most important question because the decision to employ or not to employ military power has significant physical and psychological consequences for all belligerents. The second question is how to sequence the application of military power. This question logically follows from the first one and brings more specificity to the table because it zooms in on the contextual aspects of the situation. The final question is what means to use in the employment of military power. All these choices are fundamentally emotional because emotions enable strategic practitioners to decide among competing options in any given moment.

The first question that the strategist needs to resolve is whether to apply military power at all. Some emotions, such as anger or hatred, motivate the application of military power by making the strategist more likely to seek risk or by giving him the desire to eradicate the adversary’s society.69 Other emotions, such as fear, surprise, or sadness, may motivate a strategist to refrain from fighting by increasing pessimism about the probability of success.70 Despite these tendencies, much depends on the original stimulus. In the Illiad, for example, the Greek hero Achilles chose to abstain from fighting when offended by his commander, the Mycenaean King Agamemnon. Anger motivated the famous hero to punish Agamemnon by not helping the Greeks in their fight against the Trojans. However, when the Trojan Prince Hector killed Achilles’ close friend Patroclus, Achilles chose to fight to punish the Trojans. In this instance, anger triggered by domestic politics made Achilles refrain from fighting, while anger triggered by violence made him fight.71 It was a constant fear of defeat in battle that motivated the Union Gen. George McClellan to avoid meeting the Confederate forces on the battlefield throughout much of his career during the American Civil War.72 Likewise, recent research suggests that for Japanese elites during World War II, the fear of a domestic revolution may have ultimately motivated their surrender.73 However, at another time and place, a growing fear of domestic unpopularity motivated the Spartan King Cleombrotus I to engage the Thebans in the fateful battle of Leuctra in 371 BC.74

All these choices are fundamentally emotional because emotions enable strategic practitioners to decide among competing options in any given moment.

Anticipating future emotions can play as big a role in these choices as the emotional experience itself. Some strategists may choose not to fight in order to avoid future feelings of guilt, while others may do the reverse in order to feel proud. The anticipation of gratitude may spur one strategist to fight on an ally’s behalf, while anticipation of the third party’s anger may have the opposite effect.75 The choice to fight, or to abstain from fighting, is always emotional. But these examples illustrate that the stimuli themselves are as important as the character of the emotions.

The second question that strategic practitioners face is how to sequence the application of military power: which adversary to attack first, where to fight, and when to fight. Here, too, the influence of emotion on strategic choice depends partially on the character of each emotion. For example, if a strategist faces two adversaries, he will likely attack the one he hates more. This is even more likely if he fears the other adversary. In practice, multiple emotions can shape strategic choice at the same time. The Jewish insurgents who attacked each other instead of the Roman legion knocking on Jerusalem’s doors in 70 AD could have been motivated by mutual hatred as well as by the fear of diminishing resources.76

The selection of the adversary is inherently tied to the selection of the geographic location in which to do the fighting. In general, fears of a two-front confrontation often motivate strategists to seek victory on one front before moving all their forces to secure the other. But fear can also motivate leaders to disperse their troops instead of concentrating them in one place. For example, Adolf Hitler was so scared of being surprised by a counter-attack that he dispersed his forces across the front with the Soviet Union instead of focusing them on one decisive point.77

As for when to fight, strategists generally choose to attack sooner rather than later when they fear the deterioration of conditions. Japanese strategists arguably felt this kind of fear before they decided to launch attacks on Pearl Harbor.78 Additionally, envy combined with an anticipation of pride may motivate strategists to attack sooner rather than later, before their colleagues have the opportunity to steal the fame for themselves. This was one of the reasons why the American Gen. Mark Clark focused his forces on capturing Rome instead of hurling them against the withdrawing German forces during the final stages of the Italian campaign during World War II.79 These examples show that the influence of emotions on the sequencing of violence deserves more attention. Above all, they demonstrate that distinct emotions may shape strategic choices differently and that much depends on the stimuli themselves.

The third question relates to the means by which military power is to be applied: What kind of military power should a strategist use, and which tactics should he employ? In general, emotions that make people risk-averse and pessimistic, such as fear or sadness, motivate reliance on cheaper forms of military power, such as cyber power or airpower. Conversely, emotions that encourage risk-taking, such as anger, make strategists feel in control of the situation and motivate them to attack the adversary even with more expensive forms of military power, such as landpower. For example, a study by Kerstin Fisk and her colleagues indicated that both fear and anger may motivate people to support the use of airpower to eliminate the threat of terrorism. However, the authors point out that this consensus is unlikely to hold for using landpower because its employment bears inherently higher risks.80

Emotions also shape choices about what tactics to employ, although it is hard to generalize beyond what has already been said about particular emotions. Fear and sadness encourage playing it safe, while anger and hatred may motivate daring, even reckless endeavors. Yet what is safe and reckless is heavily context-dependent. For example, when the Prussian armies besieged Paris during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–1871, Prussia had to decide whether to bombard the city into submission or starve its inhabitants. In the end, Prussia’s leaders decided to attack, a decision that was rooted in distinct emotions. The Prussian public, motivated by anger and hatred, demanded bombardment as punishment for the historical grievances suffered at the hands of France.81 The chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, advocated the same course of action out of fear that a third party might enter the conflict on behalf of France. This fear made him see bombardment as the most effective means to achieve a favorable peace in time.82

A specific kind of context-sensitivity is required when exploring the influence of emotional anticipation. Military strategists often make choices about the application of violence based on the desire to elicit or avoid eliciting specific emotions. For example, some insurgent groups have recently abstained from indiscriminate violence so as not to provoke hatred in the adversary’s society.83 Hence, from the selection of means at the highest level to the particular tactics that are used on the ground, emotions always exercise influence on strategic choice.

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Mike Asimos

CEO and Founder of Charleston Capital Holdings in South Carolina