Emotions and Ration

Mike Asimos
4 min readMar 5, 2022

Emotions are ubiquitous in the conduct of military strategy. Although strategic studies scholarship has increasingly emphasized the importance of emotions, their treatment in the field lacks a clear research focus. This paper offers a basis for thinking about the role of emotions in military strategy. More specifically, there are three main areas that lie at the intersection of emotions and military strategy that deserve our attention. These areas include the character of war and emotional stimuli, emotional influence on strategic choices, and the relationship between emotional manipulation and the pursuit of victory. By directing the attention of scholars to the salient role of emotions in strategic practice, this paper provides a stepping stone for systematic research in this area that will contribute to improvements in the conduct of strategy.

Emotions are integral to all human endeavor, although this has not always been accepted. As late as the 1980s, philosopher Jerome Shaffer observed that “from a rational and moral point of view, I can see no possibility of a general justification of emotion. And it is easy enough to imagine individual lives and even a whole world in which things would be much better if there were no emotion.1 The subsequent decades of psychological research have proven him wrong.2 We now know that emotions are necessary for people to navigate the uncertainty and complexity of the world. Emotions make us care about things that are relevant to our well-being and survival. Even more, they enable us to choose between competing values and objectives at any given moment. They help us to construct our temporary objectives and to pursue them in ways appropriate to a given situation. There is now strong evidence available that people without the capacity to experience emotions are unable to run their lives effectively.3 In the words of the primatologist Frans de Waal, “emotions may be slippery, but they are also by far the most salient aspect of our lives. They give meaning to everything.”4 Emotions clearly provide meaning to various aspects of our social activities, including war.

Several academic fields concerned with the study of war have increasingly relied on emotion sciences to correct their assumptions and enhance the real-world relevance of their work. The field of international relations, for example, experienced a significant “emotion turn” two decades ago.5 The initial forays were soon followed by a stream of special journal issues, edited volumes, and monographs on empirical, theoretical, and methodological issues related to the study of emotions and international relations.6 Meanwhile, political psychologists have enhanced our knowledge about the role of emotions in domestic politics, which is the mainspring of war.7 Critical security studies scholars have incorporated emotion research into their research on deterrence and securitization, both salient aspects of security in the contemporary world.8 Peace and conflict studies scholars have also emphasized the relevance of emotions to war termination.9 The field of emotion history has gained much attention recently, even among military historians.10 Simultaneously, lively interdisciplinary debates have been raging about the phenomenon of collective emotions.11 These trends demonstrate how recent research on emotions from the fields of psychology and neuroscience can significantly contribute to academic progress in other fields.

Despite this progress, we know little about how emotions matter with regard to the practice of military strategy, which is the pursuit of victory through military power.12 The little that we do know about the role of emotions in military strategy comes from classical strategy scholars, most of them diligent followers of Carl von Clausewitz, who considered emotions to be integral to strategic practice.13 Colin Gray, an irredeemable Clausewitzean, emphasized that emotions are part and parcel of strategic conduct. However, due to his broad research scope, he rarely went beyond vague assertions about the importance of emotions to the human dimension of strategy.14 More in-depth investigations of the issue have only occurred in the last few years. For example, Kenneth Payne explored the topic in several works. In particular, he shed light on how emotions affect decision-making in war and how the gradual integration of AI into militaries may limit the role of emotions in war.15 From a different perspective, Michael Rainsborough has shown how differently the West and the East think about manipulating emotions for strategic purposes.16 From yet another angle, my own work has explored the relationship between specific emotions and the adversary’s will to fight and theorized ways in which these emotions can be elicited in strategic practice.17 Most recently, Lukas Milevski studied how the conduct of battle, or its imminent prospect, can elicit different emotions in commanding generals and how these emotions then affect decision-making and behavior.18 Meanwhile, Isabelle Duyvesteyn and James E. Worrall have argued that the field of strategic studies has to incorporate the study of emotions if it is to remain relevant.19 All these treatments have revealed important insights about the role of emotions in military strategy, but they were piecemeal efforts rather than systematic approaches. Since military strategy tends to be a highly emotional phenomenon, the role of emotions in strategic practice requires more disciplined attention.

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Mike Asimos

CEO and Founder of Charleston Capital Holdings in South Carolina