Feeling War

Why do states fight on when the stakes involved seem questionable, or the prospects of victory remote? Kenneth Payne on emotions and war termination.


Image: Flickr/US Army Korea - IMCOM I'M KNEE DEEP in writing a paper on emotion and war termination. Why do states fight on when the stakes involved seem questionable, or the prospects of victory remote? Clausewitz, of course, got right to the heart of the matter - war, he argued, involves the passion of the people, and their leaders too. What's more, while politics permeates war to its very core, the direction is not always one way: war and the politics that underpins it are in a dynamic relationship. The very act of fighting shapes the goals you seek, the stakes you perceive and your resolution to continue the fight. All very psychological, and Clausewitz certainly understood that war was a psychological phenomenon: it's right there in his concepts of genius, friction and the trinity. What's more, this business of conflict termination is central to his ideas about the culminating point of victory.  

Truly, the more you read him, the greater a theorist he becomes. All this he jotted down in a time when the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment was giving ground, especially in the German world, to the more emotional rhythms of  Romanticism. Clausewitz and his work were a product of those tensions - the Enlightenment search for general principles governing world affairs mingled with the Romantic emphasis on historicism, on the uniqueness and richness of each epoch and culture. When it came to psychology, Clausewitz knew he was up against it: the science simply wasn't there. Emotions might have been important, but what did he really know about it beyond metaphysical introspection?

That, with a couple of significant contributions from Charles Darwin, William James and Sigmund Freud, was essentially that - until a decade or so ago. Those three intellectual heavyweights each gave us a significant advance on understanding how emotion shapes cognition, attitude and behaviour. Darwin rooted emotion in the evolution of man - a primal inheritance from our ape ancestors; James suggested that emotion follows perception and the bodily response engendered by that perception; and Freud, famously, argued that much of the emotional action happens beneath our consciousness, away even from an awareness of feeling - a speculation subsequently borne out by later neuroscience, albeit without recourse to the leftfield speculation about Oedipal urges, repressed beasts and the like. 

It's not that the mind hasn't featured in IR theorising.  For the most part, though, it has done so by borrowing from cognitive psychology, and in particular, borrowing bits that demonstrated some interesting logical quirks in how we reason - for example in how we gauge risk, or how we use mental shortcuts to simplify complex decisions. Psychology frequently appeared in the role of explaining why decisions went sub-optimally. Examples of the genre would be Robert Jervis's seminal work on Perception and Misperception in International Politics, or Yuen Khong's brilliant dissertation Analogies at War. Like much psychology, though, the IR variety focused on 'cold' cognition - without the heat of emotion. That's odd when you think about it retrospectively, since few issues can be more emotive than war.

Now, however, we are in position to try again - to produce some more rigorous thinking about how emotion might enter into strategic affairs, shaping the behaviour of individuals and groups alike. In my work I'm concentrating on counterinsurgency and aerial bombardment - two fairly well worn areas for strategic studies; and war termination - one that is less well understood. Other scholars are at work in the field - foremost among them Jonathan Mercer, who has been breaking ground with his integration of recent neuroscience and cognitive psychology into IR; and Stephen Peter Rosen, whose War and Human Nature is one of the most imaginative treatments on some core themes in strategic studies that I've ever read. 

What's my argument? Well, that would be telling. But in short I have some serious problems with rationality as currently conceived by mainstream scholarship. I am convinced that we are essentially incapable of accurately imagining how we will feel about possible future outcomes, because the power of our current emotion gets in the way. We make all sorts of mistakes about this in many areas of our lives - it keeps the rat race going, for one - and we do so in part because we are hugely influenced by our present affective state. We imagine we'll feel the same about things in the future that we think about them now - but we're often wrong. Dan Gilbert explains the science behind that in his excellent book Stumbling on Happiness. When it comes to war, that means we are unduly influenced by the hold that our present goals have on us. Issues that won't in time be critical to us seem so now, because we are emotionally vested in them. But it's not just the future that emotions mess with - they also shape how we draw on our previous experiences. Emotion shapes both the laying down of memory - which bits of an experience we store images of - and also the recall of memory. An 'objective' past may be a less influential guide to our policymaker or strategist than the emotion that he or she is currently feeling, and which encourages recall of particular events, and particular interpretations of events.

So much for future projection and past recall. Emotion, I suggest, also has a grip on current attitudes and beliefs. It's commonplace to suppose that attitude shapes behaviour - but, as Leon Festinger posited a long time ago, that need not be the case. We don't, in general, like holding concurrent incompatible beliefs, and work to reduce the consequent dissonance. One way that can be done is by changing our attitude. If we are behaving as though something matters to us, we may come to believe it really does. Commitment, credibility, reputation - all are reasons for staying in the fight - yet all may be driven by an emotional need to keep our actions in sync with our beliefs.

It's strange that emotion has figured spasmodically in psychology down the decades, and strange too that theoretical approaches to understanding war have been drained of much emotional content. In the end, it's the nerdy guys in white coats with the scanner who are restoring emotion to its place at the core of what it means to be human. In time, strategic studies will catch on - and be the richer for it.