Welcome to the Thunderdome: Explaining the Genesis of Fear, Honor, and Interest

Consider this the Strategy version of the “gritty reboot.” I’ve always, like many people in strategic studies, unconsciously used the phrase “fear, honor, and interest.” It’s kind of a cliche for realists to quote Thucydides to describe the eternal forces that motivate human behavior and scold “idealists” (something that no one will admit to being to, just as everyone believes themselves to be a realist) for believing in utopia. While there’s a certain degree of truth to this, it also tends to be a bit rote. What does it actually mean?

Everyone is a bit familiar with Thucydides’ definition, rooted in an explanation of Athenian strategic behavior. They feared Persia, but they also cared about their own honor (pride and prestige) and national interests. What I like about this, if we take it a bit further, it is that is a kind of psychological “trinity” much like Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity. You’re being pulled in three directions–fear of your opponent and his intentions, irrational concern over your own prestige and position, and of course set national interests. You’re literally having to run to stand still.

Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity works the same way–the rage of the people, the chance and friction of the battlefield, and rational policy are all at odds with each other, and the result that emerges is war as we know it. Thucydides and Clausewitz’s respective trinities play into each other nicely. There’s also the Tony Montana trinity of money, power, and beautiful women–but that is more situation-dependent than Thucydides and Clausewitz.

Which brings me to the origin story of this blog. Alex Olesker was one of the first people I met when I moved to DC. While there are lots of strategic studies types in DC who like gangsta rap, Alex had perhaps the most extensive knowledge of rap I’d ever seen–and an ability to relate it to esoteric military theory.

And we both knew a lot of it. In the short time we’ve both been blogging and writing about the subject, we’ve gone through enough theoretical movements about strategy to provide the basis for a pretty damn good drinking game. Take a chug every time you read about “complex,” “full-spectrum,” etc. This isn’t a comment about the validity of any of these words and concepts, just proof of the fact that our awesomeness extends to party planning too–if you too rack up large tabs at your local Barnes and Noble military history section.

Observe this poor lolcat, pondering why his castle does not have moat “wif fishies.” Now this lolcat is in some ways representative of the problem of American strategic thinking, as our colleague Fouche famously noted:

Pity the American nerd. He suffers from a contradiction: he can see the narrow slices of reality that he specializes in exquisite and even excruciating detail. Unfortunately, he sees the world outside as a mixture of his tiny area of expertise writ large and a land populated by large bright shiny ideals that he can see in all of its fine shades. Based on this perception, he can formulate responses perfectly calibrated to exploit his unique domain knowledge to remake the world in the image of his vision. However, the nerd’s intentions suffer from a major defect: they are usually fatally out of sync with the means available to achieve that vision.

For every expansive plan rooted in an perfect vision of geopolitics–you have the messy reality of the fact that resources and public attitudes essentially point towards the status quo: the geopolitical equivalent of the cat and the moat. You want a civilian surge and instead get a surge of civilians towards the mall looking to get that new slurpee.

And that’s part of why we’ve stacked this blog the way we have (and may add more as things go on)–even if we each may see the world through our own rather narrow slice of reality and specialty, we collectively add up to a better picture.

I went out one night in Dupont Circle and saw a man furiously draining an ATM, proclaiming the whole time that he was about to “make it rain.” Unfortunately, he was too drunk to remember his own PIN, so he kept typing the wrong number over and over again, cursing louder and louder each time.

No, that’s not another allegory for some error of strategy. It’s just an amusing diversion that I remembered while looking on Facebook and writing this entry. The point that I really want to make is that another problem–related to the Fouche entry–is that strategic studies is getting stuck in respective boxes. COIN, anti-COIN, conventional, irregular, etc. Another motivation for starting this blog is that we want to encourage minds as fundamentally eccentric as ours. That’s what part of what the field needs–some (qualified) eccentricity. If J.F.C Fuller can have Aleister Crowley with his tanks, we can get some giant robots with our footnoted papers on cyberwar and revolutions in military affairs.

At the end of the day, American strategy often comes down largely to the influence of personality. Abraham Lincoln was the strategic equivalent of Wolverine–able to internalize all levels of tactics, operations, strategy, and policy into his own mind. He didn’t entirely get it right. But he got enough right to win. If he had claws and regenerative healing, history might have looked a lot different.

And that returns us to fear, honor, and interest. “Great man” theories of history get a bum rap, because not everything really is statistical trends that build up over time. It comes down to the “man on the scene with a gun” and the mind of the policymaker who sent him there. And that’s why, despite the fact that it may not be fashionable anymore, we’ll continue to focus on the intangibles that make up the vortex of fear, honor, and interest that ultimately will shape our destinies.

So consider this a “gritty reboot”–but also an experiment.

8 thoughts on “Welcome to the Thunderdome: Explaining the Genesis of Fear, Honor, and Interest

  1. “No, that’s not another allegory for some error of strategy. It’s just an amusing diversion that I remembered while looking on Facebook and writing this entry.”

    I lol’d. Nice introduction. You’ve got some interesting metaphors here and I like the unpolished tone. I’ll certainly keep an eye on this space.

  2. Yep, this sums it up.

    For our liberalist and constructivist colleagues, I’d like to point out that the “honor” part of the equation isn’t always irrational. Fighting for honor and/or honorably can have a large soft power effect (for example countries trying to minimize civilian casualties) and can play into national ideals and identity (such as much of the US revulsion towards torture which is centered around not wanting to be the sort of nation that accepts and practices such things).

    Now back to giant robots.

  3. Outstanding post. I will put you guys on my RSS reader. Here is a quote to leave you with that I recently put on my blog. It is from the movie ‘No Country For Old Men’.

    “If the rule you followed brought you to this…..of what use was the rule? -Anton Chigurh

    The reason why I like this quote is that it emphasizes the importance of choosing the right rules or strategy for the win, or to survive. The quote is from the scene in which Anton killed Carson Wells, the hitman hired to compete with Anton in the search for the missing money.

    This quote also adds insight to the thought process of Anton Chigurh, the master Sicario/hitman and strategist. I say strategist, because he was able to construct a rule set and plan that eliminated all of his competition, allowed him to escape jails, navigate the complexities of the criminal underworld, and ultimately find the stolen cash.

    Guys like this also remind those who are students of warfare or strategy, that there is always someone out there that is the ‘better rule maker or strategist’. In the natural world, I would characterize this as a predator enjoying their reign as the king in their little hunting spot, until a foreign predator comes in whom quickly establishes dominance because they are smarter, more innovative, more organized and more capable. That the foreign predator not only kills all the prey that the local predator enjoyed, but that the foreign predator feeds on that local predator. That analogy, is what makes understanding strategy so important and interesting to me.

    Anton reminds me of that kind of master predator. That possibly he developed his Sicario craft during years of warfare in Mexico, and reached a level of mastery that far surpasses any hitman that evolved in a country like the US–that has not seen as much warfare. Or that Anton is so incredibly intelligent and strategically sound, that he was able to maximize his learning process and even create an art out of his craft. (hence the bolt gun and suppressed shotgun) Either case, he reached a level that far surpassed his competitors–either naturally, or through a profound learning process. That is what was interesting about him.

  4. So as a fellow Cormac McCarthy fan, I think this is a very interesting thread of discussion. I like the quote, and am a believer in empiricism in general. A good rule, and a good strategy, yields results. And, to borrow from the philosophy of Russ Greene, ICon co-founder, it yields as close to optimal results as possible. He applied this logic to fitness, where getting stronger or faster doesn’t mean your plan is good, just that it isn’t broken. The question is, could you do better with a different plan? Is it good, or just good enough? This applies to strategy as well. Your rules should be better than good enough.

    Back to No Country for Old Men. It’s interesting that you call Chigurh a master strategist, because he would often leave decisions to the flip of a coin. I never thought that Cormac McCarthy (or the Coen brothers, who’s film version was very faithful to the book) was making a statement on strategy, but it makes sense.

    Think the coin means no strategy is perfect? Something Boydian about complexity and fast decision-making? The old, pessimistic view that sometimes strategy is no better than chance?

    • Cool. According to Chet Richards, one of Boyd’s favorite sayings was that ‘you don’t have to be perfect, only better than your opponents’. Anton wasn’t perfect, but he certainly was good enough to defeat his opponents.

      I think maybe his dedication to coin tosses and games of fate, are his downfall. Although what is interesting, is a killer like that is so comfortable with their command of the situation that they could actually take the time to play those games of fate. Or perhaps he knew the psychological effect he had on his opponents by playing these games? He was either a nut job, or he these games of fate only played into the image he wanted to project to his enemies? That he was smart, unpredictable, and lethal. Good traits to have if you are a hitman or even a strategist.

      Of course that image played well into his overall strategy. In the end though, he too was a victim of fate and could not have possibly planned for a car crashing into him. But even in that moment, he was able to overcome and survive…

      Although I am kind of falling into the trap of trying to define or understand Anton. He is a character in a fictional book and movie.

      But the book and movie certainly bring up a lot of interesting examples to draw from. They also fuel the imagination and fire up the innovation machine. So fictional stuff like this has it’s utility.

  5. As to “Honor,” there is more to this than “with your shield or on it,” or for the honor of greater Rome, or to not disgrace a family or country or unit.

    In the Pulitzer Prize winning Washington’s Crossing, David Hacket Fischer notes:
    “Another key decision, despite multiple incidents of maltreatment of American troops by the British and Hessian armies, was Washington’s directions as to treatment of prisoners after the Battle of Trenton – they were to be accorded the same rights of humanity for which American’s were fighting. Supported by John Adams, American leaders believed that it was not enough to win the war. They also had to win in a way that was consistent with the values of their society and the principles of their cause. What Adams created in words and policy, Washington put into action. In comparison, British and Hessian commanders only selectively offered “quarter” to American troops attempting to surrender, and treatment of prisoners was routinely horrific. And as American success grew by in large British attitude and actions hardened, with unwanted consequence that resistance by Americans, some loyalists, grew stronger. Washington staked out the moral high ground, to the surprise of British and Hessian prisoners. Not all American leaders agreed, but in general the Continental Army’s adoption of Adam’s “policy of humanity” enlarged the meaning of the American Revolution.”

    Staking out of real Honor as compared to false pride and hubris effects the relationship of fear and interest.

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