On Colin Gray’s Strategy, Intersectionality and Justice: An Opening Shot

After recently writing a piece on Strategy and Ethics (specifically what Ethicists have to offer the Strategist) that will appear on The Strategy Bridge here later this fall, I decided to read Colin Gray’s The Future of Strategy which is an interesting, condensed version of an argument for what I can only characterize as the Platonic Form of Strategy. I won’t get into what I think of that idea, but it is interesting to see an argument aiming for universality in any kind of contemporary context. (See, Plato and Kant DO live! Philosophical zombies? )

One quote in particular stood out to me:  “That said, it is essential that strategists should not become so fascinated with calculations of relative military muscle that they fail to understand the potency of moral beliefs about legitimate governance and just behavior.” (4)

This quote reminded me of Chapter 1 of Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars see where he makes an argument against the Realist position on warfare (that war is about national or State interest and is essentially amoral, that is moral categories do not and ought not apply.)   Walzer argues that our experiences, beliefs and practices express an underlying moral reality that is part of war and should be part of war; war is a human enterprise and cannot escape moral judgement and discourse.

I would not say that Gray is making the same point. But I do think he is stressing the idea that the actors involved in the strategic universe have moral beliefs about legitimacy and justice and that the prudent (his word, although its not clear exactly how he uses this term) strategist needs to consider that as part of her calculations and factors that go into strategic thinking.  I think that this is correct, in so far as it goes….

Bear with me, as I am going to push on this point a bit. I don’t think that it is enough to say that actors have beliefs about legitimacy and justice (and other ethical issues) and that those beliefs have power as a descriptive point about how humans operate, without understanding WHY this is so.  This is where I think Walzer (trained as a philosopher) is helpful.  These beliefs and ideas have power precisely because they map and reflect our experiences of things; people tend not to have moral beliefs or ideas about things they do not have some stake or experiential participation in. They have a dog in the fight – either directly or indirectly.

If I have a belief about the morality of abortion, let’s say, its more likely that I have a dog in the fight.  I may have personal experience with it (my own or a person close to me) or its an issue that comes up and intersects with strong moral beliefs I hold in other areas like female autonomy, religious views about the sanctity of life, views about whether it is a justified form of killing etc.  I would argue that the same is true of actors moral beliefs about warfare.  These are not simply propositional beliefs that I might easily change given new evidence. (For example, I think it is 1pm but you point out the clock is broken, and if I have reason to trust this, I will quite easily change my claim about what time it is.) Moral beliefs and ideas are by and large, just not this way.

Moral beliefs, to tip my hat to Scottish philosopher, David Hume, have a cognitive piece, but they also have experiential aspects that are often rooted in or connected to certain sentiments (emotions).  They track, in certain kinds of ways, and are formed out of our experience and emotions. My point is that to be a good strategist, one must take the phenomenology of moral belief seriously.  These are not simply propositional claims with varying levels of potency that one can analyze and understand from the outside; in order to be an effective strategist, one must understand them from the inside – especially in terms of why.

To use a favorite example for strategists, the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War.  It seems clear that they had a moral belief about what counted as honorable warfare and victory.  However, if I only understand this a propositional belief rooted in other beliefs about their history and culture, I will fail to understand the potency of the idea and also the degree and ways in which it functioned.  IF I understand this moral belief from the point of view, from the lived experience and sentiments of the Spartans, then I can understand their level of commitment to this view and the lengths to which they would and did go to maintain and act in accordance with this moral belief.

To move to a more contemporary examples, Russia and post 9/11 United States. I would argue that certain moral beliefs that some Russians hold about the greatness of Russia and its right place in the world seem odd and hard to understand without understanding the lived experience of the national sacrifices made to win World War II. It is also hard to understand deeply the visceral (and seemingly irrational at times) reactions to Islam and terrorist threats in the US without understanding what the lived experiences of Americans especially on the East Coast were in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. (We might say that these beliefs are wrong or misplaced; that is not the issue here.)

My point here is that the job of the strategist is, in fact, what Gray suggests, but that we must understand the task much more deeply (and no doubt he is going for brevity as it is a short book with many points) than much of strategic studies discussion might suggest.  My suspicion is also that sometimes strategic thought operates with some version of or some implicit commitment to a rational actor model, which in my view, just fails to take into account a lot of human behavior and the way our lived moral experiences function especially seen from the inside out. What we need is to do is practice understanding from the inside out; from the perspective and with the assumptions and experiences of those who hold the belief. Otherwise, we will misassess the power and the potency of the belief and how it functions.

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