Kings of War Blog – Can chimps do strategy?

More monkey business

by KENNETH PAYNE on 18 JULY 2012 *

Can chimps do strategy? It’s still bugging me.

Why? Because it seems reasonable to assume that strategy involves informed choice, and presumes some degree of consciousness about that choice. The conscious mind can’t simply just be there to sign off on our subconscious decisions, can it? Well, yes – I think it often does, and that the ex post verdicts we render on strategic decision-making are often blind to the influence of those unconscious influences on decisions. (Well, for social scientists, anyway – many historians do a better job of capturing it).

This is less a question about chimps, of course, and rather more about us. JFK consciously chose not to invade Cuba during the missile crisis. Sure there were strong emotions involved in the decision-making process there in the ExComm (as Robert Kennedy relates here ), but in the end, after careful deliberation, a man chose a path from several, and the incident passed off peacefully. Or did he? Wasn’t his unconscious mind firing away on all cylinders, framing his appraisal of the situation well ahead of the time when he brought his attention to the issue. That’s the point of those emotions, after all – to sift and highlight important bits from among the multitude of incoming information. Wasn’t all that Kennedy book learning there to draw on to justify his instinctive feel? Or if it did impact on the decisions, did it do so ahead of his conscious D-Day by laying down associative memories in his mind – priming cognitive connections that may not have stood up to robust scrutiny and about which he may only have been dimly aware?

The question also relates to the issue of time. In a previous post, I argued that chimps were strategic in a limited sense – one that also applied to humans. They were making judgments about how to achieve status in a group, and whether to co-operate or oppose other chimps in pursuit of that goal. They lacked lacked control over the ends sought, and they need not have been consciously aware of the choices they were making along the way, but choose they did – in every encounter with a fellow chimp, their brains were whirring away, making judgments about how to proceed in response to all sorts of cues. Humans have more possible ends – being possessed of many different ways of gauging status – but they are also making choices all the time, and quite often choices that do not trouble their conscious minds.

I remember hearing Lawrence Freedman arguing in a lecture at Oxford that strategy might be usefully thought of as the construction of power in the moment. This alluded to its improvised and contingent nature. And it brings it close to the Clausewitzian understanding of strategy – that is, closer to operational art than grand strategy: the military commander makes strategy right now, given what he’s got at his disposal, and given the uncertainties and pressures acting on him. That, after all, is the genius of the commander. Hew Strachan wrote along similar lines recently – distinguishing between planning as something one might do as part of grand strategy, and strategy itself as a more proximate activity, and perhaps more military.

The chimps are certainly making proximate strategy, and I have a sneaky feeling that’s what we do too. Our view of the future is shaped very much by our emotions and subconscious cognitive processes as experienced here in the present. For the commander, executing strategy, sure, there’s an element of planning involved. And you’d better hope he’s bringing his conscious attention to the issue. But he is also feeling strategy. The choices he makes might not be made for the reasons he gives. He might not even know that he’s made some of those choices – closing down decisions before they are made. When did LBJ decide to go big on Vietnam? Who knows – quite possibly not even LBJ himself.

Perhaps Clausewitz was right to emphasize the importance of experience over theory as a guide to strategy. And yet, just because the choices involved are subconscious doesn’t mean they are not good or bad choices.

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