War and Ideology

There can be no more central question to studies of war and terrorism than that which looks to the root of human conflict in pursuit of its most fundamental causes. In so doing, modern scholarship has cultivated numerous popular hypotheses, each thoroughly written of and critically discussed: nationalism, ethnicity, greed, grievance, poverty, and the role of natural resources—with some narrowing the causal analysis to the level of concrete particulars so far as to single out fossil fuels specifically as an explanatory variable. Another factor, ideology, has remained persistently the “black sheep” of conflict analysis, included on the list with a measure of discomfort and controversy as to the propriety of its consideration in a social scientific field. A solemn respect for the ideologies, philosophical convictions, and individual moral characters of populations and their leaders was a quintessential feature of early scholarship on human conflict by such ancient historians as Thucydides, Ephorus, and Polybius. With the progress of modern social science, however, has come a colder, drier conception of conflict as a result of underlying social disturbances, with persistent clinical references to a conflict’s “onset”, “symptoms”, “duration”, and “termination.” Unfortunately, this has come at the price of a consistently marginalized and diminished understanding of the role of the mind in human conflict.

Though it is claimed by some adherents to the so-called “end of ideology” hypothesis that modern conflicts are less embellished by ideological motivations than they once were, it would seem that such a fundamental change in human nature as that would imply is far less likely than the alternative explanation: a cultural change in the academic and journalistic treatment of conflict, with perspectives divided between those who view actors in conflict as “zombies”, naturally violent peoples scarcely affected by ideas, or “zealots” whose ideological motivations trump all external factors in the determination of their actions and behavior. This false dichotomy—that ideology is either explicit, logically consistent, and vehemently upheld or, alternatively, non-existent— can only be solved by arriving at a rational, objective understanding of the nature and manifestation of ideology, one that incorporates its role of shaping the interpretive faculty of human thought—with respect to both its content and manner—as well as the motivation and strategy that influence the initiation, sustenance, and resolution of human conflict.

Any discussion of the role of ideology in conflict must begin by first properly defining the term. A dictionary definition of ideology describes it as, “a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture; the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program”[1] where a more philosophical source describes it as  “a set of principles aimed at establishing or maintaining a certain social system… a program of long-range action, with the principles serving to unify and integrate particular steps into a consistent course.”[2] Thus, the question, “Is ideology relevant to contemporary conflicts (?)” translates into “Do the manner and content of an individual’s, group’s, or culture’s thinking have a bearing on their actions in a conflict situation? Do their integrated assertions, theories, and aims hold sway over their choice to engage in war or to opt for peace, or over the means by which they pursue either? Do principles matter?” The significance of ideology as it is defined here is three-fold: interpretive, motivational, and tactical, with each of these roles serving as the direct consequence of the last.

The extent to which a given theory attempts to dismiss ideology as a motive force in a man’s or group’s choices and actions with external factors is the extent to which it ignores the fundamental processes of human cognition: identification, integration, and evaluation. Whatever the external factor—be it a material value, inequality, race, or any other—it cannot impel conflict or any other social outcome in the absence of the evaluative function which the mind must perform before any human action is possible. It is through its principles and assertions that a culture, whether the people or their political leaders, will perform this evaluation of its history to arrive at an understanding of where it currently stands and how it arrived there. Social sciences, however, are replete with the philosophical influence of environmental determinism (behavioralism in psychology and sociology, dialectical materialism in economic and political theory, etc.), emphasizing the power of external forces on human action. Comparative politics and the study of conflict, whether through a hyper-focus on the concrete particulars of greed, grievance, nationalism, ethnicity, resources, or institutions, is not immune from this trend. As Kissane and Sitter note, “The literature is arguably good at identifying underlying factors which make societies prone to violence, but weak when identifying catalytic factors. In this respect it is often assumed that material factors shape politics, rather than vice versa.”[3] Though it is true that each of those factors has played a crucial role in peace and conflict, explanations that prioritize each tell only half a story if they neglect to explain how such external factors are fundamentally underwritten by an animating ideological framework that determines how a society comes to interpret them, to identify itself, to assess its circumstances, to set its goals, and to decide upon its actions.

        A dictionary definition of greed holds it to be, “intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food.”[4] No matter how intense, greed alone is a desire—that is, an emotion, impulse, or will devoid of any physical component. An emotion, however, is not a tool of cognition. It is not an irreducible primary, but a complex result of one’s value judgments as interpreted by the subconscious.  It is thus inextricably dependent upon one’s system of values, which determines both the object of one’s greed (“What do I want?”) and one’s means of pursuing it (“How might I get it?”). In a man, whether one’s ethic is that of rational self-interest or amoral hedonism can mean the difference between the making of a businessman and an armed robber; on the scale of a culture and its ideology, it can mean the difference between a peaceable capitalist society and a brutal, imperialistic one. Thus, qua emotion, greed alone is politically irrelevant. It is when greed impels parties to action that it acquires significance in the realm of conflict. To do so, however, it must be accompanied—explicitly or implicitly—by certain normative beliefs regarding the standards for engaging in conflict— moral, ideological principles about the role of force in social relationships.

        Similarly, the presence of grievances—regarding political exclusion, economic inequality, etc.— suggests that one party feels in some way injured, trespassed upon, or forbidden their due by another. To assert such a grievance requires a fundamental normative framework, a concept of political rights which affords one some vision of a desired alternative. Political powers through the Middle Ages ruled without fear of such uprisings as the American and French Revolutions because the concept upon which those conflicts were based—that of man’s rights—was obscure if not absent (in the sense in which we now conceive of rights) from much of Western civilization prior to the Enlightenment. The often-brutal competition for power among elites was an ever-present fact of life and cause for conflict, but popular grievance in the sense in which it is studied today rests upon modern systems of normative moral and political values—ideological values—absent from much of history.

        Ethnic and nationalistic disputes provide a clear instance of the influence of ideology, and one in which the better part of conflict analysis scholarship recognizes its effects. The concepts of “nation” and “ethnicity” are created and idealized by man with little to no metaphysical substantiation, merely an anti-conceptual hybrid of race-plus-tradition, making them malleable at the discretion of the group, subject to redefinition, and entirely ideational. In even the most seemingly concrete-bound dispute over material resources, man’s mind plays the decisive role, upholding an epistemological method of understanding the conflict and its particulars, a belief in—or denial of—the existence of property rights, and a concept of the proper role of physical force in settling disputes.

        Thus, fundamentally, ideology does not compete for exclusivity with the other hypothesized sources of conflict, nor does it require such compromises as, “Conflict A may be thought of as forty percent ideology, sixty percent greed; conflict B, however, is twenty percent ideology, eighty percent resultant from the presence of natural resources.” Rather, by virtue of its dual nature as both “a manner [and] the content of thinking,” it can be viewed as a hierarchically prior “lens”, or framework, through which all other causes are interpreted by the actors involved, journalists, scholars, and the international community.

        Napoleon once said, in regard to the comparative significance to a military campaign of ideological influences versus resources, tactics, and size, “The moral is to the physical as three to one.”[5] Certainly, when modern social science analysis has afforded some weight to ideology in conflict, it has done so primarily with regard to the motivational role that it plays in cultivating and shaping identities and values, as well as motivating the engagements based upon them.

        If ideology plays an interpretive role in shaping political identities—whether group or individual—it can be said to play an equally significant role in motivating parties to go to great lengths in the name of those identities. As Rodney Barker writes, “It is not necessary to insist that we ‘act, not in defence of our interests, but in defence of our identity’. Each is constructed in terms of the other, and each is necessary to make the other comprehensible.”[6] Such a synthesis—of interests and identity—is the basis and precondition of ideology. Whether the identity be “imagined”, such as ethnicity and nation, or possessing of some metaphysical basis around which a political identity is formed, such as with race or class, conflicts based upon identity can be thought of as fundamentally ideological, as the conflict is constituted upon a discrepancy between various parties’ principles, assertions, aims, and theories that maintain such groups as the primary unit of consideration in a political system. Political leaders have long appreciated the power of ideology in mobilizing and sustaining the participation of otherwise passive or indifferent populations in identity-based conflicts—creating and solidifying new group bonds, tying all to the will of the collective (generally as embodied by the state or political leadership), and engendering lasting inter-group enmities. This fact provides a viable explanation for why Collier, Hoeffler, and Soderböm note that civil wars are more sustained when “society is composed of a few large ethnic groups”[7]—pre-fabricated identities that spare group leaders the difficulty of rallying populations to a cause, cultivating loyalty, and maintaining support over the prolonged duration that often characterizes intra-state conflict. Ultimately, as such identities are used as efficient calls-to-arms, they often become inextricable qualities of the movements they help to form—definitive traits from which little to no deviation is permissible: “The need for cohesion places a simple constraint upon the composition of rebel recruits: the organization cannot afford diversity. If recruitment spans ethnic and religious divides it will be more difficult to forge the resulting labor force into a cohesive fighting force.”[8] By this process, cries for group solidarity in identity-based conflict can produce a vicious-cycle effect as ideological unity becomes an ever more crucial motivational force within the conflict’s dynamics.

        Likewise as to conflicts less based upon identity, but rather motivated by the pursuit of some value—moral or material. In conflicts fought over formalized belief systems such as liberalism, Marxism, or a religion, the role of ideology is clear and generally accepted. Marxists in particular often provide the best historical examples of the prioritization of ideology in the struggles that they have pursued throughout the last century, such as “the highly successful Eritrean People’s Liberation Front” noted by Collier and Hoeffler, “[which] routinely withdrew troops from the front line for periods of six months for ideological training.”[9] Arguably, much of Marxism’s success in the 20th century rested upon the ability of its advocates to communicate and knowledgeably represent a coherent ideology, translating it effectively to address the grievances of cultures throughout the world. Such explicit propagandizing and re-education should not, however, be viewed as the extent of ideology’s motivational influence in modern conflict. It is perilous to fall into the trap of assuming that even conflicts apparently driven by little more than rapacious materialistic greed are altogether devoid of an ideological component. Though ideology may be, for him, far from an explicit rallying cry, one need only present a man who has risked life and limb for the prize of an oil well with Rousseau’s idealization of virtue through poverty and a society of noble paupers to see that, though he may not be a political philosopher himself, he is powerfully motivated by an implicit guiding ideology of his own that does not involve a renunciation of the wealth he has fought to attain.

        Most interpretations of the role of ideology in conflict center the discussion upon those aspects already addressed: its motivational potential and, to a lesser extent, its role as an interpretive framework. A neglected implication of ideology, however, and one upon which further research might be advised is a direct result of its motivational effect upon a group. Parties to a conflict can gain a great deal of momentum and morale through adherence to an ideological “core” around which their supporters might rally and from which they can derive unifying normative views. However, the more central a role that ideology plays in motivating their cause, the more it attains strategic significance in the conflict, with a wise opponent able to target it directly to undercut the group’s drive and solidarity. Ideology then becomes a more crucial feature of the conflict as the moral becomes the strategic and an animating belief becomes a potential vulnerability to be exploited by a skilled enemy. This is evinced frequently throughout the history of conflict when a nation, ethnic group, or dictator claims to be destined to rule or dominate a land, a resource, or some other population.

Often in such cases, the more vehemently that power proclaims its superiority to all others, the predetermination of its attaining a specific goal, and the certainty of its victory, the less significant a defeat it must face before surrendering its ambitions.  Examples date as far back as the wars between Greece and Persia in the fifth century B.C., in which Xerxes’ subjugation required only the destruction of his navy and the disproving of his claim to infallibility, but fell far short of exhausting Persia’s strength and capacity to fight. Those who prefer more recent examples need only look to the defeat of the CSA in the American Civil War and the demoralization of its support base, the bitterness with which Germans reflected on the Nazi regime and the once-hailed fuhrer after World War II, and the rapidity with which the idolized god-emperor Hirohito was made mortal in the eyes of the Japanese during the American occupation there. In each case, despite the dogmatic devotion of their populations, none of these soundly defeated countries required a fight to the last man, but surrendered when their goals were seen as hopeless. As Huntington writes of rule based upon the right of monarchy, “[i]n the extreme case, the existence of the community may become completely identified with the authority of the monarchy”, in which instance “the possible weakening of that rule opens up the prospect of rival claimants for power and ambiguous principles of legitimacy.”[11] That a community completely identified with a suddenly weakened, ambiguously legitimate monarch should find itself weakened and its own legitimacy challenged is to be expected and is a perfect illustration of the way in which an ideological premise of a society (i.e. the supremacy of a monarch or dictator) can prove to be a vulnerability in a conflict situation. This facet of ideology, qua vulnerability, holds considerable power if understood, and can have significant implications for conflict, peace, and the politics of war.

        The difficulty of discerning the effects of ideology in human conflict and the reluctance of scholars to give it considerable priority by comparison to more concrete, surface-level causes are related phenomena. Ideology is often masked beneath a layer of concrete, material disputes, claims, and rhetoric. However, this does not negate its presence or the imperative of uncovering it. It is a subtle and challenging but worthy task to examine how two disputes, both seemingly about the same natural resource, manifest differently—one in conflict, one in relative peace—because one conflict saw people attach ethnic and ideological significance to the quarrel, where the other did not, as was the case in the separatist Free Aceh Movement in Indonesia, where a conflict became further inflamed by one side’s introduction of arguments over identity and ethnicity to an otherwise more commonplace dispute over natural resources. Theories that relegate ideology to the realm of insignificance would face great difficulty explaining the discrepancy. A full understanding of conflict situations is hindered by presumptions that ideology is generally inclined to announce itself openly, that it must be adhered to and practiced consistently to be considered influential, that it must be formalized into coherent doctrines (liberalism, Marxism, conservatism), or that it must be thought to have catalysed the conflict to have played a role. To the contrary: ideology is often implicit, imperfect, informal, and amenable. An ideology absent from a people at the outset of conflict may be adopted part of the way through for its motivational benefits, as in Aceh or in the Marxist rhetoric of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. It may be introduced deliberately by leadership rather than emerging naturally from the culture. None of these facts, however, negate the power of ideology or its relevance to modern conflict—to the contrary, they stand as testaments to it. It is not by the impassioned speeches of political leaders emerging from a cultural void that peoples are riled to risk life and limb for a cause; it is precisely from their ideological culture and the priming of its day-to-day influences that such speeches find their fertile soil and it is to precisely that level of subtlety—the daily thoughts, values, and fundamental ideology of a people—that scholars must look to understand the roots of human conflict.


[1] “Ideology”,  Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, 2012. Web. 21 January 2013.

[2] Rand, Ayn (1967) Wreckage of the Consensus. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: Signet. p. 222

[3] Kissane, B. and Sitter, N (2006) The Comparative Study of Civil War: Towards a Dynamic Model. The Center for European and Asian Studies. 1-27

[4] “Greed”, Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, 2012. Web. 21 January 2013.

[5] Lewis, John David. Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History (Kindle Locations 60-61). Kindle Edition.

[6] Barker, Rodney (2009) Legitimating Identities: The Self-Presentations of Rulers and Subjects. Accessed online. Cambridge University Press.  35

[7] Collier, P., A. Hoeffler & M. Söderbom (2004) On the Duration of Civil War. Journal of Peace Research, 41:3, 253-273.

[8] Collier, P. and A. Hoeffler (2000) Greed and Grievance in Civil War. Policy Research Paper 2355, The World Bank. 8

[9] Collier, P. and A. Hoeffler (2000: 9)

[11] Huntington, Samuel Phillips, (1968) “The King’s Dilemma: Success vs. Survival” from Huntington, Samuel Phillips, Political Order in Changing Societies. pp.177-191, USA: Yale University Press (1968: 179)


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