On the memetic nature of conflicts: narrative, political identity, and discipline

The framework of a conflict, the narrative in which it fits, is a memetic object: there are differences between a war of independence and a religious war. We can find many examples of both in History, each type having a set of identifiable features. This is only because they are successful memes. Memetic nature is mutable, and may not necessarily correspond to other, even more relevant dimensions of the conflict: psychological, biological, economic, etc. The Second World War is a good example of this. German participation in it is popularly understood as ideologically and racially motivated. More cultivated opinions might also mention geopolitical struggles concerning resources and heartland domination, or post-war economic humiliation. The focus, however, may be shifted: was the war rooted in a generation’s collective psychological coping mechanism against having missed the Greatest Masculinity Rite of Passage Ever (WWI)? Was it all a matter of aesthetics? Was it a dark, subconscious, animal necessity of expansion, produced by demographic growth, and then later rationalized into a search for Lebensraum?

The selection of a single, simple, official narrative for conflicts is justified by the fact that the chaos of conflict requires to be ordered and explained for humans to meaningfully partake in it. Political distinctions (in the schmittian sense), such as faithful vs. heretic, oppressor vs. liberator, or reactionary vs. revolutionary, have repeatedly proved to be able to organize conflict in a comprehensive way. In this sense, participants in any kind of conflict, armed or not, may be acting out of their own impulses, such as personal ambition, thirst for adventure, revenge, desperation… Nonetheless, they will assume political identities such as those above, like scattered iron filing adopting a specific disposition when under a magnetic field.

To put it another way: for an individual to position himself within a conflict, sides have to be politically defined first. The guerrilla fighter in a colonial war portrays himself as a freedom fighter, while his opponents identify as a counter-terrorism force. For this to be possible, a specific memetic nature has to be developed for the conflict, which will determine what camps are there to choose from. Conflict does not arise because of two existing masses of people with a feud. Individual drive for conflict precedes camp formation. The channeling of the accumulated drives of the mass allow for the establishment of a memetic scaffold around which the conflict and its sides are built. This channeling process is a main component of collective discipline, by which the individual becomes a soldier.

The memetic construct is designed to play on perception, and thus can be modulated and changed by propaganda, itself composed of memes. Etiological study of past conflicts may help in uncovering some hidden causes which escaped the memetic, propagandistic explanation given contemporaneously. On the other hand, the influence of the current cultural environment can impact retrospective interpretations currently formulated. For example, religious wars that made perfect sense in 13th century Europe are nowadays given an economic explanation. This is due to our culture’s inability to understand religion as it did in the Middle Ages, and not necessarily because economic readings correspond more truly to reality. Religious feeling of the kind that produced the Crusades is so foreign to our memetic milieu that we can only say Deus vult semi-ironically. Frankish medieval men, bored, devout, fleeing the law, looking for adventure, desiring riches, or curious about tales of the Orient, all found a reasonable common cause in the Crusades and assumed a new political identity as crusaders.

This leads us to a last point, which is the interpretation of the conflict across its whole spectrum. The course of events, in the real, material sense, is affected by discrepancies in the way a conflict is seen across the divide. When two opponents attribute a different memetic nature to their shared conflict, the consequence of operations becomes more difficult to predict. Another, totally unrelated to the real world, example: a power may see a war it is waging as a small quest within a wider contest for geopolitical control. The opposite side may see it as an existential religious or ideological struggle. When selecting targets or designing propaganda campaigns, both sides’ misconceptions about their enemy’s motives can become misleading.

In our example, the former power may believe the latter actor’s fanatical warriors are radicalized due to frustration with poor socio-economical conditions, neglecting the fact they may actually see their cause under the light of deep religious-philosophical convictions. As a consequence, a lot of resources may be spent in misdirected intelligence operations, or in trying to appease the enemy with Danegeld and misdirected propaganda. Even if the actual, main motive for an individual combatant is indeed poverty and not religious faith, his newly acquired memetico-political identity turns him into a holy warrior and hinders his enemy’s confused efforts. Know thine enemy, indeed, not only as an individual, but as a political figurant.

In summary: the memetic nature of a conflict is a narrative built to channel the drive of individuals who have their own motives for fighting, and who could, left to themselves, fall on any point of a political spectrum. The successful inoculation of such narrative on an individual looking for a fight is what turns him into a combatant for either camp, and can thus be considered integral to discipline. Being aware of the narrative each side is playing along with is essential to a successful management of operations.

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