Battling ideas – Strategic thoughts for the inquiring mind

by Amara Nwankpa

If it would please the reader, the foregoing should be given kind and generous consideration…

“For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies…” – Ephesians 6:12a


“We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do. We use (God’s) mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments…” – 2 Corinthians 10:5


If you can manage to ignore the mythical presentations in the bible, you will find that it is probably, yet, one of the greatest manuals for strategy. This might explain why its core ideas and ideologies, though from origins in obscure and arid part of the ancient world have persisted for millenniums and remain preeminently dominant even in today’s modern and knowledge-rich civilizations.

Its central theme is a perpetual battle between “good” and “evil”. It’s, sometimes mythical, recollections of possible historical occurrences illustrate succinctly how, in different setting of time, place and people, “good” eventually outwits “evil”.

The mythical battle between good and evil is nothing but a simplification of the persistent struggle between conflicting ideas battling to impose their ideological models on our terrestrial landscape. Although these battles are conceptual, myth provides an easy-to-remember narrative for concepts that our cognitive minds struggle to grasp. This makes it easier for us to justify acts that we believe are in our interest even if we do not completely understand why they are. For the purposes of this piece though, I am going to ignore the myth as much as possible.

It is important to note that the ultimate theater for every battle is the human mind. Those who understand this know that the collective minds of any group of people rising in defense or for the promotion of any territory, materials, estate or ideals must first rally around an idea. These minds, acting as a collective, must choose a set of principles and positions that they identify as immutable allies to their collective interests and self perpetuation. These principles are labeled as “good” and, automatically, any argument opposed to these ideas inherit the label “bad”. When properly entrenched, these principles or psychological positions become synonymous to life. They become a reason for living. A threat to these will be interpreted as a threat to life because, if life loses its meaning, then it is no longer worth living.

And we know that, of all the basic natural instincts, the survival instinct (acting to preserve life – be it yours or of loved ones) is by far the strongest.

Therefore, it is threats, either perceived or real, to these entrenched ideological/mental positions that cause people to rise in physical and psychological battle in a show of collective survival instinct. For instance, the American civilization has no choice but to rise in defense of the concept of freedom and liberty around the world. These concepts are entrenched in the DNA of every American institution. A threat to it, regardless of where it manifests in the world, will be interpreted as a threat to the perpetuity of the American way of life. Hence, any battle, if properly defined as a battle for freedom can potentially rely on the full arsenal of the American civilization for its prosecution.

It is clear, that when humans have settled on ideas that represent our lives, we do two things which at first are counter intuitive, but are not mutually exclusive: We institutionalize the ideas to perpetuate them. We also trivialize the ideas by choosing material or human symbols that become the embodiment of the ideas and serve the purpose of triggering the “feeling alive” emotions that the ideas arouse in us.

Whereas institutions are strongholds, symbols can be weak and vulnerable if not properly disguised/protected.

Every battle is therefore, a battle of ideas, fought, won and lost in the mind because whatever physical manifestations of conflict we are involved in, we are defending or promoting ideas that are entrenched in our minds. It is therefore important to understand how battles of the mind are won… and lost.

Consider the following examples…

Traditionally, in most of ancient warfare, battles were fought with primitive weapons like swords, shields, arrows and spears. They were tedious and gory and ancient battle strategist were keen to figure how best to short-cut this process and end it quickly. Eventually, the patterns that emerged showed that the moment you were able to capture or kill the king of an opposing army, the opposition disintegrated with disproportionate ease. Apparently, the kings represented a trivialization of the ideas that motivated the opposing army. When the king was therefore “taken out”, the warriors lose the motivation to fight as the constant reminder of why they were actually engaged in battle had been eliminated. The effect of taking out one man, generates a reaction that is proportional to taking out an entire army. Psychological warfare had been born.

This illustrates that, although, the elimination of the trivial symbols of an idea does not defeat it, it makes it significantly vulnerable.

It would appear that the strategists of ancient warfare discovered a parallel theater where a single war can be fought simultaneously. However, the rules in this new theater are completely different. A simple action can assume a disproportionate and “multiplier” effect. This realm is the place where motivation lives. The only place where monsters, angels, demons and principalities can exist – the human mind.

In October 539 BCE, the Persian king Cyrus took Babylon, the ancient capital of an oriental empire covering modern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. In a broader sense, Babylon was the ancient world’s capital of scholarship and science. The subject provinces soon recognized Cyrus as their legitimate ruler (because of the symbolic capture of Babylon).

In capturing Babylon, however, history records that Cyrus took Babylon without a fight! This was completely inconceivable at the time it happened. Babylon was a fortified city. It had vast trained armies. It had two sets of walls, each thick enough to accommodate four chariots riding abreast. The entrances to the city were severely fortified against sieges. And more importantly, tucked safely within the city walls was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world – the hanging gardens of Babylon – capable of keeping the city-state fed for 20 years of a continuous siege.

So how did Cyrus achieve this feat? It appears that Persian strategists at the time were gifted with some remarkably rare insight. They realized that, whereas, on the surface, Babylon was impregnable, there was another realm where the Babylonian challenge could expose weaknesses. It turned out that there was a scientific weakness in the construction of the Babylonian defenses. The famous hanging gardens of Babylon had to be fed with water, for that purpose, the Babylonians had diverted the river Euphrates into the city to support their creative agriculture. Exploiting this same physical laws meant that, from way beyond the reach of the Babylonians, the Persians could divert the same Euphrates stream, away from the city. The drained canals into the city now suddenly became vulnerable pathways through which the invading Persian Army could enter the city with little resistance.

For maximum effect, Cyrus chose the autumn of 539 BC to execute his attack. This was timed to coincide with low-tide as well as  the Babylonian festive season. The pre-occupation of the Babylonians with their notoriously lewd festivities eliminated the possibility that the evading army will be detected in time to mount a successful defense. It also enhanced the “surprise effect”. The low tide ensured that the amount of civil engineering required to execute this plan was kept to a manageable minimum.

Hence, before even a single soldier marched that night, Babylon had already fallen. It had fallen because the scientific argument that undergirded the invincibility of the empire had been successfully exploited by superior minds. This example establishes how the gathering, thoughtful analysis and wise application of intelligence can destroy an idea before a bullet is fired.

Consider also the story of Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot.

At a time when the ancient city-state of Phrygia was without a king, an oracle in its capital, Telmissus decreed that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. A peasant farmer named Gordias drove into town on an ox-cart. His position had also been predicted earlier by an eagle landing on his cart, a sign to him from the gods, and on entering the city Gordias was declared king by the priests. His son Midas will eventually dedicate this ox-cart to the Phrygian god Sabazios tying it to a post with an intricate knot of cornel bark.

The ox-cart and the knot that tied it in place will eventually evolve into the realm of legend over several generations. The intricacy of the knot becoming a symbol of the resistance of all of Asia to domination by any invading armies.

The ox-cart still stood in the palace of the former kings of Phrygia at Gordium in the fourth century BC when Alexander arrived.

So, in 333 BC, while wintering at Gordium, Alexander the Great attempted to untie the knot. When he could not find the end to the knot to unbind it, he sliced it in half with a stroke of his sword, producing the required ends (the so-called “Alexandrian solution”). That night there was a violent thunderstorm. Alexander’s prophet Aristander took this as a sign that Zeus was pleased and would grant Alexander many victories. Once Alexander had sliced the knot with a sword-stroke, those familiar with its symbolic nature  within the context of prevailing beliefs began to accept, as reality, that he was fated to become the king of Asia.

So based on one single, otherwise insignificant event, something dramatic had happened in the minds of those in Asia at the time. Those with Alexander began to believe that they were destined to rule Asia. Whereas, the predominant symbol, within the frame of reference of the mind of the inhabitants of Asia at the time, which represented their perception of their common destiny triggered only one belief: They were destined to fall to Alexander the Great.

It was inevitable that reality would follow the conclusions that had already been reached in the minds of all stakeholders.

So what can we learn from these historical perspectives?

Well, although the nature of and tools of warfare has changed, the principles remain the same. The average modern belligerents have evolved stronger institutions to preserve their ideas and cleverer disguises for their ideological symbols. However, when they are eventually identified and confronted, the principles that apply to these custodians of the essence of an idea remain the same.

Also, modern warfare is becoming more and more psychological and intellectual in nature. For instance, given that we are in a knowledge economy era, virtual attacks like “cyber terrorism” can have the same effect (if not worse) than some acts of physical war.

The battle of ideas and ideologies is perpetual in nature. It never stops, even in peace and war. Physical conflict is only a periodic escalation of what will continue to be a perpetual war between different versions of “good” and “evil”.

Because the ultimate theater is in the collective minds of the opposing belligerents, understanding how to wage war with the mind is essential and can drastically reduce the cost and length of any conflict.

Also, as brilliantly observed in a succinct summary of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, the most efficient battle strategy is that which renders physical confrontation unnecessary. This means that as modern warfare evolves, the best approaches will employ strategies that extract maximum value from symbolic victories in the mind of the enemy.

So we must recognize this mental and psychological dimensions to our national conflict with Boko Haram. Infact, this means that we are coming late to this party given that, with each symbolic attack on symbolic locations like military and police installations, Boko Haram demonstrates a keen grasp of this psychological dimension. Each of these attacks, besides taking scores of lives, redefines our perceptions of our National vulnerability and the viability of our Nation state. Hence, they extract more value from these explosions than the physical harm that they cause.

We must now explore, with intelligence, the sources (material and psychological) of sustenance of this Boko Haram challenge. We must carefully analyze this intelligence and wisely apply solutions that exploit their vulnerabilities.

In addition, we must begin to shore up the psychological defenses by redefining the ideas that these attacks have weakened. This can be done through strategic communication. We must also find a way to inspire every Nigerian around collective ideas that make Nigeria meaningful. This will restore motivation and transform 150m Nigerians into defenders of the nation.

I know this is possible because where the mind is concerned, everything is possible. Afterall, the human mind is the only realm where a fat, bearded, old man who lives in the North Pole can travel around the world in one single day drawn in a sleigh by an aging herd of reindeers.

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