Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 4, Issue 1  /  

Strategy Is For The Bad Guys: Why Modern Pop Culture Struggles to Understand Ends and Means

Strategy Is For The Bad Guys: Why Modern Pop Culture Struggles to Understand Ends and Means Strategy Is For The Bad Guys: Why Modern Pop Culture Struggles to Understand Ends and Means
To cite this article: Owen, William F., “Strategy Is For The Bad Guys: Why Modern Pop Culture Struggles to Understand Ends and Means,” Infinity Journal, Volume 4, Issue 1, summer 2014, pages 33-36.

The premise of this article is that popular culture’s demonstration and understanding of strategy is deeply flawed. This matters, perhaps to a greater degree than many realize. The reason is that it influences the way in which people perceive how violence is used for the gaining or sustaining of a political behaviour or condition, which is to say, policy. Storytelling usually seeks to advance or challenge ideas about morality and ethics, thus has a strong influence on shared beliefs and ideas as to how violence or force should be used. The argument here is that most of the more popular storytelling forms have such a simplistic view of these issues that they exercise a generally less than useful influence on what many have come to understand about strategy.

The majority of what we see and read essentially leads to a popular view of real strategy; that it is somehow a form of negative activity, done by the bad men. It is worth noting that two of the most successful novel and film combinations of all time, “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter”, take a grossly simplistic view of what would be termed “strategy” in their storytelling. Harry Potter would have been on thin ice if the Dark Lord had advanced some quite reasonable ideas or had Harry’s parents been radical extremists advocating violent means. In Lord of the Rings, the enemy is quite literally demonic; so much so that his actual extermination will be the only thing that delivers a tolerable end state. The real world only rarely, if ever, mirrors these conditions.

The fundamental premise of strategy is the use of violence to gain a political condition or behaviour. All good strategic theorists understand that only certain “policies” will accept the use of violence; what varies massively is when and why that will be the case. In storytelling the answer is always obvious: what is “evil” or “wrong” has to be stopped, and what ever it is, it is so wrong or so evil that violence is clearly justified. Only very rarely does the opponent in a story have a reasonable policy to which he may well be entitled. Thus, the opposing polices sought by the bad men are always grossly unreasonable; for example world domination, a criminal empire, and/or possession of something they are clearly not entitled to. Popular storytelling thus conceives the very basics of policy in black and white terms, whereas real world policy, and thus strategy, is in fact many shades of grey. A notable exception is perhaps the story of the Native Americans, which has seen a complete reversal from the films of the 1940s to the “Dances with Wolves” of the 1990s.

The Kobayashi Maru

The much discussed on-line Star Trek fleet training simulation, “The Kobayashi Maru” shows just how odd pop-cultures’ view of politics actually is. The simulation basically sets a Star Fleet captain on a mission where the civilian star ship, the Kobayashi Maru, with 300 passengers, is floundering as the result of hitting a mine in a “neutral zone,” and all will be lost unless the Star Fleet captain moves swiftly to the rescue. The problem is that in doing so he violates the neutral-zone and risks sending the Federation to war with the Klingons. For real world strategists, this is so simple it almost defies the description of being a problem. Simply put, saving 300 people is clearly not a cost worth starting a war over, in the same way that the populations of Rwanda, Srebrenica, and today Syria, are simply not worth the cost. If 300 dead is worrying to a Star Trek captain, then he should probably seek life elsewhere, because a Federation tax payer expects decisions to be made in line with policy and not based upon a course of action designed to save himself from bad dreams.

If one wants to see ‘good strategy’ even being discussed in modern storytelling, then you have to watch shows such as “Sons of Anarchy”, “The Shield”, or even the classic trilogy, “The Godfather.” While not about state or even sub-state politics, these stories show criminals and/or clearly corrupt policemen plotting how much and what levels of violence, and against whom, will get them the conditions or behaviours (i.e. power) to do what they want. From the supposedly moral perspective, violence almost always goes un-rewarded or extracts too great a cost. The need is selfish, thus negotiable, not clearly good, and thus not requiring all and any means necessary. In other words, strategic excellence is required.

It could well be claimed that using the mirror of strategy to examine pop-storytelling risks seeing nuance and insight that simply is not there because the writer of the story was completely unaware of it. However, it is also fair to suggest that many writers and screenwriters are more aware of strategy than certainly most members of the US Army. To paraphrase Tom Clancy, “fiction has to make sense.” Put simply, characters need a pretty good reason to fight and risk death.

Some exceptions do exist. The series of books and films “Game of Thrones” or “A Tale of Fire and Ice” set in an entirely fantasy world, do to some degree deal with complex and complicated strategic problems. However the bad men are very bad indeed and the good men are not all that good, but there are clear distinctions which means the reader or viewer will side with the “policy” of the less evil.


At the heart of the problem lies the fact that the policy that the storyteller usually assigns to the hero is the one that the audience is clearly going to support, even when it may actually make no sense to do so. The movie “Avatar” is a good example of this. The central premise for humans being on Pandora is to mine the appropriately named “unobtanium.” Clearly an expensive and risky undertaking, so we can assume that humans both want and need “unobtanium.” Exactly “why”, however, is never explained. The need is just predicated on the fact that it has massive commercial value – “20 million per kilo.” Much like diamonds, oil or illegal narcotics, the policy must have the power to extract this mineral in order to sell it. However in order for the story to makes sense, all the normal policy discussions, such as existing policy, available intelligence, legality, oversight, and even the media are almost entirely absent. In the end the humans decide to use force in a clumsy and ultimately ineffective way with no consideration of actual cost or negative consequences. In fact almost every action taken by humans with the film makes little tactical, strategic or policy sense – which is presumably what James Cameron, the writer and director, needed to do to tell the story he wanted to tell. The opposing policy, that of the ten-foot tall blue-skinned natives, the Na’vi, is so innocent, wholesome, and ethical that in the end even the planet itself rebels against the human invader. Whatever the debates may be about the films intended themes, allegorical and metaphorical, it is not a film that can inform any student of strategy, because the humans are so catastrophically unintelligent, and the Na’vi so blessed with an undoubted and unquestionably good policy, that the audience is left with no doubt as to who should prevail.

Real Power

The real value of the previously mentioned “Game of Thrones” is that real political power is at stake and the nature of that power is distinctly undemocratic. Fantasy, myth, and legend seem remarkably unconcerned with the nature of political power, as long as it is good, thus having policies all can agree with. As far as we know Snow White did not immediately call for fair and democratic elections as soon as she became Queen, and we will never know how much violence she and her husband were prepared to use to maintain their hold on power. They were probably pretty ruthless. For example, in the original Grimm fairy tale, Snow White tortures her “allegedly evil” step mother to death, in public, by having her dance herself to death in red hot iron shoes. Peace and reconciliation was clearly not on the table and it could be suggested that this incident raises some real concerns about Snow White as a political leader. In fact, being written by 19th century Germans, Snow White does contain some interesting “policy” questions. Being “the fairest in the land” obviously equates to political power, and the evil Queen obviously opts for poisoning Snow White because a UAV launched Hellfire missile, or exploding cell phone, would smack of political assassination and thus undermine any perception of being the fairest, and thus the very political legitimacy of the Queen’s beauty. You cannot be the most beautiful if you are suspected of assassinating people who may be as, if not more, beautiful than yourself. Nonetheless, Snow White is clearly targeted because of her relevance to policy.

As Clausewitz so brilliantly explained, “Policy” is the thing that drives everything. The vast majority of modern storytelling just assumes a good policy, in that the condition or behaviour sought, via violence, is one that justifies whatever length the hero is willing to go to. Only very rarely is any hero called upon to question if the ends justify the means, when the requirements of policy are so clearly overwhelming. The 2010 movie “Unthinkable” was so grossly simplistic in this sense that it had to place the nuclear annihilation of 4 major U.S. cities at stake to justify torture. The undeniable reality that torture is a proven method of gaining accurate and timely intelligence had to be placed in an extreme context to even allow for a squeamish audience to understand the strategic question. Real life is rarely that extreme. Real life is substantially more ambiguous. No one died or was even physically threatened during the whole “Watergate” saga that eventually lead to Richard Nixon resigning the Presidency, yet how many stories see body counts accumulate while attempting to avoid lesser outcomes than Presidential impeachment? It may be that even saving a President is not worth killing over, and yet drug dealers and various regimes torture people, sometimes to death, for banal pieces of information, as any cursory review of South American history would show.

While many may suppose that a conflict of ends and means is an excellent source of dramatic tension, stories often dodge the exam questions. For example, even when the dragon has negotiated a policy where it will only kill/devour one virgin a year, in exchange for not killing entire villages, there is always some hero who wants to suggest that this state of affairs is so unreasonable the dragon must die. Sensible villagers might tell the hero to get lost or at least point the dragon to where the hero may be found sleeping. Even dragons have rights. They may even be a protected species, yet often the “political” considerations that are advanced in these stories are clearly meant to be seen as cowardly or compromising. Witness Ellen Ripley’s constant battle in the Alien stories, with those who wish to learn about, study, and exploit the Aliens, in contrast to her policy of total annihilation. Clearly Ellen Ripley does not support a captive breeding program. In fiction, “right” is usually an absolute concept.

Might is Right

Storytelling, and mythic structure in general, requires someone to face adversity and overcome it. There has to be something someone wants and they have to be prepared to fight and die, sometime literally and/or metaphorically, to get it. Whatever “it” is, it has to be worth fighting for. In terms of storytelling, this is only rarely real political power, so the true nature of the thing to be obtained can often be entirely irrelevant. Hitchcock went so far as to label such things “McGuffins”, as in something everyone wants, so it does not really matter what it is. The “unobtanium” in Avatar was clearly a “McGuffin.” In storytelling that requires fighting, as in violence, and it has to be assumed that the “McGuffin” is worth it. In Alastair McLean’s “Ice Station Zebra”, the “McGuffin” is an impossibly and illogically malfunctioning satellite that managed to photograph US, as well as it’s intended Soviet, missiles sites, thus making it highly prized by both sides so a struggle to find it first ensues. The problem is that policy is not a McGuffin, and modern storytellers mostly or generally look with suspicion upon political power, which after all is the basis for policy. The ability to obtain policy is almost the definition of political power in its widest sense. For a story to really understand strategy, there has to be a policy which is worth fighting for, but not for absolute cost. To take the most absolute example, Aliens from another planet wish to conquer earth. That is their policy. Conquering earth is clearly worth doing, so massive expense and sacrifice is worth expending. Likewise the continuance of a politically independent human race is worth everything. The only debate in the outcome of the story is who wins. Even if the Aliens are of our own making, such as in the Matrix trilogy or the Terminator series, the premise is essentially a struggle for survival for which all and any cost is worth paying.

However, suppose the Aliens just want to occupy and live in Peru, which requires the enslaving the indigenous population. Will we trade world peace for Peru? Can we persuade the Aliens to perhaps occupy North Korea instead? What if the Aliens turn out to be a lot better at running earth than we are? “What have the Aliens ever done for us, apart from the limitless free energy and ending diseased and poverty?” It might be that the Aliens have some pretty good policies. Not much of a story now, is there. Well not until the actual division of power becomes a point of contention. This was actually the premise of the TV series “Earth: Final Conflict”. Obviously most audiences are not going to be sympathetic to the “I welcome our Alien Overlords and happily serve them” point of view. Struggle against tyranny is seen as something noble, even if the tyranny is probably pretty beneficial. However, every struggle has limits. If we rise up against the Aliens, are we prepared to kill, kidnap and torture their women and children to gain the political conditions we want? Are they prepared to do the same? Is what we are fighting for worth it?

Any student of strategic history will take all these questions as banal and obvious, but a movie-going or novel-reading public will probably find them deeply disturbing, thus very unpopular. They say they want complicated, but actually they want black and white. Book sales and Movie revenues prove it.


Characters are not policies. The art of storytelling allows almost any good writer to make almost anyone, how ever apparently evil and degenerate, appear both rational and reasonable given enough facts to justify their actions. Witness the remarkably sympathetic view we have of Hannibal Lecter, insane and as cannibalistic as he may be. Where storytelling falls down in the strategic sense is having causes or policies that are ambiguous or driven by complex conditions. How do you make necessary but unpopular ideas seem necessary? “Freedom” is a classically imprecise but clearly good cause, which underpins most simple storytelling. “Control” is something clearly necessary, but almost impossible for storytellers to address, because control obviously contains elements of oppression and coercion. In contrast, control is a fairly easy idea for anyone in the real world, faced with real world problems, to sell.

However, what this all leads to is the fact that however real, required, and necessary violence for political aims may be, the predominant popular culture, and to some extent culture itself extant in the western world today and for some time now, finds the idea essentially repugnant, despite the fact that the popular moral compass of the western world is essentially imprecise, ambiguous and hypocritical, in the eyes of those who stand against it.

At the end of the day the world seen by storytellers has to have an essential moral truth as they see it. It has to reflect the moral compass of the audience who will buy the book, the movie ticket or even the DVD. Strategy, by sharp contrast is amoral, and entirely instrumental, or it should be; the means merely have to match the ends. The purveyors of what is ethical and what is not are the politicians. In the real world, ethics are politics. In storytelling ethics is what the writer wants the reader or viewer to believe.

At its heart modern storytelling is the antithesis of strategy. In the real world a desired political end-state requires some form of measured or cost effective action. In storytelling, the story is the action. It is about the journey and not the destination. It is the doing of the thing that has to be done by the hero, and thus a political condition has to be invented to make that story make sense. For real strategists, storytelling has it all the wrong way around. Is it any wonder that modern soldiers and politicians struggle?