Never Back Down

One of the aspects of human psychology that plays an important role in the prevention or encouragement of conflict is the question of whether or not someone has a way to climb down. It is well recognized that among the several decisive elements in Spain’s conquest of the Mexican heartland was the decision of Cortez to burn his ships and give his massively outnumbered but powerful expeditionary force no way of retreat. With the options being victory or death, without any third option present to provide a means of escape, the deadly conflict (with native allies) against the Aztecs could not be avoided and had to be overcome. Naturally, of course, this tactic has been well-understood and frequently applied.

One of the ways in which wicked leaders with evil purposes seek to push their reluctant populace into making heroic sacrifices on behalf of bad regimes is to try to make it so that there are no alternatives other than to die heroically (in the leader’s eyes) or to passively accept humiliation or destruction. Even those who may not be overly enamored with a regime may fight to the death in order to avoid shame and humiliation. It is therefore in the interests of those who misrule to maneuver themselves and their people and institutions into positions where the only choices are to engage in activity that serves their purposes or to do something that is unacceptable to their own sense of pride and honor.

It therefore remains for those who oppose wicked leaders and evil regimes to provide a means of escape for people to be able to climb down and pick a third option besides aggressive support of the regime or shameful passivity and surrender. It is for this reason that demands for unconditional surrender often backfire, in that while they may play well for domestic audiences, they limit one’s options and force painful and costly victories to overcome more determined resistance rather than allowing for a release of that tension through moves that would grant a victory at potentially less cost, indeed the sort of victory that one may be looking for anyway–namely a nation or institution without the wicked leadership that brought upon the war or crisis anyway.

We can apply this principle in other ways as well. If someone feels it is necessary to climb down from the precipice, and to preserve some of their own dignity, they may wish to provoke a larger and broader conflict in order to preserve their own reputation, to say, “I had to back down, I was faced against overwhelming force,” rather than to admit a more catastrophic defeat in a limited conflict. Most of the time, it can be of benefit to let someone climb down from a desperate position and to allow people the chance to save face. As difficult as it can be to allow someone to save face when we would rather crush them, it is often a far better way of limiting hostility than to humiliate people and to increase the scope of one’s implacable enemies.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, International Relations, Military History, Musings. Bookmark the permalink.

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