The Strategy Making Dilemma: Life and Land

A strategy is a plan of action to achieve certain goals. It is used in both state policy and daily lives. For nations, strategy entails using their diplomatic, economic and informational powers, combined with their military might to secure objects of national interests (“national strategy”, 2005). An analysis of the ‘ethics of strategy’ is important as it is the “endeavor to relate ends to means” (Smith, 2011). Strategies look at political actors as central units of analysis. They aim to understand the value systems that political actors operate on and the influence of their surroundings in forming and nurturing those values. The underlying assumption is that all actors act rationally towards their goals and ‘national interest’ while making strategies. There will always be room for clashes of strategies and moral scrutiny from the opposers (Smith, 2011). Strategies constitute two main approaches – towards lives of citizens and notions of land or territory under control – and are fairly contextual in nature. Furthermore, there appears to be a selection bias in strategies. Strategies privilege certain things over others. This is due to the lack of ethical considerations while formulating strategies and International Relations in general. Empiricist or positivist explanations are biased over normative or post-positivist ones (Frost, 1998). ‘Darkest Hour’, a 2017 film, is an example of how strategy is constructed in context to life and land (Wright, 2017). The plot is based in WWII Britain when Churchill is just made the Prime Minister and had to fight against Nazi Germany’s offensive. Through Churchill’s strategy and decision-making journey about negotiating peace with Hitler, this paper nuances strategic approaches towards lives and land. It also reconnoiters dilemmas faced during strategy making and how biases operate, arguing that no global ethic of strategy can be formed and it remains biased even upon close analysis of its constituents. 

Selective Lives Matter?

The strategic approach towards the lives of the citizens and soldiers is viewed from the lens of ‘Ethics of Care’ (or Care Ethics). Care ethics is seen as a feminist philosophy that centers the interpersonal relations of care and benevolence around moral judgments. It entails moral actions being looked at from a contextual and relational perspective (Dunn & Burton, 2013). It helps in theorizing ethics by ethically evaluating state and individual actions concerning human lives. Carol Gilligan was the first to theorize it by distinguishing between “more masculine and universal notions of justice, duty and obligation” – rather traditional approaches to ethics and a “more feminine contextualized nation of care” (Fierke, 2014). This emphasizes the needs of the particular individual and the importance of human relationships. However, the nature of interpersonal relations is transformed at the international level, especially in areas of conflict. This brings forth a dilemma between judgments grounded in concrete, measurable facts versus the ‘rationally’ derived values which are subjective but might seem more relatable than universal arguments. In the movie, Churchill is also caught in such a dilemma. Joan Tronto describes four ethical qualities of care to further the conversation (Tronto, 1998). They are – attentiveness, responsibility, competency, and responsiveness. These nuance the understanding of the factors that constitute strategy towards protecting the lives of individuals.

Attentiveness provides exposure to the troubles of the needy and volatilizes traumatic memories of the past, thus shaping and influencing actions and strategies. As in the movie, being attentive towards the need of care by 300,000 soldiers stuck at Dunkirk surrounded by the Germans, rose a certain memory. It volatilized the ill memories of Gallipoli for Churchill. The violent and traumatic past of Gallipoli influenced and made Churchill completely disregard the option to negotiate peace with Hitler, and ordered 4,000 men at Calais to attack the German army, to buy more time – and avoid the ‘repetition of history’ of Gallipoli. This shows that memory and care are closely related (Fierke, 2014). Past memories impact how one cares for the other and justifies one’s actions. This draws onto the ethics of using analogies for legitimating otherwise unethical actions. Peace negotiations were unheeded because “a guarantee against invasion could have [never] been given” to the British (Wright, 2017). Analogies are also about setting the right example for the future. Churchill says “how many more dictators must be wooed, appeased … before we learn” (Wright, 2017) to set an example of not negotiating but standing up to tyranny. Hence analogies use selectively biased narratives of the past to manipulate and ethically justify present violent means in achieving the ends of care (for selective lives). 

Qualities of responsibility, competence, and responsiveness tie in with biopolitics under care ethics. Biopolitics is the governance of living bodies along with caring for and improving the quality of life (Joronen, 2016). Leaders in liberal democracies tend to make policies that are favored by the public which keeps them in power. This effectuates a dilemma around the ethic of public support for foreign policy. If the government entirely disregards the public sentiment, they can be voted out of power. Simultaneously, if policies are based only on public will, they become vulnerable and inefficient. It also puts the accountability of strategic decisions under question. At several points in the movie, public opinion can be seen as central to Churchill’s policy. Earlier Churchill was reluctant to negotiate. However, as the sentiment of the public and his colleagues inclined towards negotiating peace, a shift in his strategy is observed. Nevertheless, it shifts back to resistance, following a series of dramatic events where His Majesty shows support towards resistance, and so do the seven citizens, representative of the British public, who he talked to in The Tube. He stirs the sentiments of his colleagues by asserting that laying down for peace would make Britain a “slave state” (Wright, 2017). Britain’s responsibility and competence to care for its citizens along with the citizens’ responsiveness, influences biopolitics and results in the strategy being continuously changed, as per the public sentiment. 

Thanatopolitics operates in chorus to biopolitics. It is the management or governance of death (Joronen, 2016). It renders certain bodies killable. This happens instrumentally through the reification of targets, the act of doing the minimum evil necessary and the responsibilization of subjects. It highlights the utilitarian approach of national strategies and how certain actions are justified using the “doing the lesser evil” argument. This exposes the precariousness of human lives and shows how certain bodies are less grieve-able than others (Danewid, 2017). This strategic approach to lives is seen clearly in the movie when 300,000 men stuck at Dunkirk are privileged over 4,000 men at Calais. The troops in Calais are sent on a suicide mission of sorts just to buy time for the government to rescue those stuck at Dunkirk. Thanatopolitics worked elegantly by the reification of the target i.e. the Nazi Army as something invincible and only to be distracted. The preventable disposal of 4,000 lives was justified by a just cause (Asad, 2009). Those men were made responsible for their own death by issuing an “every man for himself” order. Hence, thanatopolitics constructs categories making selective lives matter. These categories are populated through a bias, and operate alongside biopolitics and care ethics, influencing the process of strategy making.

Toil for the Native Soil

The strategic approach towards the land and territory under the control of a nation-state is the other important feature of strategy making. States hold their sovereignty in the highest regard. It constitutes jurisdictional authority and the territorial integrity of a state (Benhabib, 2007). National strategies hinge on control over territories, and distribution of resources (read: oil). This plays an important role in making national strategies, gauging threats, and shaping the geopolitics of the world in general. The movie beautifully depicts the interrelation between land, home, and threat. At the beginning of the movie, one of Churchill’s companions says “hardly seems there’s a war on at all.” The streets of Britain appeared ‘normal’. This represents the geographical distance between the battlefield and ‘native land’. The lack of a looming ‘threat’ over the public seeds aggressive policy and no consideration for peace talks, without addressing any ethical concerns around the ‘dispensable’ lives of the soldiers. The distance between the society or home and the battlefront diminishes the seriousness of the war, making things appear normal. Churchill uses this normalcy to make the public believe a lie that everything was fine by addressing the public over the radio – “[allied forces] have advanced to rescue not only Europe but mankind”. Only after the fall of Holland, Belgium, and potentially France, does Churchill considers negotiating peace because of the imminent threat of a Nazi invasion. This shows how strategy revolves around the idea of homeland and its protection at all costs. 

Geography also plays an important role in influencing national strategies. Citizens of a nation tend to have stereotypes attached to various geographical regions. For example, the Middle East has a certain emotion attached to it, Europe has one, etcetera. The ‘us’ is glorified by such an exercise, while the ‘other’ is viewed with fear, apprehension, hostility, and disgust (Bulley, 2010). The belongingness of states to particular regions renders it a certain legitimacy and authority in implementing its own will. Someone close and homogenous to home is viewed with intimacy and hospitality, and otherwise with hostility and radial alterity (Hawle, 2002). The European region has a reputation as a civil, flourishing, and advanced region of the world. The barbarity and the lack of civil society in Nazi Germany during Hitler’s dictatorship, as shown in the movie, came to be seen as a stain on Europe’s reputation. Its actions rendered it alien, uninvited, and a threat – to the extent that it was considered non-European, despite its geographical location. Concomitantly, intimacy between Britain and France drastically increased. This was normalized into the national narrative. The Europeans were held superior to the Germans or the non-Europeans. The phrase “Europe is lost” reiterates this view of Germans as non-Europeans. Moreover, even the United States was seen as ‘European’ owing to its close ties with Britain, despite its cross-Atlantic location. Hence, regional belongingness appears to be defined by politics and international support more than geography. 

The idea of sovereignty takes an interesting shape when viewed through the lens of Imperialism and Cosmopolitanism marking the recent centuries. With state borders transcending the lines drawn on maps, the very features of state sovereignty – jurisdictional authority and territorial integrity seem to disintegrate (Benhabib, 2007). The movie is tied well to the colonial ideas of the 1930-40s. In preparation for defending against the potential German invasion, Churchill makes a speech in the house:

“… and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire from beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle. Until in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old!” (Wright, 2017)

Interestingly, the Empire that Churchill talks about is an extrajudicial territory of the British around the world where jus publicum europaeum didn’t apply. Calling upon this Empire to carry forward the British struggle and protect its sovereignty creates a sense of self-superiority for Britain by letting their dehumanized colonial subjects be a part of this ‘noble’ struggle. It obliterates and effaces the imperial histories of brutality and violence that they afflicted upon their now-Empire (Danewid, 2017). It romanticizes the British struggle, demeaning the internal skirmishes and revolt of the colonial subjects against the Empire. Interestingly, they are not even entrusted to complete fighting for the British but are used to resist the attacks and buy time until the “New” (read: Western) world rescues and liberates the old. This exposes the hypocrisy of sovereignty of the British Empire and questions the ethics of colonization and the justifications provided for using the Empire or the slave state, to protect Britain from becoming one under the Germans.

The Bias by ‘us’

A Bias is a prejudice for or against an individual or group. They exist in strategies and international policies as well. Biases are functions of power and are highly contextual. They aren’t just a military or political concern, but the public may also demonstrate biases for an action (Frewen, 2018). The public holds biases based on visual modes of embodiment (such as race and gender) and ‘affect’ (Wilcox, 2016). Affect creates emotions of hatred and fear towards the uninvited stranger, who is away from home. It creates killable bodies just as thanatopolitical governmentalities. Consequently, because public opinions are revered in liberal democracies, these biases flow into national strategies. The elaborate analysis in this paper points several biases out. A strategy seems biased towards selective lives and seems to be justified by care ethics, analogies, and the biopolitics-thanatopolitics discourse. The toil is biased towards protecting only the native soil. In the movie, the British Island’s knell rung upon the defeat of France and placing the need for peace at the top priority. This is juxtaposed with the remote feeling of war when the soldiers were dying away from home. Bias towards the need of France for help, over Holland, Belgium, and others, was clear from the lack of their mention. Furthermore, placing the lives of the Islanders over the rest of the Empire exhibits a clear bias. The bias in strategies acts in favor of the ‘us’ – the Britishers. Though the bias cannot be abstracted from strategies, its identification provides a tool for deeper analysis and a step towards making them more ethical and fairer. 


‘Darkest Hour’ is a starting point to think about the ethics of strategy. The life-land interplay is central to strategies. A nation always forms strategies to secure the lives and land which defines it. They are made to deal with the ‘other’. However, strategies themselves create and endorse this very ‘us-them’ segregation by stimulating the cohesion of those close-to-home and abstracting the stranger. The ethics of strategy asks the question of how must this ‘other’ be dealt with (Bulley, 2010). Owing to the contextual nature of the ‘other’ and the ways to deal with it, a global ethical strategy can never exist. Ethical dilemmas are also evaluated from certain vantage points. Nevertheless, identification and consequent elimination of the biases in strategies would bring states one step closer to the ethic of strategy. This broad approach to the ethics of strategy is an integral part of the normative theory which is gaining relevance in explaining major events of world politics. Hence, it is imperative to keep the ethics of strategy in mind when navigating a nation through its darkest hours.

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