Thinking about Modern War

Sir Rodric Braithwaite spoke to the Writing War seminar on 1 February 2006 on ‘Thinking about Modern War’. Sir Rodric is a former British ambassador to Moscow, and has just written a book (out this year) on the battle for Moscow in 1941. His essential question was why, if war is so horrible, we as academics are so interested in it. He suggested five potential reasons:

1) War as a moral and legal issue – war is a location for the debate of the principles which act as guides to behaviour within human societies.

2) War as a laboratory of decision making – for those who are interested in organisations and leaders, war seems at first glance to be a useful testbed, with relatively clearly defined boundaries and apparently obvious outcomes (victory and defeat). In fact, the greater the degree of study, the clearer it becomes that war is as multivariant and confused as any other area of decision making.

3) War as a science – military practitioners in particular have been keen to render war understandable so that it is winnable. Sir Rodric went on to discuss Rupert Smith’s new book on the potential outdating of war.

4) The Boy’s Own Paper view of war – war as a (usually masculine) fantasy of individual agency, bravery and fetishised ‘kit’. This was often a potent influence on those joining up to be soldiers.

5) In comparison, Sir Rodric juxtaposed the differences between soldiering – particularly the boredom and brutalisation of training – and fighting. It is in battle that complicated issues of bravery and cowardice, responsibility and physicality come to the fore in the study of war. He highlighted the quality of Soviet writing about officership – citing the words of Bickar (?): ‘If you want to lead men in battle, the first assumption has to be that they will run away.’

6) In conclusion, Sir Rodric spoke about the difference between the civilian and the military mind – one founded on the willingness to kill and be killed, and to cause the deaths of those under command. This combination marks out soldiers from all others (for example, from the emergency services). He closed by asking the seminar to ponder why it studied war.

I’ve been meaning for some time to write a rationale for why I do what I do, and Sir Rodric’s paper led me to consider doing that again. I’ve a slight fear that this form of writing is rather self-indulgent, so I want to do it properly at a moment when I have more time than at present.

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2 Responses to Thinking about Modern War

  1. HJ says:

    To refer to the interesting ‘why we study war’ question. Three
    follow-on thoughts:

    1. Because we are always trying to anticipate the next one.
    2. Because in the absence of widespread religious practice in certain parts of the ‘West’, historical studies of war have taken on the model of providing us
    with ‘moral and immoral’ patterns of behaviour. To borrow from Pierre Nora’s argument about ‘sites of memory’ such as museums being established because
    locally rooted authentic folk/peasant history has died in France (an argument I
    am personally only half-convinced by), war in some popular cultures has become the educational tool for instilling and conceiving of good and evil. Historians
    need to be wary of this but the tendency is there among the general public.
    3. Because it is one of the few areas where it is still acceptable to speak, narrate and laud the nation state – which has been eradicated though cultural
    shifts from most other political and cultural public language and reference. War history gives everyone an excuse to narrate events in ‘national’ group
    terms. Commemorating war dead provides one of the few remaining culturally permissible outlets for patriotic behaviour which is otherwise seen as not politically correct (Gordon Brown clearly realised this).
    This is also clear in the Irish government’s recent decision this year to revive the military parade through Dublin commemorating the 1916 Rising – the parade was stopped in 1969 with the outbreak of the Troubles because it risked giving the IRA historical legitimacy. Now it is being revived as a means of promoting patriotic identity.

  2. Steve says:

    It may help people who consider why as academics they study war to be better at what they do. But there still seems to be an immense deal of unnecessary emotional baggage carried into the issue. We do not expect people who study crime to have criminal tendencies, people who study religion to be saints or fanatics, or people who study the history of disease to be – what? Why is so often the first reaction of people who study war to become defensive and apologetic? We study it because it is a very large part indeed of human history, culture, politics and everyday life.

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