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#WavellReviews: Reflections on War

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Editor’s note: This article is a review of two recently published books and contrasts their core arguments.

‘Why War?’ by Christopher Coker is available here from Hurst publishers

‘War: A Genealogy of Western Ideas and Practices’ by Beatrice Heuser is available here from Oxford University Press

War, it surrounds us.  Memorials, statues, locations of borders, state capacity, national cohesion, medical advancement, technology, the relationship between citizen and state, who lives where, speaks which language, prays to which god, or is governed by which authority.  All are determined to some degree by war.  The state of peace to which many western Europeans have grown accustomed to, and – until recently – absentmindedly took for granted, was itself a legacy of the destructive, and constructive, processes of war.  Even residents of this state of peace with a television or internet connection have their lives coloured by the distant curiosity of war.  For some, war offers a higher state of being.  The seductive truth of deeds, the rigour of discipline, an environment for individual freedom.  For others, the desire for individual sacrifice for the collective or an ideal can be expressed.  Material gain or even necessity can be an incentive: victory in turn yields spoils and status.  Even defeat can begin a timeless legacy which inspires individuals to action, or bards to a ballad, or screenwriters to keyboards.

The Sergey Bondarchuk directed film Waterloo captures wonderfully this dualism of misery and glory.  The power of the British heavy cavalry is distilled in slow motion, sombre notes replacing the upbeat thrill of the trumpet which heralded the charge.  The beauty of the grey chargers wide across the screen, the glory of their riders’ deed as moving as the gallop; but soon all is reduced to misery, the officer that led the charge dying in the mud with mortal wounds delivered by a pack of Polish lancers, his exhausted steed a disconsolate lone thing in a valley of human and equine waste.  In a later scene, a traumatised British infantryman breaks ranks from well-drilled squares and wanders into the thunderous midst of Marshall Ney’s final futile expression of valour; musket discarded, discipline dissolved, he shouts repeatedly in increasingly distressed tones of “How can we? How can we kill one another?” his voice trailing off as he shouts his final, exasperated question, of “Why?”

Why War?

Christopher Coker, a retired professor of International Relations and now director of the London School of Economics’ IDEAS think tank, asks the same question in a recent and succinctly titled book, ‘Why War?’ Coker builds his argument and analysis around a framework developed to assess animal behaviour by a Dutch zoologist called Niko Tinbergen: What are its origins?  What are its enabling mechanisms?  What is its ontogeny?  What is its function?

Coker’s findings are, broadly put, that humans are biologically primed for violence, with an innate aptitude for war, through intelligence, complex social organising, and tool making.  We tell stories of glory and of heroes, these cultural mechanisms providing inspiration for emulation.  Knowledge of where we have been and ideas of where we are going offer a cause and impetus for action, with technology developed to enable the passing of this information.  War provides a context for the gaining of status, an important feature of life for complex social beings like humans, and the chance to satisfy psychological needs.  The structure of Why War? is built around this framework, with a chapter devoted to each element, making the core argument easy to follow.

Ontogeny is likely to be the least familiar element of Coker’s framework to most readers.  Coker neatly captures this aspect of his argument with the line “[a]nimals have only biology; we have a history.”  Would there be sectarian conflicts or wars over land disputes if not for history?  Stories passed through generations, memories transferred, and tales of myth are all used as reasons for war.  These justifications could be honestly levied, or instrumentalised or even manufactured by actors, but all rest on the concepts of a past, present, and future.

Coker’s argument of the role of cultural output as a mechanism for the propagation of, and attraction to, war is particularly compelling.  Many a journey to a recruiting office has surely been instigated by the watching of a war film; after all, how else might a boy born and raised in a Western Europe in a state of peace be exposed to the very idea of war, its action, and its thrill?  It need not matter that many viewers do not volunteer for the armed forces, or that a film had intended to portray an anti-war message, for a viewer will still take what they want from a viewing.  However, both in historical and contemporaneous contexts, many soldiers are not volunteers but conscripts.  Although in contexts such as these, to take the example of Russia, the deeds of the Great Patriotic War are foundational to the Russian state, with recent big budget films of the war serving to remind viewers of the legitimacy of the Russian state and perhaps even the practice of conscription.  Culture serves to keep war alive, and inform others of what can be achieved through, or gained by it.

Coker, ultimately, sees war as an inherently human act; its causes and propagation are within us.  This analysis could be considered pessimistic by some readers, but only if pessimism can be defined as the identification of an evident object.  To be clear, Coker’s argument is not deterministic.  He notes for example a decrease in enthusiasm for war and military service in many populations.  The extent of how human war, as Coker argues it to be, can be summarised in the following passage:

“If there is an iron rule in the history of war, however, it is probably this: in constantly transcending the historical matrix in which it is born, it is able to exploit what is unchanging, our passions and emotional needs, our psychological dispositions and our constant search for meaning – that is how it has always functioned.  War has always been an affair of the heart. And only when there has been a change of human nature might it become truly dysfunctional for the first time.”

It would be wrong to infer from Coker’s argument, however, that war is merely a biological reflex.  It is rather a considered act, long theorised and intellectually engaged with.  To draw another example from Waterloo, a British staff officer informs the Duke of Wellington that Napoleon has ridden within range of cannon and asks for permission to “try a shot,” to which Wellington replies in Christopher Plummer’s haughty tones, “Certainly not.  Commanders of armies have something better to do than fire at each other.”

Whether or not an indulgence on the part of the writer, the scene shows that warring sides and actors have ideas about appropriate behaviour in war.  That it is not an impulse of pure violence akin to a scene outside a pub at closing time.  Or rather, the norms, expectations of conduct, even conceptualisation have vacillated across time and space.

War: A Genealogy of Western Ideas and Practices

This is the core argument of another recent work by Beatrice Heuser, chair of International Relations at the University of Glasgow, who argues that the conceptualisation and practice of war is neither fixed nor linear, but “most emphatically. . . subject to constant recasting.”  As the title of the book, ‘War: A Genealogy of Western Ideas and Practices’ suggests, Heuser is concerned with the Western context and interpretation of war.  Heuser shows an impressive command of her wide range of sources and material, which originally flow from the sources of the Hebrew Bible, Ancient Greece, the Romans, and the “child of all three of these: Christianity.”  The research is not limited to these original sources but is in essence an intellectual history of war in the Western mind over the last two thousand years.  Ideas on war are assessed from a variety of standpoints, which makes for a rounded, rich, and satisfying scope of work.  For instance, the chapters on how war is conceptualised cover political, ethical, and judicial positions, reminding us of the intellectual complexities of war; of how, why, when, for and by whom it is considered a legitimate act – or indeed, an illegitimate act.

Heuser’s book not only informs but dispels, enabling readers to see distant origins of nominally novel phenomena.  Any analyst still seduced by the supposed innovation of hybrid war will be disappointed to read that it is but old wine, “being sold as something new.”  This is the real utility of Heuser’s book: the accumulation of the Western intellectual inheritance on war where scholars, analysts, and practitioners can learn from, and engage with, the output of their predecessors.  All analysts should be familiar with their intellectual lineage or field’s heritage in order not to be led astray by claims to newness.  To be able to engage with and continue the work of useful or beneficial ideas, and to prevent spending time on ideas which have previously be shown to be unsatisfactory or detrimental.  In its round, war then is not a mindless act writ large, at least not always, but a long theorised and discussed aspect of human life, which both Coker’s and Heuser’s books show.

Coker states and develops his argument cogently and convincingly, using examples and insights from a wide range of sources, including personal anecdotes as to how an individual may be drawn to war, be that its study or its execution.  ‘Why War?’ has a pithiness which is validated by Coker’s robust knowledge and writing, but a reader may at times wonder if certain lines were consciously written to be quoted down the line by readers.  His otherwise sharp argument perhaps loses focus during a long section on technological evolution in war in the chapter on ontogeny, which, despite being interesting, does not helpfully advance or address the research topic at hand.  Nonetheless, the section shows that technological change has not reduced humanity’s propensity for war, only changed its conduct; a sentiment with which Heuser would surely concur.  Coker’s book is relatively short and engagingly written, presumably to attract a broad audience.  Heuser’s is less likely to be stocked by a high street bookshop, with a more scholarly focus and limited audience.  A perhaps necessary but unfortunate result of Heuser’s structure is an at times bitty read, however, as Heuser states, researchers with a specific interest can read a particular section or chapter for its insights, without resorting to a cover-to-cover read.  Both books offer readers stimulating and informative insights into that chaotic part of social life we call war and are works imbued with the deep reflection of two productive scholars in their late careers.

The role of biology?

There may be some disagreement between the two authors on the role of biology in the nature of war.  Coker sees biology as important, whereas Heuser leans more strongly into a constructivist position. Nonetheless, there is a convergence between the two on one key point.  Coker places an emphasis on language; Heuser equally, for language is the medium through which ideas are communicated and viewpoints constructed.  War is inextricably linked in this telling by how it is remembered, interpreted, and perceived.  In a critique of pacifists who view war as an evil act separate from its human causes and execution, Heuser notes that this “tendency . . . to treat war as a natural catastrophe detached from human agency lends itself particularly badly to an analysis of war.”  Both authors then, see war as a human act; responsibility for its existence lies with humans.  Routes to its total prohibition lie also with humans.  As Heuser argues, if “one holds that war is an eternal part of social interaction, one will not risk letting go of structures that perpetuate it, to build new structures that could allow for peaceful coexistence without war.”  Whilst Heuser is correct to assert there is nothing inevitable about war, it is reasonable to suggest that even with peaceful structures in place, perhaps only between states, war will still offer many actors an opportunity to achieve their ends or express their desires.  Which means the study of war remains important, even if such a research area has become unfashionable, or even unpalatable.

Coker is antagonistic towards his colleagues and contemporaries who, whilst ensconced in remote institutions and sheltering in the legacies of centuries of liberal Western belief, produce delusionary hypotheses and summaries on the changed nature and practice of the human world.  As Coker and others have noted, there has been a scepticism or even hostility towards the study of war in Western centres of learning, as though ignoring a phenomenon would make it disappear; but as Western liberal triumphalism over the certain trajectory of history’s arc has turned to a deep melancholy over a possible navigational error, we are reminded of all the dark possibilities of war.  The study of war, of its origins, of how to mitigate its harmful effects, of how to constrain and limit it, is not more important now than ever.  No, it is merely as important now as it has ever been.  As any keen reader should know, we have much to learn.

Ed Wyatt

Ed Wyatt is a political and security risk analyst, prior to which he served in the British Army

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