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Can the concept of a ‘western way of warfare’ assist us in interpreting the history of conflict?

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

King's College London (2021) -


War as we know it today has come a long way. This is partly due to the constant evolving nature of conflict as well as the way most historical accounts have been formulated. History and politics have always been connected and the use of history for political ends is much older than we think. In fact, warfare and state building have been inevitably connected since prehistory. Today, the historical interpretation of conflict has become subject to wider debates about the nature of war and its role in international politics. This global debate has put forward the concept that the Western hemisphere has dominated conflict for the past 2,500 years.

The concept of the ´West´ has its roots in the theological division between the Western Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. In fact, throughout history, this visible rupture permeated the development of social, political and economic structures. In his book, The Western Way of War, Victor David Hansen maintains that the Greek manner of fighting established a pattern that has endured for 2,500 years in the West. It grew out of a sense of equality, independence, and intense civic and personal pride. He believes that there are 3 important factors that can explain why this fighting pattern has endured for so long. The first relates to the role of culture in shaping combat, the second one considers the role of technology in determining military practice, and the last one relies on the strong relationship between military and civil culture. Thus, Hanson's theory asserts a unique and continuous military culture that is dependent on a social and political identity which is equally unique and continuous.

While Hansen’s theory can be historically illustrated, there are many criticisms calling out its ethnocentric approach. Contrarily to its western counterpart, the ‘East’ has played a part in generating the West’s identity. In fact, the nature of an oriental warfare remains a highly charged political question. This ongoing division has created a historical paradox, which relies on the idea that by comparing themselves to the East, Westerners have really debated about themselves, their own societies and policies. However, the East has not only contributed to political philosophy (such as communism), but it has also been an important contributor to military technology. (think about gun powder or the famous AK-47). Today more than ever, warfare has proven to have a dependent dynamic. Rather than being the by-product of separate and discrete autonomous cultures, it is also shaped by the reactive process of competition, imitation and globalization.

Make no mistake, this debate is here to stay. However, we need to ask ourselves the following question. Can the the concept of a ‘western way of warfare’ assist us in interpreting the history of conflict? The short answer is yes. The long answer is not entirely.

The western way or warfare can help us understand the evolution of conflict in certain ways. First it gives us a chronological idea of how and why military tactics and strategy have become a core value in the development of western states. Second, Hanson’s theory helps us understand that conflict is not only a military affair, but it also depends on political, economic and social evolution. Finally, the western way of war underlines the importance of deciphering cultural identity within warfare. All of these observations point towards one thing: the study of history of conflict is relevant to the past, the present and the future.


However, this approach cannot create a universal interpretation of the history of conflict. First, history is lived, perceived and written by humans. This means that we are all biased to a certain degree. This also supposes that War is dependent to cultural identity which determines the way we do war. Second, the western way of warfare only references the superiority of military power and does not consider the role of morality. This would mean that all conflicts could be equally categorized. And as we know, this is not the case. Without analyzing the morality of conflict, we cannot interpret the value of each conflict in history. Finally, this theory does not fully consider the realities of 21st century warfare as it neglects the effects of globalization and the rise modern insurgency and counter insurgency.

As we have discussed, the concept of western way of warfare can somewhat assist us in interpreting the history of conflict but only to a certain extent. It cannot be considered as a starting point of history nor can it be considered as the way to interpret future conflicts. Moreover, no theory can encompass the totality of Western combat and culture. This is because culture serves two, overlapping purposes; one as a way of explaining the enemy’s thought and behaviour, and two; as a basis for interacting with foreign societies. Instead of creating a dualist approach to the history of conflict we should be asking ourselves different questions such as

  1. What makes a way of warfare better than the other?

  2. How can we interpret conflict’s history in a globalized world?

  3. Can the study of cultural identity help us interpret future conflicts?


Bibliography


Barua, Pradeep P. The State at War in South Asia. (Lincoln: Nebraska, 2005)

Bideleux, Robert, and Jeffries, Ian. A History of Eastern Europe : Crisis and Change. (London: Routledge, 1998).


Hanson, Victor Davis. The Western Way of War : Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.)


Porter, Patrick. Military Orientalism : Eastern War Through Western Eyes. (New York, USA: Columbia University Press, 2011)


Tuomioja, Erick. History and conflict: how can historians contribute to conflict resolution and conflict prevention. Historians without borders. July 25th, 2017.


West, Steve. The western way of war. Hoover Institution. December 1st, 2001. https://www.hoover.org/research/western-way-war


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