Understanding Modern Warfare

Dr Ian Speller and Dr Christopher Tuck

Next month, our multi-authored volume Understanding Modern Warfare will be published in its second edition by Cambridge University Press. Understanding Modern Warfare is a book explicitly about modern warfare. There are many excellent existing works on war generally: this volume is concerned instead with the employment of organised violence: it is about fighting. But why should we be concerned with such a topic?

An academic focus on warfare has often been unpopular. Insofar as they study war at all most Western universities prefer to focus on ‘war and society’, examining the impact that war has had on wider society rather than focusing explicitly on warfare. As Jeremy Black has noted, in some respects this approach demilitarises military history by moving it away from war and battle, resulting in what Michael Howard called a ‘flight to the suburbs’. Understanding Modern Warfare is not a suburban book. It self-consciously focuses on the central activity of armed forces and on the urban centre of the subject, on warfare. It does so in recognition that this does not address the totality of war, which is about more than just warfare, but is based on the notion that one cannot understand modern war unless one also understands modern warfare. At the heart of such an understanding is, to quote Howard, ‘the study of the central activity of armed forces, that is, fighting’. In his influential book The Face of Battle, John Keegan made a strong case for the primary importance of ‘battle history’ within military history, arguing that:

it is not through what armies are but what they do that the lives of nations and of individuals are changed. In either case, the engine of change is the same: the infliction of human suffering through violence. And the right to inflict suffering must always be purchased by, or at the risk of, combat – ultimately of combat corps a corps.

It should never be forgotten that wars always result in death, destruction, waste and human suffering, all too frequently on a truly staggering scale. Unfortunately, ignoring the phenomenon is unlikely to make it go away and to do so fosters ignorance of something that has had, and continues to have, a major impact on human affairs. Whether one wishes to avoid warfare, to mitigate its impact or to prepare to conduct it more efficiently (and these are not mutually exclusive positions) it is important that it be studied. Indeed, one might suggest that in a democracy in the twenty-first century it is particularly important that as wide a range of people as possible should understand the nature of modern warfare in order that they are equipped to make intelligent judgements about the way in which their own governments seek to employ military force. The requirement for military personnel to understand warfare should be too obvious to require further elaboration given the historical correlation between ignorance and military incompetence.

For these reasons, Understanding Modern Warfare addresses what continues to be a critical subject. It examines and evaluates the central issues, ideas and concepts that form the foundation for an understanding of the conduct of war in its various forms and in its different operating environments. It is an exploration of the theory and the practice of modern warfare. It is important to engage with both as one cannot properly be understood without reference to the other. The practice of warfare – what armed forces do and the way that they do it – is influenced by theoretical concepts and constructs or, where these are not expressed formally, by preconceived ideas that themselves represent an informal (sometimes an unconscious) equivalent to theory. Today such concepts are often expressed officially through military doctrine, adopting and adapting theoretical constructs in a manner designed to foster understanding amongst practitioners. Equally, however, military practice matters: warfare is a practical discipline not an obscure theoretical exercise. Understanding Land Warfare is not a history book, but it is infused with and informed by an historical understanding. Theory that does not stand the test of practice is dangerous. As Charles Callwell argues ‘Theory cannot be accepted as conclusive when practice points the other way’.

Critical analysis of the theory and practice of modern warfare highlights issues that continue to be central to the successful conduct of military operations: the primacy of strategy; the dangers inherent in an unreflective blinkered application of doctrine; the differences and synergies between the different operating environments. Reflecting on modern warfare also reinforces the importance of military adaptability. Adapting successfully to the future depends in part upon having a grasp of the past and the present. The future is not fixed, nor is it easily predicted. As the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume noted ‘nothing that we imagine is absolutely impossible’. Whilst knowledge of the past and present of warfare may provide part of the foundation for coping with the future, more important is developing an understanding. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, the conduct of war is of such importance, quite literally the province of life and death, it is vital that it be studied carefully.

Image: Indonesian and U.S. Army Aviation Assets Train Participate in Pacific Pathways, via flickr.

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