Ways of War or Ways of Battle?

 Singapore, 1 April 2008 

Today, I had a class on “The Revolution in Military Affairs”, where I had to present a summary of this week’s readings on the ways of war–these include John Keegan’s History of Warfare, Victor David Hanson’s Carnage and Culture, along with smaller pieces by US military strategists.

What was interesting about today’s class was the argument that war, contrary to my Clausewitzian mind, was nothing more than a “cultural expression” (Keegan). Granted that Keegan clearly either misintepret Clausewitz or didn’t actually read On Waror both. But the idea that “culture” defines war and warfare is an intriguing argument.

What’s even more interesting from this week’s readings was Hanson’s argument that the “Western way of warfare” is superior than the rest–a fact that he claims is proven historically since classical antiquity until today. He claims that the legacies of the Hellenic warfare came through the ages largely intact and makes Western militaries superior in battle.

Specifically, he claims that these elements are crucial in winning wars: consensual government, equality among the middling classes, civilian audit of military affairs, politics apart from religion, freedom and individualism, and rationalism. These qualities are a lot like the “democratic triumphalism” — which Michael C. Desch has argued to be largely irrelevant when it comes to war and warfare in his new book.

Another interesting piece that we looked at today was about the “chinese way of warfare”–which was largely based on a review essay by Andrew Scobell at Parameters. The thrust of the essay was that there might be a “unique” Chinese way of war, which to sum up, can be seen in the fact that they: put emphasis on geopolitical primacy and grand strategic victory, while relying on diplomacy as their first line of defense, but they do not neglect operational details and in fact, prefer to seize offensive initiatives through deception and suprise (i.e. maneuver warafare)–hence, technological edge is a must and careful calculations to use force is largely a given, though that does not mean that they are reluctant to use them.

Here are some questions that I raised today.

Is war really a cultural (Keegan) or political (Clausewitz) activity? Or is the difference lies within the idea of “war” as distinguished from “warfare”?

If war is cultural, how do “culture” came about? Can it change? How? If it cannot change, then can we assume that some militaries will always win, no matter what, simply because their “cultural way of war” is more superior? In other words, is there really a superior cultural way of war? The West or the Oriental?

If then, as Colin Gray argue that, strategic culture is merely “context”, what then makes a military organization less or more likely to be effective in battle? Even if they do win battles, can they win wars?

Does culture matter at all in military organizations and its activities? How and to what extent?

Finally, can then the RMA impact military culture? How and to what extent?

These questions i think are worth pondering about.


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