A Cultural Philosophy on War

Perhaps more than any other topic, war and conflict is considered to be “universal;” that is, something timeless, primordial, and intrinsic to human nature. While the prevalence of warfare throughout history certainly demonstrates this to a certain degree, there is an important caveat to be discussed: cultural contexts. In fact, the way we view and remember warfare in contemporary Western society differs from even 50 years ago, highlighting a continuous change in our perspective of war.

To summarize the academic arguments, two vague camps exist when discussing warfare: One arguing war is inherently the same throughout history, and another arguing it differs between cultures, societies, and generations. Broadly speaking, the first constitutes “realists,” who see war as an inevitable result of human power relations, and the second “constructivists,” who see war as a context-dependent phenomenon.

I believe war, and how we view it, depends on society and culture. I examined how a varied historical experience of war has altered the contemporary perspectives of Britain, France, and Germany, despite comparable security situations and economic wealth. A wider historical study also helps to explain this theory.

For instance, while “core” motivations – power, fear, or resource-hunger – seem to cause most wars, the way societies have actually waged war varies immensely. John Keegan's “History of Warfare,” for example, finds that in numerous “primitive” societies (before city-states), killing took a back seat to pageantry and posturing on the battlefield.

This is no way to “win” a battle, as far as we understand it. This begs the question, how did they understand it? Clearly different criteria were at work – religious, ritualistic, or sociological – because war and its goals were culturally dependent on circumstance.

This brings us to today: How does modern Western society view warfare?

A big influence in the Western world is the “cultural memory” of the two World Wars. From war memorials commemorating the dead to our overwhelming obsession with the last “clean” state-on-state conflict, the early 20th century’s colossal military tragedies have altered an entire generation’s view of war.

How many times have you heard someone call war “senseless?” War, in that it is always waged by people with a purpose, is never “senseless.” It is waged for a reason, even if you think the reason is wrong. This “senseless” mentality stems from the popular revulsion to the effects of World Wars I and II.

Modern media, too, has altered our perspective of warfare on a fundamental level. Now, we not only see war’s effects in terms of the news, but the actual tactical conduct of war via live-streamed video. War is in our living rooms, and often controlled by our own hands via computer games.

This (far too) brief assessment aims to ask you some questions. What influences your perspective of war and warfare? Do you think your thoughts on war mirror your parent’s generation, or that of other societies around the globe?

Moreover, if war is not timeless, we can expect our own perspective to change in the coming years. What influences do you think will drive this?

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons