War is too big for one academic discipline

Image of British World War I poster and slogan courtesy of the Imperial War Museum (UK). Image of British World War I poster and slogan courtesy of the Imperial War Museum (UK).

 War is big, huge, enormous, large, vast, and giant elephant-sized.  Though this claim needs no support, try these two data points on for size:

  • Exhibit A: the incredible amounts of people killed in the world’s wars.
  • Exhibit B: the world’s top two employers are the U.S. Department of Defense and Chinese People’s Liberation Army (yes, even bigger than Walmart and McDonald’s).

So how do you study a social interaction that’s this big?

One insight comes from Australian historian David Christian, who developed his own “cross-disciplinary” way of study when he observed the following about war’s gestalt:

In the 19th century, “on average, 40 percent of Russia’s revenues came from vodka sales, so what I realized is that if Russians stopped drinking vodka, you can’t pay for the army, and the superpower collapses. So I thought, Here’s a modern government building its power by selling a mind-altering substance. I was looking at it at the fiscal level, at the treasury level – but also in the village and also in the tavern.”

Christian has continued to develop this “everything-is-connected” idea.  It ought to be regular amongst strategists and studiers of war. This makes particular sense when one notes the image at the top – the British WWI poster – which connects cooking to combat.

This size and scale makes study difficult. As Professor Stephen Biddle describes, war “lies on the seams of the way academia is organized” and therefore “does not have a [single] discipline to study it.” Biddle concludes that the “best skill set is diverse and multi-disciplinary.”

Sinful war study takes the single path approach: i.e. exclusively focusing on the battlefield, the homefront, or the economic aspect. What makes this wrong way so appealing is that war is always experienced through the soda straw of human experience. Though intuitive, it also happens to be misleading. War must be viewed comprehensively, or, as Colin Gray puts it, “war is about much more than warfare.”

The Defense & Strategic Studies (DSS) program I teach in subscribes to this multidisciplinary academic approach; to see the one page DSS program description for more information, click here.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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