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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Just Finished Reading: Modern War – A Very Short Introduction by Richard English (FP: 2013)

I was initially rather confused by this little volume (as usual with VSI books it around 120 pages long). I was expecting discussions of technology, global strategy and all the whizzing and explosions we have become accustomed to on our TV screens full of shock, awe and AK-47’s. What I got was something much more sedate and thoughtful.

Modern war is seen, quite rightly, as different from previous forms of this seemingly permanent form of human group behaviour. But how so? That’s the first thing to be addressed here – what makes modern war different from the Ancient or Medieval varieties? It’s got just a case of technological advance despite the fact that HMS Dreadnought of 1905 could have defeated the entire French fleet of 1805 on her own with little effort and even less risk to herself. It is more to do with the idea of total war given birth during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars they gave rise too. Everything after that turbulent time was radically (pun intended) different from how wars where fought, who fought in them and how states geared themselves to fight.

Then, it seemed to me, the book took a sideways step into the causes of wars drawing on modern examples looking at the rise of nationalism (so heavily present in 19th and 20th century conflicts), the nature of the modern state, the growth (and death) of Empires, the role of religion, the role of basic human nature in all levels of conflict and, last but not least, the place of charismatic leadership in wars. This section was handily brought to life by a detailed multi-page examination of the origins of WW1 which I found very interesting.

We then moved on to the lived experience of war, from the point of view of the combatants but also from those inevitably caught in the middle of things. Not only life in the trenches, but also life under the ever present fear of the air raid siren or the car bomb. Talk of boredom between periods of abject terror naturally led onto a discussion of shell-shock or Post Traumatic Stress which exploded onto the scene in WW1 and has been with us ever since.

Moving onto the legacy of war we are not only ‘treated’ to expositions of numbers killed but also to Empires that have collapsed, nations that have risen (or fallen), national boundaries that have changed, technology that has flowered, art and literature that has been produced, organisations that have dissolved or had to be created, philosophies and legal systems brought into being and movements started to bring an end to war itself or just to end the use of a particular weapon.

Lastly we must look to the future. Will it be a future without the subject of war to study and wonder over? Both the author and I are sceptical on that point despite ‘the better angels of our nature’. Will war in the future be different? Undoubtedly – not just because of new technologies and new battlegrounds (such as Cyberspace), but because of the globalisation of conflict, the longevity of war and it’s increasingly amorphous nature taking place at multiple levels, across vast reaches of territory and with pauses between often intense short-lived action. War definitely still needs its academics as much as it needs scientists and soldiers. Interesting and a good introduction to a disturbingly fascinating subject (plus a cracking bibliography!).


VV said...

I am at the point in this semester where I'm covering WWI now. I just started telling the class about shell shock and our understanding of it then, and comparing what we now understand about traumatic brain injuries in our current wars. War sucks. I wish we could make the people who want to start wars, fight them themselves. It seems an awful lot of waste for so few to profit from it. I can understand defending yourself if attacked, and I can understand stopping a bully before he becomes too powerful, but I wish there were a war to scoop up all the war mongers and drop them in a pit to kill each other off.

CyberKitten said...

War is a very bad way of settling disputes. You would've thought that people had clued into this by now!