Cultural, Social and Ideological Analyses of War


War is a violent endeavour that pits two or more rivals against each other. The causes of war are multiple, but it is often asserted that the underlying dynamics are the same: fear and honour, desire for survival or power, bellicosity and risk, the need to overcome a perceived injustice, reaction to incursion, ambition and opportunism, and errors as misunderstanding or prejudice.

It is also possible to analyse the nature of war in a more cultural, social and ideological way. One approach has been to consider the moral, philosophical and ethical basis for bellicosity, from ancient teachings like St Augustine and St Thomas Aquina to more modern writings on ethics, including by philosophers like Benedict de Spinoza and the 17th-century Dutch Christian theologian Martin Luther. The question of what makes people willing to fight and run the risk of being killed is an important – and complex – aspect of this, with arguments ranging from very general, intuitive assertions to analyses using concepts and techniques of contemporary psychology.

Scholars of strategic culture have also considered the characteristics and norms that govern the conduct of war, even though they are aware that every encounter with a new enemy and threat is different. Some of these are institutionalised as drills and doctrine; others are a matter of public recognition or form part of military traditions (like’mission command’). Others, however, are more flexible, in the sense that they are reflected in tactical practices and procedures.

For example, a military commander will have certain preferences in the use of forces and equipment. In some cases these are rooted in tradition; in other cases they reflect contemporary technological and economic development.

Similarly, the way that particular societies imagine future war reflects their concerns and values. This may be influenced by political systems, legal regimes, geographical features and economic structures. It will also have an impact on the way in which they organise their militaries, such as the emphasis on ‘deterrence’ and ‘limited wars’ or the adoption of new technologies.

Moreover, the way that the military carries out its operations will be influenced by the continuities of warfare itself. These may include inherited battle formations, the organisation of personnel and resources (eg, supply chains and logistics) and doctrine (eg, mission commands). In addition, there are historical patterns in the way that war is used to achieve national goals, whether that be to protect or expand a nation’s territory or its economic interests. As a result, there is an expectation that the conduct of war will change over time, but the nature of those changes will be more a matter of specific context and culture than of any innate shift in the human propensity to conflict.