Professor of war

Arthur WaldronPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

American universities offer courses in just about everything these days: Ancient languages and nanotechnology, environmentalism and economics, cyberculture and the history of rock ’n roll. But Arthur Waldron says there’s one class that, curiously, most college students won’t find in their course catalog: Warfare 101.

“It’s really not that [American universities] are missing a course—we’re missing a whole department,” says Waldron, Penn’s Lauder Professor of International Relations and a renowned expert in war, strategy and foreign policy. “It would be like not having a department of psychology or a department of economics. Because understanding how violence works is more than a matter of just taking a course.”

Waldron learned that much, and more, during a decade spent teaching at the Naval War College, the nation’s leading center for strategic thought and national security policy. The school teaches military and government officials about the harsh realities of war.

Unfortunately, says Waldron, these realities aren’t being taught at most U.S. campuses. And, Waldron says, unless war is studied, it can’t be understood, and unless the violence and destruction of war finally does become understood, there’s almost no chance it will ever go away.

“I think it’s just so clear that war and conflict and violence have been among the most formative, if not the chief formative, factors in all of human history,” Waldron says.

Q. Have you always had an interest in violence and war?
A. I always had a belief that violence was something of importance, but there were no courses at all at the university I attended [Harvard] that dealt directly with violence and how we analyze it. This is not because there is no knowledge about this—there is a fairly substantial literature about the origins of violence, and about the ways violence can be used successfully or unsuccessfully in pursuit of objectives. But one of America’s leading universities offered no course in this. And the same is true at nearly every other university.

Q. Tell me, then, how you ended up becoming an expert in the field, if there’s nowhere to learn about it.
A. I finished up at Harvard, where I did my undergraduate and graduate work, and spent many years living in Asia. Then I was invited to Princeton, where they wanted me to be a professor of East Asian history. I wrote my first book, “The Great Wall of China,” which among other things deals with violence and diplomacy. Then came the tenure process, and after a rather unpleasant period, I was denied tenure. So I then moved to Newport, R.I., to the U.S. Naval War College, which is a graduate school for mostly fast-track military officers from all of the services, as well as people from the State Department, the CIA and so forth and others from something like 45 foreign nations. It was a wonderful experience that took me from being a China specialist … to somebody who all of a sudden had a real analytical tool I could use to look at Chinese history.

Through some miracle I became the Lauder Professor of International Relations here, and when I arrived, I decided that one of the things I could do was teach something like the course I had learned so much from at the War College, and this is the course that is now “Strategy, Policy and War.” We look at case studies, starting with the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, wars of insurgency, all sorts of things. We also look at theoretical writing, and we include a war game—a simulation. I would say the course has been rather successful. My ambition is to make it a truly great course, one of the finest courses of its kind at any university.

Q. How did the War College change you as a scholar?
A. I had the rudiments of expertise and always had the sense that people don’t always do things for economic reasons or for psychological reasons. I knew people often do things because they are forced to do things—because they’re forced. I always felt dissatisfied because the version of history I was taught had no place in it for force. But [war] is something where you need disciplined training to learn it right. It’s not something you can learn yourself. Just to give you an example, when I was in college I took a course in Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War. I handed in a paper for the course and got an A. But when I started teaching that same subject at the War College, it was extremely difficult. It took me several years to really get it right, reading many secondary sources. And I realized that what I felt when I handed in my paper in college—that I had no idea what I was talking about—was right, and I later realized the professor had no idea, either.

Q. Why is it important to study war up close?
A. Unless you understand how people kill each other, or how wars wreak havoc on civilian populations, unless you understand the specifics of how that’s being done, and so forth, then you’re not getting to the heart of war. To do otherwise, it’s as if you were trying to study a football game—the Penn-Princeton game—and you said, “Let’s not bother with anything about fumbles or interceptions or first downs—that’s all sort of down-in-the-weeds stuff. Let’s instead look at the culture of Penn and Princeton.” Now, it may be there’s something to be looked at there … but if you really want to understand football, you’ve got to know what it means when one guy drops the ball and the other gets hold of it. The same is true with war.

Q. Are there any common misconceptions about war?
A. I think there is a fascination with technology that overlooks fundamental aspects of war. In the end, war is a psychological contest of wills, with force being the way it’s tested.

People are always looking for short cuts to understand war, and this is one of the reasons I say we’re not missing a course, but missing a department. I spent nearly a decade at the War College, and I learned that to design an effective military operation and understand those operations requires a lot of study. It requires as much study as understanding the drafting and writing of the U.S. Constitution, or understanding the Great Depression. One professor friend of mine once said, “Isn’t war just sociology plus technology?” Now, he obviously thought he was very clever, but the answer is—No, it’s not. War is just as difficult as economics or psychology or math. And the creativity of the military commander is every bit as much a matter of genius as is scientific discovery or musical talent.

Q. How have you gone about studying wars, battles and strategy?
A. If you open almost any book about a war or a battle, there will be passages like this: “At this point, Smith realized his left flank was exposed, so he moved over his second brigade in order to close the gap as Jones, moving in from the rear, circled back to try and secure the advance post of the enemy near Walters Farm.” At some point it becomes completely incomprehensible. Analyzing a battle is like chemistry, or analyzing a molecule. You work them out, study them, you use lots of maps. I wrote a book about civil war in China, and I walked the battlefields. There’s no substitute for that. The thing that’s also important to note is that chance and creativity play a great part in the outcome of battles. Outcomes in battles are not determined ahead of time by which side has the better weapons or who has more people. It’s like a football game. So and so may have the advantage, but half of the time the plays turn out wrong. Battles are the same way. They are sources of sometimes extraordinary change, and therefore battles have to be studied. They cannot be passed over. Yet they are the very things that historians seem most reluctant to study. The great difference [between the U.S. and Europe] in this respect is made clear by Sir John Keegan, who in 1976 wrote “The Face of Battle.” Since then, particularly in Britain, there’s been a series of very good books that get down to the nitty gritty of how battles are fought. But that’s more lacking in the U.S.

Q. Why is that?
A. This, to me, is a bit of a mystery. There’s certainly interest among students. There are many eminent historians who know about this. In England, there’s something called the Chichele Professorship of the History of War at All Souls College at Oxford, which is kind of the nirvana of academics. That’s held by a man of my vintage named Hew Strachan, and it’s one of the most prestigious academic posts in all of England. There’s nothing that compares to that here.

Q. Is there something about the American personality that makes us ignore war?
A. I think Americans are, by nature, intellectual, and we tend to think of war as either something like a disease, or a mistake, or we think it’s a pathology. And in fact, it may be all of those things. But after I started working with the military, I discovered a few things. One, there is the most extraordinary intellectual condescension. There’s an assumption that anyone who is in the military isn’t very smart, whereas my colleagues [in academia] are as smart as anyone. The other thing I have discovered is there is this suspicion that, because I study war, that I must be a person who has some sort of violent tendencies. To which I respond, “Have you ever met an oncologist?” Just across the road at the medical school they have buildings full of oncologists, studying cancer, which is basically just war on the body. It’s a ghastly thing. Do you think they sit around and say, “Well, my favorite cancer is Richter’s transformation—that one gets them in a couple weeks.” No.

Originally published March 15, 2007.

Originally published on March 15, 2007