War studies is focused on the changing character of war and its relation to peace. It is concerned with the most dramatic events in human affairs that portend great hope because a new peace is in sight but also bring despair given the cruelty to which human beings sometimes subject one another. Hope and despair – this is the tension that provide the field with its vibrant and, admittedly, controversial character.
War studies then and now
War studies as an academic field of inquiry can be traced back in time to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Academics of that era defy easy categorization by today’s standards but they shared a concern with the rise of the modern state, its industrial muscle, its nationalist inclination, and the interplay between social forces and war. The academics back then ferociously disagreed – and thus nourished what scholars would later label call “the first great debate” in International Relations between so-called realists and idealists – but they did agree to study the big questions of war and peace and engage the debate.
To understand why it is worth reviving this history we must fast forward to the Cold War and the split that developed between “strategic studies” and “peace and conflict studies.” Strategic studies were originally focused on nuclear weapons and strategy and experienced a golden era in the 1950s and 1960s. With détente in the 1970s came the hope for fundamental change beyond nuclear deterrence, and thus was born the fertile ground for peace and conflict studies.
This split was logical as far as history goes but its legacy is damaging. It informs the idea that one can choose to study either war or peace, and it is politically loaded: the quips go that if you study war, you must be part of the problem; and conversely, if you study peace, you must be naive.
War studies goes beyond sterile debate
To do “war studies” is to move beyond this sterile debate. World affairs tell us that great peace projects often have a warring dimension: for instance, the Soviet Union wanted peace in Afghanistan but made war. Also, roots of genuine peace often go back to periods of war: the European Union dates back to coal and steel that powered the war engines of Germany and France. It is a fact that peace in many places today will have to emerge from societies ravaged by war: Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan come to mind. It is also a fact that among the war fighting nations are those most dedicated to projects of peace – the liberal democracies of the West.
The pioneers of war studies were not much different from the pioneers of the study of politics, history, economics, society, and constitutional government – all the branches that would later become institutionalized academic disciplines. War studies people were different though because they related their insights to war, and moreover because they were eclectic in their choice of “explanatory factors”. They were not yet tied down by disciplinary boundaries.
Otto Hintze and Max Weber are two of the founding fathers, although their academic contributions go beyond the field of war studies. They labored in the turbulence wrought by Bismarck’s unification of Germany under Prussian leadership and later the Great War – World War I – and they help us focus on the big issues. They inquired into the influence of the organization of armed forces on political institutions, the geography of war on state foreign policy, the state as a legal concept pulled and pushed by social forces and international balances of power, and the prospects for combining an ethic of ideals and an ethic of responsibility in balanced statesmanship.
These are fundamental and important questions. To do war studies is to be inspired by them, by the answers other scholars have provided through time, and by the challenge of providing answers for our time.
The Center for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark hosts the disciplines of International Relations and International Law. It will reach out to area studies, history, and any discipline which can bring insight into its domain.
Research at the Center is problem-driven: it favours no particular theory or methodology. Collaboration is based on particular themes which connect researchers who come from different disciplines but have convergent research interests.
The Center aims to:
Publish in the top international journals and with the best publishing houses.
Attract and retain top scholars by way of its connections to other research units at the University of Southern Denmark and to similar international research centres.
Support the Master in International Security and Law as well as other political science and law programs by means of its interdisciplinary research.
Contribute to the public knowledge of the meaning and impact of war in the modern age.