The place of the humanities in the study of war

Written by Anders Engberg-Pedersen, Associate Professor at Department for the Study of Culture

With the recent addition of a new branch to the Center for War Studies – War and Culture – a few words on the place of the humanities in the study of war might be in order. Immediately one seems to encounter an obstacle. For in many ways the very notion of a link between war and culture appears to be a contradiction in terms.

The term “war,” after all, comes from the Old High German noun werra,“confusion, discord, strife,” while the verb, werran, meant ‘to perplex, to confuse’ or ‘to bring into confusion’ as in German verwirren or in Danish,forvirre. Culture, on the other hand, can be traced back to the Latincultura, “cultivation” in the sense of tending to something, cultivating it, and making it grow. 

The contradiction was exposed most clearly only a few weeks ago when ISIS smashed ancient statues in the museum in Mosul and used jackhammers to deface several “lamassu” – the human-headed winged bulls that have been guarding the entrance to the city of Nineveh for some 2700 years. Yet, whether we locate our cultural origins in the art of ancient Mesopotamia or we find it in Homer’s or Virgil’s epics of war, it is undeniable that warfare and culture have been inextricably intertwined from the very beginning of our civilization.

ISIS smashing ancient statues in Mosul. 
Image from a video reportedly released by the Media Office of Islamic State on February 25, 2015.

Making sense of War
This intimate connection between war, as the realm of destruction, and culture, as the realm of meaning-making, can be seen as a dialectic that operates in both directions at the same time. For as much as war has shaped our culture and informed literature, music, historiography, painting, or film, the very same artistic creations have been necessary to make sense of war, to shape our understanding of what war is.

Each work of art builds its own conception of war with its particular configuration of symbolic forms, with its transformation of historical events into fiction, with its reflections, frames, and inventions. One of the main tasks of a cultural approach to war is to analyze, appraise, and situate the ways in which war has been represented from the Sumerian poems of Gilgamesh to the latest virtual reality battle simulation.

It is a daunting challenge. The perhaps most astute thinker of war, Carl von Clausewitz, once wrote that in war “the light of reason moves through different media, it is broken into different rays than during speculative contemplation.” At the same time, one of the most acclaimed and prolific authors of the 19th century, Honoré de Balzac, spent three frustrating years trying to write a novel about a Napoleonic battle and eventually had to abandon the project.

The Prism of War
With its traumatizing intensity, its vastness and its complexity, war often seems to deflect the light of our minds and evade representation entirely. Yet, over the course of its long history the humanities have developed a sophisticated critical, theoretical, and methodological apparatus that can bring us somewhat closer to this at once ubiquitous and elusive phenomenon.

But the humanities cannot do so alone. It seems to be in the very nature of war, not just in its etymology, that it engages and brings into confusion just about every sphere of human experience such as politics, aesthetics, ethics, technology and jurisprudence. Any inquiry into its character and effects will be wise to transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries and adopt a somewhat broader perspective.

The basic premise for the study of war might then be this: war is not simply a military event, be it of the past, the present, or the future. Rather, it is a complex matrix that involves nearly every aspect of society and human activity, a prism that has refracted our society, our culture and our view of the world for thousands of years. Only with the insights from all the affected fields will it be possible to see through the confusion and offer meaningful answers to the question: what does the prism of war look like?

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