In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Culture of War

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Memory, Literature, and Film

Military History Culture of War
Wayne E. Lee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0157


Military historians are increasingly interested in the interactions between culture and war. How, for example, might a society’s shared preconceptions about the nature of war influence the way their armed forces fight? Or, flipping the causation arrow, how does the experience of wartime loss and destruction influence a society’s postwar attitudes about war and security? Furthermore, although these two examples were at the societal level, there are many different layers or levels of culture at which one could undertake such an analysis. The title of this entry, however, suggests something more specific and limits our scope. This entry is about the culture of war. If we understand the concept of culture as a set of shared beliefs, understandings, and behaviors evolved to promote success or survival in the world, then it makes sense to suggest that the especially stressful environment of war promotes its own “cultures”—and it does so at several different levels. Participants in war, whether as polities or as individuals, develop specific cultures in response to its demands. Note that these are cultures, in the plural. At one level political leaders and senior commanders develop systems of thought—systems they deem rational—about what victory means and how one may best achieve it. Historians regularly cite patterns in national approaches to war, dictated perhaps partly by geography, subsistence system, or political structure, but nonetheless promoting a similar set of intellectual approaches to the problem of winning war, then shaped and reshaped by the dynamics of war. Sometimes called “strategic culture,” sometimes called “ways of war,” studies of these patterns form a significant thread within military history and they occupy much of the following entry. Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that there are “civilizational” ways of war, positing a Western way versus an Eastern way. It is worth emphasizing that these constructs have more than just historical interest. Modern-day analysts and political leaders make calculations of likely enemy responses based on a sometimes-shallow assessment of their opponent’s strategic culture. Indeed some of the strategic culture literature was first generated to fill this need for prediction. These debates over national or civilizational ways of war are discussed in the categories that follow. At another level, war affects individual soldiers, beyond leaders’ calculations of means or methods of victory. War requires soldiers to adapt their behaviors and beliefs. Coping strategies then become patterns of behavior taught and shared within and across generations. Some mechanisms even seem, or have been claimed to be, universal. Speaking broadly we can call this a “soldiers’ culture,” varying according to time, place, and the changing character of combat, but within which issues of motivation, conformity to orders, willingness to serve, and so on remain crucial issues to be examined. Finally, military historians are increasingly interested in how the dynamics of war produce new cultural products in literature, in art, and in the memorialization of the dead. This is a large field, but here we focus on a few key entry points tied closely to the dynamics of war. In short, the culture of war here includes the intellectual traditions of commanders, the experiences and reactions of soldiers, and the memory products specific to combat. This definition of the culture of war excludes “front-end” questions: who is recruited and why, or institutional history, or arms races, or the quest for equal rights through military service, or even the impact of the war on the culture of the wider society. It also generally excludes narratives of specific conflicts except where those narratives are tuned to the questions addressed here. This is about the culture within war, as generated by the nature of war.

General Overviews

Each of the works in this section in one way or another attempts to define the relationship between culture and war or warfare. Not all adhere strictly to the definition outlined above in the sense of the culture of war, but they all usefully outline some of the many different ways that the problem of war and culture can be addressed. Black 2011, Lee 2007, and Shy 1993, for example, focus on culture at the front end: how it influences military institutions and practices, but they also examine the interaction of war and culture at several levels, providing useful definitions for what a cultural study of war looks like. Van Creveld 2008 operates similarly, examining a variety of types of interaction of war and culture. Keegan 1993 exemplifies a broad-brush civilizational approach to strategic culture, arguing that there are distinct Western and Eastern ways of war, but he also is interested more broadly in those peoples who imagined war as a lifestyle, distinct from war as an act of politics. Lynn 2003 sharply critiques Keegan 1993 and Hanson 2001 (cited under Western Way of War) and provides a variety of case studies to make his point about the highly variable and changing influence of culture on battlefield behavior. Lee 2011 similarly provides case studies of the variable influence of culture on the battlefield.

  • Black, Jeremy. War and the Cultural Turn. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011.

    Examines how culture shapes how militaries develop command structure, adopt technology, and even produce their strategy and tactics. Uses four case studies, examining influence of pursuit of prestige, the malleability of British strategic culture, the role of institution building to creating specific military organizational culture in the modern world, and the role of political ideology in shaping a particular Cold War strategic culture.

  • Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

    A wide-ranging survey of the history of war with a focus on the influence of culture on war making. The most sophisticated attempt to establish a “Western” versus and “Eastern” culture of war, both of which derived from specific historical developments. Examines many contexts, including nonstate war. Heavily criticized for both inaccuracies and oversimplification, it remains widely read.

  • Lee, Wayne E. “Mind and Matter—Cultural Analysis in American Military History: A Look at the State of the Field.” Journal of American History (March 2007).

    A review of the use of cultural analysis in American military history from the 1980s. Identifies several trends and provides a list of relevant works within American history.

  • Lee, Wayne E., ed. Warfare and Culture in World History. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

    An anthology of case studies of cultural analysis, focusing on how cultural values and attitudes affect war planning, institution building, and war fighting. Cases range from Assyria to modern America, and include ancient Rome, Ming China, American Civil War, and more.

  • Lynn, John A. Battle: A Cultural History of Combat and Culture. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2003.

    A key work. Challenges Hanson’s and Keegan’s Western and Eastern Ways of war by arguing against any universal approach to war. Presents a model for comparing a society’s discourse on war to its practice and then the consequences of the likely disconnects. Case studies range from Ancient Greece to the Arab-Israeli Wars.

  • Shy, John. “The Cultural Approach to the History of War.” Journal of Military History 57 (1993): 13–26.

    Reviews several attempts to apply cultural analysis to military history, especially the violence of the American Civil War and World War II, as well as the stalemate of World War I.

  • Van Creveld, Martin. The Culture of War. New York: Presidio, 2008.

    Reviews the appeal of war, and the behaviors that are specific to it and or are created to prepare for it. Also speculates on how modern conditions may be undermining that ancient appeal. Uses evidence from many cultures and time periods.

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