POL 3290 --- Causes & Conduct of War


“The art of war is of vital importance to the state.  It is a matter of life and death; a road either to safety or to ruin.  Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War


“For what can be done against force without force?”

Cicero, The Letters to his Friends


The purpose of this 3000-level course is to examine the causes and applications of organized violence.  We undertake this project for good reason.  As Hedley Bull observed, war lies at the root of any political order:

“War and the threat of war are not the only determinants of the shape of the international system; but they are so basic that even the terms we use to describe the system—great powers and small powers, alliances and spheres of influence, balances of power and hegemony—are scarcely intelligible except in relation to war and the threat of war.”

The structure of the international system is therefore predicated on both past conflict and the mere threat of future violence.


But it is more than that.  War is not simply a matter of politics and power.  Indeed, even the tamest of battles instill fear, apply violence, and draw blood.  At their most extreme, the costs exacted stagger the imagination.  An officer of the 24th Panzer Division, witness to the ferocious fighting around Stalingrad in October 1942, describes just how relentless these struggles can be:     

“We have fought for fifteen days for a single house with mortars, grenades, machine-guns and bayonets.  Already by the third day fifty-four German corpses are strewn in the cellars, on the landings, and the staircases.  The front is a corridor between burnt-out rooms; it is the thin ceiling between two floors.  Help comes from neighbouring houses by fire-escapes and chimneys.  There is a ceaseless struggle from noon to night.  From storey to storey, faces black with sweat, we bombed each other with grenades in the middle of explosions, clouds of dust and smoke…Ask any soldier what hand-to-hand struggle means in such a fight.  And imagine Stalingrad; eighty days and eighty nights of hand-to-hand struggle, blinding smoke; it is a vast furnace lit by the reflection of flames.  And when night arrives, one of those scorching, howling, bleeding nights, the dogs plunge into the Volga and swim desperate to gain the other bank.  The nights of Stalingrad are terror for them.  Animals flee this hell; the hardest storms cannot bear it for long; only men can endure.” 


Amidst such carnage, life and death become almost meaningless.  In the words of Guy Sajer, another veteran of World War II’s brutal Eastern Front, “I had learned that life and death can be so close that one can pass from one to the other without attracting any attention.”  In war the living are perpetually surrounded by death.  In a January 1917 letter, Wilfred Owen described to his sister how such a situation reigned on the Western Front: “I have not seen any dead.  I have done worse.  In the dank air I have perceived it, and in the darkness, felt it…No Man’s Land under snow is like the face of the moon: chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.”  


To be sure, soldiers have no monopoly on suffering.  Wars almost invariably spill beyond the battlefield and taint the surrounding population with its toxic mix of death and destruction.  Such actions are often the result of deliberate policy to plunder or terrorize the local population.  An eyewitness to a 13thC English pillaging raid in France records such an operation:

“The march begins.  Out in front are the scouts and incendiaries.  After them come the foragers whose job it is to collect the spoils and carry them in the great baggage train.  Soon all is tumult.  The peasants, having just come out to the fields, turn back uttering loud cries.  The shepherds gather their flocks and drive them toward the neighbouring woods in the hope of saving them.  The incendiaries set the villages on fire and the foragers visit and sack them.  The terrified inhabitants are either burned or led away with their hands tied to be held for ransom.  Everywhere bells ring the alarm; a surge of fear sweeps over the countryside.  Wherever you look you can see helmets glinting in the sun, pennons waving in the breeze, the whole plain covered in horsemen.  Money, cattle, mules and sheep are all seized.  The smoke billows and spreads, flames crackle.  Peasants and shepherds scatter in all directions.”


Many such transgressions against civilians have been the result of a calculated policy of terror.  It was, for example, not unusual for the ancient Assyrians to kill every man, woman and child in a captured city, or to carry away entire populations into captivity—all the better to frighten their opponents into submission.  As Gaul fell to barbarian invaders in the early 5th century AD, merciless ruin was left in their wake.  “Throughout settlements and estates, throughout fields and cross-roads and every district, on every road this way and that, there was death, sorrow destruction, burning, lamentation.  All Gaul smoked like one great funeral pyre.”  Such ruthlessness has not been constrained to antiquity.  After Tamburlane’s sack of Delhi in 1398, the city was left so ruined that, according to an eyewitness, “for two whole months, not a bird moved a wing in the city.”  In modern times, too, cries of fear and pain often follow vanquished civilian populations as the victors rape and pillage their way across conquered soil.  


So how best can we deal with these tragedies?  It has been, at least since the interwar period, the position of political science that only by improving our knowledge and understanding can we hope to keep such capricious forces at bay.  This class will therefore use the seminar format to critically evaluate the main approaches to the study of violent conflict.  The material covered will include not only the various theories that suggest the causes of war and peace, but also the basic strategies that underpin the employment of organized violence.  These theories will then be followed by a series of 20th and 21st century case studies, which will allow us to compare theory with practice.  Finally, the course will end with an evaluation of current security issues, such as NBC weapons proliferation, terrorism, and guerilla insurgencies.   




Course Documents


POL 3290 - Human Security - Causes & Conduct of War - Fall 2011.docx


0. Course Introduction - Pol 3290.ppt

1a. Thinking Theoretically.ppt


1b. Assignments & Writing.ppt


2. Three Visions of War & Peace.ppt