Teaching the history of war, teaching war in the past, teaching war in the present
When Yves Lacoste wrote that “(g)eography is above all for making war”, he was referring to the use made of geography by those engaged in warfare. Over the last 30 years, war has returned to our immediate environment, whatever form it may take. The history being written today in a tragic everyday military conflict setting helps us to understand it and make it understandable to others. It is not a case of making war a distinct historical subject, but including and proposing related issues, in the context and in the light of the questions raised in past and present.
1. History of war, history of the State
Among the most problematic questions, we will begin by looking at three possible ways into the subject, comparing and contrasting them: the history of war is bound up with the history of the State; war forms part of the history of relations between states; war can be seen as the recurring history of forms of conflict.
1.1 The history of war is a prism and a mirror of the history of the State, the institutional forms it takes (city state, republic, empire, etc.) and the military organisation associated with its political system. From this standpoint, in France and Britain for instance, military history has thus been directly bound up with the history of the nation since at least the 14th century.
It can be assumed in principle that the institution of an armed force is linked to that history, and that to understand war is first and foremost to understand the resources (human, financial, material, administrative, etc.) with which a state power equips itself for defence or attack, to preserve or to conquer. An analysis of successive forms of government can therefore be based on its military organisation, showing how the latter is dependent on the former. In France, it is the Order of 2 November 1439 and the introduction of a standing army: a law for the kingdom, an army to enforce it and a royal tax to maintain it. It is the army and the influence of the State under the Ancien Régime, the Revolution and the Empire, based on a comparative analysis: share of public expenditure, population drain, economic and geographical impacts – and the example of the navy under Louis XIV and Louis XVI.
This is a good opportunity to mention some key concepts concerning the emergence of public authority and its operation throughout history. The people’s participation in war, and later in defence, in all its forms, can be seen as evolving over the long term of history. The development of weapons and armaments, together with strategies and doctrines for their use, can also, where appropriate, contribute to shedding light on this subject.
Another way into the study of war is through war economies: looking at how states mobilised on a number of levels during the Great War, in France and Germany from as early as 1915, while stressing differences across time and place and the shift to a “total war” economy, which differed greatly between the First and Second World Wars.
For instance, it is striking to note that the USSR embarked on de facto economic and industrial mobilisation from at least the late 1930s, Great Britain in 1940, while Germany did not engage in “total war” until 1943. The United States, the “arsenal of democracy”, began to rearm in 1940, with the Two Oceans Navy Act, and mobilised its incomparable industrial capacity in 1942, though this did not stop it from entering a period of economic recession immediately after the Second World War, which it offset by means of the Marshall Plan.
The link between war and political systems enables us to differentiate between the military organisation of democracies and totalitarian regimes, as well as the relationship between France, the Republic and its armed forces. Let us take the example of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), with its succession of three wars – the imperial war, the war of national defence and the civil war – and three armies whose recruitment, organisation and operations were directly dependent on both a political and a military context. This was also the case under the Republic, during colonisation and decolonisation, at the time of the Dreyfus affair, during the two world wars, right up until the 1960s, with the impact this had on the modernisation and reconstruction of the French armed forces
. Governing France since 1945 has also been about studying the organisation of defence and national security in France since 1946 (ministerial orders of 1946 and 1959, white papers of 1972, 1994, 2008 and 2013, and the Strategic Review of 2017).
War, the nation, the State and the people: from the feudal host to the standing army, mercenaries to the national army, local militias to the “nation-in-arms”, universal conscription to the professional army – forms of engagement, loyalty to the State and citizenship. .
1.2 War forms part of the history of relations between states
Secondly, it is worth stressing the fundamental role of military affairs in international relations. It is the articulation of power relations between states, systems of alliances and the forces present, with emphasis on the decisive moments.
The period 1914 to 1945 saw a shift in the military nature of war. From late 1914, the war commanded almost everything, for the Allies and Central Powers alike: the near-totality of human activity in the combatant nations was concerned with military massification and material mobilisation; the interwar period was but a short parenthesis, lasting from 1925 (Locarno) to 1931 (war in China). The Second World War was a confrontation whose terms were definitive: war of annihilation in the East (invasion of the USSR, 22 June 1941), unconditional surrender in the West (the Casablanca Conference, January 1943). Armies became instruments with a declared political nature: the armies of liberty for the Allies, the Wehrmacht’s involvement in Nazi war crimes, the Red Army as a tool of political and ideological expansion.
With the advent of nuclear in the period 1945 to 1975, the situation changed. It was a terrifying invention, this “total” weapon, a tool of final destruction, a complete, definitive, annihilating instrument of death. If in the 20th century mankind experienced absolute evil, it also witnessed the emergence of a weapon to end all weapons and which could end all human life. “Peace impossible, war improbable”, in the words of Raymond Aron. This was the essence of the Cold War, from 1947 to 1991.
It was both a political and a military constraint, since simple rules were laid down for a small handful of states, who formed a special, closed “club”. This situation left its mark on relations between states during the Cold War. The major crises of the period (Berlin, Cuba) unfolded with the threat of nuclear war, and the wars of the Cold War were all peripheral in relation to the key focus which was Europe (Korea, Vietnam, Africa), while some of them were proxy wars fought by actors instrumentalised and supported more or less directly by one of the two superpowers (Afghanistan, Vietnam). Europe was the scene of mass military exercises and major tensions which, specifically in the period 1975-85, further cooled off US-Soviet relations: NATO’s 1983 Exercise Able Archer put the USSR on alert, against a backdrop of deployment of Euromissiles (Pershing II and SS-20) by both sides.
Since the 1990s, the threat has no longer lain with two superpowers who design and build bombs intended for their mutual destruction, in what is ultimately a dialogue of equals that provides them with a convenient framework for a rational arrangement, with diplomatic tools aimed at limiting their use, even if their mechanisms belong to the past rather than the present (SALT agreements, START and INF treaties ). We have, however, witnessed the emergence of states that are still in the Stone Age in many respects, misguided and unreasonable: “threshold” states, whose use of nuclear weapons or the threat thereof appears now as a pretext, now a spectre, now a dangerous reality.
The framework of relations between states has itself grown outdated, as evidenced by the loosening of systems of alliances, the state of transatlantic relations and the emergence of new military powers. The development of the Atlantic Alliance and its armed wing, NATO, with new members, new missions and new resources, has caught off guard a Europe whose defence is under construction, while at the same time the centre of gravity of military and maritime tensions has shifted to Asia, as have US strategic concerns since the Obama presidency.
The seas and oceans are today, more than ever before, at the centre of a contest, a competition, a struggle above and beneath the waves. At stake in, and indicative of, that contest are the relations, equilibrium and ranking of the powers, in the same way that navies are a gauge of the power of a state.
1.3 War can be seen as the recurring history of forms of conflict
Battles remain a genuine subject of history. However, long characterised as the classic tragedy by their unity of time, action and place, they have dilated over history, in both time and space, so as to no longer last one or two days, but months or even years (Verdun, Stalingrad, the Siege of Leningrad). Sometimes they do not even reach a conclusion (Jutland). Without going back over the history of battles – which all too often is unjustly caricatured – war can be shown to be a constant in relations between peoples and states. To teach about war is to teach about conflicts and the successive forms they have taken over history. But the changing forms of conflict mean that history research and teaching now also require a new approach to war that takes account of both the officers and the troops.
The changing forms of conflict, in the contemporary era, mean that combatants can no longer be separated from societies, in the tradition of the historians of the Annales school, to whom we owe this overarching approach to history. The way in which they express suffering and death, how they inflict them, subconsciously, excitedly or cruelly, tells us, in their own unique language, what lies in the depths of their beings. This is the “violence of war”, now an essential part of history teaching, which applies not only to the First World War (the study of which lies behind this advance in historiography), but to all historical periods and places, right up to the present day.
The study of the “violence of war” offers an insight into the masses of combatants and what bonds them together, makes them rise up as one or separates them, unites them in honour or scatters them in fear or flight. A consequence of the changing forms of conflict, its massification and its extension to all areas of human activity, the violence of war brings us back to societies, with their possibilities and limitations, their hierarchies and ways of living – and dying – together.
If the long-drawn-out static warfare of the First World War was no longer a battle, it was rather the interminable siege of the Central Powers, from the Marne (September 1914) to the Marne (July 1918). In many respects, for the Allies, the First World War was won at sea rather than lost on land. What is needed therefore is a return to a history that gives all the credit due to operations, which is crucial to any teaching about the First World War, while also restoring its global, i.e. maritime and naval, character. Such was the observation made ten years after the war by the commander-in-chief of the French Army: “Although the main war effort fell to the army, it would be a mistake to diminish the importance of the naval war that gave us control of the seas, a necessary condition for victory.”.
But the question is: how did the troops hold out? From this point of view, one of the most interesting aspects of the First World War Centenary commemorations lay in the confrontation between the “schools” of constraint and consent, whose apparently irreconcilable positions might possibly reach a resolution around the relationship with authority and how it evolved between 1914 and 1918, as the nature of the conflict and its military forms changed.
The Second World War saw an overlapping of extreme forms of conflict. Accordingly, there can be a convergence in the ways historical phenomena are explained: the “war in the east”, following the invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941, can be analysed successively and jointly in terms of a war of annihilation, war violence, brutalisation and the extermination of European Jews, with a change in nature in the latter case, being a phenomenon which, although the subject of a rigorous historical analysis, remains unprecedented, unique and singular.
Care should however be taken not to confuse systems of historicity: the term “brutalisation” finds its origins in a study by sociologist Georges Mosses, which analysed the consequences of the First World War on political behaviour in Weimar Germany; “war violence” refers to actual conflicts (including decolonisation); the extermination of the Jews and gypsies describes a unique process of genocide. “War of annihilation”, meanwhile, concerns only the continental Eastern European section of the Second World War, from 22 June 1941; it does not encompass the other fronts. The Second World War was a global conflict, i.e. it comprised fronts other than the Eastern Front: the Battle of the Mediterranean, the Battle of the Atlantic, the Pacific War and the landings of 1942 to 1945 all played a major role which is restored by studying how these fronts interacted.
The current historical moment is quite different, with thousands of civilian victims of terrorism and French service personnel killed in Afghanistan and other overseas theatres of operations. The dividing line between war and peace becomes blurred, “grey areas” emerge between defence and national security, and conflicts combine modern weapons and combatants in “asymmetrical” wars. It is on these conflicts of our time that the work of the historian must now shed light, in a context of a new era of “maritimisation” of the world.
2. Present-day conflicts
The Gulf War was the first and last conflict of the immediate post-Cold War period, marking the end of what Georges-Henri Soutou has called a “fifty years war” ; it was the only conflict of its kind between a state and a coalition of states, legitimised by the UN, until the First Libyan Civil War (March-October 2011), with which some interesting comparisons can be made, twenty years on.
The most recent contemporary history has seen the emergence of “grey zones”, non-state actors, irregular conflicts and engagements in high- and low-intensity conflicts in overseas theatres of operations: France in the 21st century has been involved in Afghanistan, Libya, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali since January 2013 and the Middle East since September 2014 against “Islamic State”, together with the sequels to these new kinds of conflicts, both on French soil and far from French borders. The contemporary conflicts of the last twenty years have thus presented three particular characteristics: irregular or “asymmetrical” wars, wars founded on the rule of law and respect for human beings, and the new face of war.
2.1 Irregular or asymmetrical wars, the weak against the strong, are the mark of the most recent contemporary conflicts.
With nuclear serving as a deterrent to war, the 1950s saw the emergence of organised armed liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America, for whom insurrection and guerrilla warfare prevailed over conventional warfare between comparable armies. They brought the end of a form of military superiority of the coloniser over the colonised, in particular where the colonised themselves had been defeated by the Germans or Japanese in the Second World War.
The bloody conflicts of the Middle East can be seen in the light of this analysis, as they evolved over time, from the birth of the state of Israel in 1948, to the Suez Crisis (1956), the Six-Day War (1967), the Yom Kippur War (1973), right up to the Lebanese battlefields. This is also the backdrop to France’s two wars of decolonisation in the 1950s, in Indochina from 1945 to 1954 and Algeria from 1954 to 1962, with the conflict in Indochina lasting thirty years, from 1945 to 1975. The victory of the weak over the strong was therefore possible, as illustrated by the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan (1979-89).
The real break, however, came during these thirty years of conflict, from the 1950s to the 1980s, and the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, in 2001 and 2003. The number of deaths caused by these wars, in Indochina, Algeria and Vietnam, the engagement of military service conscripts in some of them, the acts of violence committed by either side and the resulting traumas make it impossible to compare them with the conflicts of the immediate post-Cold War period. The Gulf War involved six weeks of air operations and a few hundred deaths for the coalition formed around the United States. On the other side were 1000 to 2000 Iraqi deaths for each US soldier killed in combat. But in the conflict that has gone on in Syria since 2011 – a civil/ideological/religious war of regional, inter-allied, international proportions – the number of deaths is already in the hundreds of thousands, with millions of displaced.
The profound changes to Western societies from the 1970s to the present, a form of refusal to accept death and military losses, have meant that prolonged military operations with a high human cost, against adversaries irregular or otherwise, are no longer acceptable to public opinion. We have entered an era of short, violent operations, using drones and armed forces made up of professional soldiers. The problem is that these tools deal out brutal, immediate actions, which are certainly effective but lose sight of the desired final impact and the long view. We can win battles. But how to win the war?
The appearance, or rather reappearance, of terrorism with 11 September 2001 has played a vital role in this development. How to distinguish today between the soldier carrying a weapon, the serviceman wearing a uniform, the combatant, the resistance fighter, the terrorist? It is an old dilemma, reminiscent of our own history, which must be responded to with an uncompromising analysis of the objectives of the combat. Terrorism is a form of irregular warfare whose political consequences and psychological impact are far greater than its physical effects. It mobilises other resources.
It is the trace and mark of a weakening of the concept and reality of borders, which had formed the structure of international relations in the modern and contemporary eras. The internal and external threat becomes confused; the same goes for internal and external security. From the “national defence” of the white paper of 1972, France went from “defence” in the 1994 white paper to “defence and national security” in the 2008 white paper and in more recent documents. The change in terminology is meaningful and makes defence reform a work in progress.
Guerrilla warfare had failed in the colonial conflicts against the coloniser prior to 1945. It won in the wars of decolonisation. The irregular wars of our era have other objectives. Today, they have a different face. They require the military powers fighting them to be equipped with a full, costly, ready panoply, in conflicts that shift seamlessly from “low” to “high” intensity, with an immediacy and a flexibility of political and military decision-making, in the context of interventions whose legitimacy must be proven and put to the test at the same time.
2.2 The question of the legitimacy of war is at the heart of today’s conflicts.
While “humanitarian” operations may be nothing new (see Napoleon III in Syria in 1860, Biafra in the 1960s, and the UN-mandated intervention, peacekeeping and peace-building operations from the 1950s to the 1990s), they saw a unique moment in the immediate post-Cold War era, when we appeared to have entered an age in which conflicts could be settled by peaceful means, with the triumph of liberalism, the UN freed from its “League of Nations syndrome”. In short, the story was over.
The development of humanitarian practices, the role of public opinion and the media, a universalist discourse about human rights: globalisation has shortened the distances between the victims of violence, its perpetrators and the providers of assistance, with the laws of war, rights in war and the right to war as references. Iraq in 1991, Somalia in 1992, Rwanda in 1994, Bosnia in 1995: a series of humanitarian, military and military-humanitarian engagements, in a confusion of interventions, responsibilities and chains of command that also offer an insight into the massacres of Srebrenica in July 1995. The Kosovo War in 1999 marked a twin failure: that of humanitarian efforts alone, and that of the United Nations alone. NATO was to take over, with unquestionable effectiveness and limited legitimacy.
9/11 pushed humanitarian operations and human rights into the background, in favour of national security and the war on terror, under cover of UN resolutions, in coalitions, ad hoc or otherwise. There followed ten years of joint US/NATO operations in Afghanistan. The war in Iraq, however, brought a “crisis of norms”: did the “international community” – or even the Western nations alone – share the values espoused by the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies, without UN Security Council backing?
The Libyan case seems more clear-cut, at least from the point of view of the West. A threat to civilians in Benghazi. The hasty and unpredictable nature of the acts of violence committed by Gaddafi and his henchmen. A united front from the Security Council, Gulf Cooperation Council, Arab League and a handful of others. An ineffectual, over-equipped army, a strong, concentrated opposition, apparently zero risk of sparking regional unrest. The complete opposite of Syria. From 19 March to 23 October 2011: French air strikes came first. Good, solid Franco-British cooperation in the air-force and naval spheres. US support in terms of planning, intelligence and air-to-air refuelling, within a NATO framework. “Leadership from behind” and “new modesty” at work: a proxy war, fought with logistics, missiles and drones, as the Americans seem to have gone about things since January 2013, in Mali, where they provided distant support for what was essentially a French, Malian and Chadian military operation. And the outcome? The disintegration of the State in Libya, military arsenals circulating freely, the Sahel belt given over to terrorists of all allegiances.
It was against this backdrop that France joined the international coalition to combat the advance of “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq and sent soldiers to Africa, which illustrates the changes in the world order and the interaction between domestic and foreign security, and bears the hallmark of the conflicts of our time.
2.3 Decisive changes have taken place since the end of the 20th century, giving war a new face.
Firstly, we have seen a decline in the power of states, and the rise of supra-state institutions, infra-state networks and an improbable “international community”. The interaction of states, the interdependence of their interests and the interpenetration of societies with different historical backgrounds and cultures are so many factors of both conflict and cooperation, as well as causes of ongoing disruption to their relations, towards successive, partial, provisional and possible new arrangements. The world has neither returned to the wild, nor seen a decline in historical violence; rather, it has arrived at a dangerous, uncertain place in between. After the time of answers, from the 1960s to the 1990s, has come the time of questions.
This historical framework allows an insight into how the old warring nations of the past, once they became developed societies of the post-industrial age, have given less importance to military matters, as they have undergone the fundamental shift from defending their borders, in the era of traditional conflicts, to defending against nuclear weapons, which requires neither collective commitment nor individual sacrifice, and finally to the defence without borders of today’s conflicts.
Professional soldiers sent to distant theatres of operations, and terrorist attacks on the soil of nations engaged outside their borders to affirm and ensure the defence of their shared values. Special forces in place of large battalions; targeted strikes in place of carpet bombing; precision in place of numbers. Remote warfare. With one initial consequence, common to most of these old countries withdrawn from history: a loosening of the bond between the nation and its armed forces. The conflicts of our time are no longer total wars on which a nation’s survival depends. Civil wars, wars of independence, foreign interventions, combining all modi operandi, as part of ad hoc alliances or coalitions. The end of the great rational, political, state-led wars. Combating terrorists, pirates, traffickers. “Low-intensity” conflicts against subversive transnational groups that can lead to operations of war. A different kind of dark, or a new horizon?
Meanwhile, the international military conflict setting has prompted a shift from the threat to borders to a threat without borders, and therefore from the defence of borders to defence without borders. Against a permanent backdrop of terrorism, not in far-flung places but on national soil, and with intelligence as the first boundary of defence and national security.
All this takes place in a context in which – at sea, above the seas, beneath the sea, at the bottom of the sea – other, often quieter conflicts are played out.
What is happening today is an articulation between territorial protection and power projection, the incomplete transition from the threat to borders and the defence of borders to the threat without borders and defence without borders, from objectives linked to terrestrial limits and systems of alliances to the maritime aspect of the exercise of power, in the territories of globalisation and the realm of possibility. With one costly and complicated consequence: the need for states to have at the disposal of their political authorities the most comprehensive military and naval capability possible, at the ready and adaptable in line with expected results, in a theatre of operations on a maritime scale, the control of which has become an aspect of globalisation. The power hierarchy has been profoundly transformed, as power and flexibility combine.