Intellectual history

War: A Genealogy of Western Ideas and Practices: An Interview with Beatrice Heuser

By Tom Furse

Beatrice Heuser holds the Chair of International Relations at the University of Glasgow, UK but is currently seconded to the General Staff College of the Bundeswehr where she heads the Strategy section. She has also served briefly in NATO’s General Staff in Brussels. Her previous publications include The Evolution of Strategy (CUP 2010) which covers a similar timespan to that of her new book, Brexit in History: Sovereignty vs. European Union (Hurst, 2018) which contextualizes the Brexit debate in centuries of ideational debates about independence and integration.

Thomas Furse is a primary editor of the JHIBlog


Tom Furse: Over the last few years, a series of works about war and strategy have emerged in Intellectual History, a discipline that has not usually given a great space to it. From Ron Robin’s The Cold World, They Made (2016), David Armitage’s Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (2017), Rory Cox’s work on Ancient Egyptian Just War theory and ethics of pre-modern war, and most recently to Samuel Moyn’s Humane (2022). I see your book as a related contribution to this endeavor. This book’s historical range is vast, stretching over several millennia to show a non-linear history of the constant mutation of war from Western Europe to the Middle East.

Right at the beginning of the book, you argue that the Classical tradition and Abrahamic religions greatly influence the morality and thinking of war in the West. And their texts, from Aristotle’s Politics to the Old Testament to Saint Augustine’s work on Just War, have been interpreted in various ways, from the pacifist Mennonites to the Teutonic Order’s violent crusading. This sets the book up to argue that morality is inherent in all humans: “People prefer to think of themselves as noble rather than just greedy. That is where ideas come in” (p. 3). It is then ideas like being noble or the idea of solidarity that can encourage war, violence, and peace. This argument, to me, puts us in the position to see that even hardened war criminals aren’t violent simply for selfish economic interest alone. Although I find this convincing, how do you show in this book the influence of ideas on people, particularly the soldiers and thugs who do most of the violent work in war, especially since they’ve probably never read al-Mawardi’s jurisprudence or the Geneva Convention?

BH: Hardened war criminals are unlikely to act on noble impulses, but they may well persuade themselves and others that they are, even if what Hitler or Milosevic and their followers regarded as “noble” is despicable to our eyes.

But indeed, ideas are central to my book. The question of how elite ideas are passed on to the masses is a riddle to me, perhaps for social psychologists to unravel. We have all encountered people spouting and regurgitating truncated ideas they have picked up – from politicians’ inflammatory speeches, posters, or social media. Simple slogans have great traction: “for England and St George,” “Ami go home,” “Ne ABD ne Rusya” (a Turkish Cold War slogan: neither the USA nor Russia), “Britain for the British,” “Wandel durch Handel” (the now somewhat discredited German hope that Russia and China could be transformed by trading with them), or “Stoppt den Krieg” (in Germany now: end the war [in Ukraine], but of course not accompanied by any proposal on how this should be done) – those are all slogans easy to put on posters, paint on walls, easy to internalize. If soldiers in the Hundred Years’ War ever shouted “booty” or “butin” as their battle cry when attacking a town, this did not make it into the historiography of their time that was intended to make them look better than that. And so, they must have known even then that raw economic interest could not justify violence. Nor did Germans who torched Jewish shops on 9 November 1938 note in public that they were getting rid of competitors: “purifying” the German Volks-body to them seemed a nobler cause. 

TF: Interesting, but what about the economic interest that played a role in the Nazi’s war in the East?  The quest for “Lebensraum”?  And the mass starvation deliberately inflicted upon the Soviet citizenry?

BH: You are right, Lebensraum was an economic interest that the Nazi state wholly owned up to. But the famines created by the Germans in the USSR were not made public, even though they led to the death of millions. You can imagine that as a consequence of these German-created famines, German soldiers who were POWs in the USSR were not exactly fed well. Yet those who returned never put two and two together and harbored grudges against the Russians for having “starved them.” 

But to get back to slogans and deeper understanding, even on another level, it is noteworthy that most ideas pass by slogans or soundbites rather than through reading. An MoD official once told me that he found it perfectly satisfactory to listen to academics and think tankers in conferences and saw no need to read the articles, let alone books in which they produced the evidence for their 20-minute presentations. 

TF: A core rationale behind the book is that it seeks to show how war and violence haven’t radically changed in history. For instance, the Assyrians were besieging cities in Mesopotamia in 700 BC, just as the Wehrmacht did on the Eastern Front in 1941. This shuns a clear developmental account of the past and prefers to stress the role of contingency instead. This puts you in direct tension with the ‘New Wars’ thesis from Mary Kaldor and others who caused an almighty amount of controversy with their argument that war in the 1990s and 2000s had changed its character into a smaller, irregular, privatized, and crime-ridden affair. In this view, these wars, usually within authoritarian states, became global ‘problems’ to be solved by well-ordered states. For Kaldor, ‘new wars’ were more of a research methodology or strategy to guide policy, not specifically a ‘new’ definition of war—even if the name and some of her writings strongly suggest it. You’re unabashedly opposed to this undertaking in any case. Did this stem from your methodology or your careful criticism of the ethics and politics of liberal/humanitarian interventionism and its idealized view of progress?

BH: Indeed, like most historians, I tend to the Solomonic verdict that there is little that is new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 9:1-12) and agree with Martin van Creveld that many armed conflicts today resemble pre-modern patterns. That is not the same as arguing that war has never changed. But it has not evolved in a linear fashion – the war in Afghanistan in the early 2000s resembled the armed conflict of robber barons in the high Middle Ages; the Roman Civil Wars of the 1st century BCE had much in common with the English Civil War. But the periods in between produced quite different wars. Many examples of authors, throughout the last couple of millennia, claim that war in their own times is quite new because that particular type has not occurred within “living memory” (meaning what their parents and grandparents talked about). I had cited some in my book, including Francesco Guicciardini at the end of the 15th century, who thought the use of cannon new when they had already brought down Constantinople forty years earlier, or the recurrent expressions of surprise at the re-emergence of forms of irregular warfare, including by US Presidents, including Kennedy and Bush (pp. 40, 56-58). Most recently, many commentators have hailed “hybrid warfare” as something new when the mix of kinetic and non-kinetic means of warfare is anything but new. Mark Galeotti’s intervention on Russian military doctrine and the so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine” is insightful here.

At the same time, what little has been new about particular wars could be revolutionary. Nuclear weapons were a cataclysmic turning point for international relations. As was the development of ships that could sail on all oceans, and then the move from sail to steam. So it was the transformation of nationalism from an elite idea in a handful of European countries into a political ideal that would arouse peoples all over the world to go to war for the ideal of creating their own “nation-state” (usually with the side effect of massacring or expelling ethnic or political minorities perceived as not part of their nation). This is still a driving force of wars today, as we can see in the Russian war against Ukraine, ostensibly fought to rescue Russian co-nationals from “Fascist” Ukrainian domination.  By contrast, the asymmetric or sub-State level warfare of the 20th and early 21st centuries is part of a particularly enduring and oft-recurring phenomenon that existed throughout recorded history. 

Admittedly, as Clausewitz rightly suggested, all wars have their distinctive features and particular character.  In that respect, the wars of Yugoslav fission with the early use of mobile phones and social media did have some unprecedented characteristics, which Mary Kaldor picked up when she spent a few months in the Balkans.  But even when it comes to new communications technologies and social media, I am more sympathetic to those who classify Facebook as a new and infinitely faster way of something old: the spreading of propaganda and rumors.

TF: Just war theory and the right to revolt against tyranny occupies a substantial part of the book, and you marshal a variety of evidence from the Western canon about it, from Cicero to John Wycliffe to Antoine Rougier, to Boutros Boutros Ghali. This certainly gives a coherent picture, but it also could obscure how thinkers in different parts of the West and in different times are making different points. Deciding on context is up to the historian, but there are general boundaries and specific moral coordinates that create precise meanings for controversial terms, like Just War. Cicero lived in a violent Republic that saw little, if any, moral problem with Caesar’s bloodthirsty campaign against the Gauls, while Boutros Ghali as Secretary-General of the UN wouldn’t be able to sustain this level of indifference, yet both were thinking of just war and justice in war. Are they talking about the same perennial issue(s)?

BH: You are quite right in suggesting that “justice” would be interpreted differently in different periods by different cultures.  As would “liberty” or “freedom” or “security,” or “order.”  These ideas would become molds into which different substances could be cast. One people might demand “a place in the sun” (meaning, a colonial empire), presenting that quest as “just,” on the basis of deeply racist assumptions which we now regard as massively unjust.  And yet “just war” and the conditions enumerated by Cicero would form the ideas of later generations: we see thinkers of later periods deviating from or coming closer to the earlier notions, depending on how thoroughly they immersed themselves in Roman thinking.  There is still a debate about whether Cicero, for one, thought of all humankind as having certain basic rights, which would put him at the origins of our ideas of universal human rights. Or would he have excluded slaves and barbarians but felt it unnecessary to articulate that, as it was so much taken for granted in his times?  Either way, he sowed the seed that in later interpretations would flower into les droits de l’homme. This may also illustrate that many ideas escape the control of those with whom they originated: later thinkers can take them to logical conclusions that might have surprised the former. Such an idea is that of the total mobilization of a population in defense of their rights in a war – an idea we find articulated already in the French Revolution.  The logical step from this to postulate that such totality should also be applied to the other side: that a whole population might be defined as enemies to be persecuted, massacred, gassed, or bombed would be taken much later, with the admixture of racism. 

TF: The book concludes with the door left open that humans and states might find peaceful negotiations more in their interests rather than war and violence. Yet you temper this optimism with some criticism of popular thinkers on the topic. “Steven Pinker argued that a sea-change in culture began with a growth of empathy through reading novels, and that this led to the abolition of slavery and more recently in women’s emancipation, the abolition of corporal punishment, and the protection of gay rights. Alas, this is not convincing” (p. 413). This comment will likely make some people smile, while others may accuse you of cynicism. Where do you see this possible change coming from, is it from cultural and organizational changes, and what would they be? Is it more ‘enlightened’ leaders who avoid violence?

BH: I thought the idea that reading novels would make us more empathetic was charming.  I confronted colleagues in university literature departments with this notion, who denied that this idea was being discussed, let alone being a matter of consensus, in their discipline. They mischievously pointed me to the many failed marriages and intra-departmental fights among their colleagues, anecdotal evidence that people spending their lives reading novels do not necessarily become more empathetic. Seriously, though, I do think ‘enlightened,’ humane leaders are the key to peace and justice.  After almost 40 years’ teaching in higher education, I have become pessimistic about the force of persuasion, especially that of the written word. 

I suppose it is crucial whether the charismatic leaders who come to power happen to have a humane disposition, a genuine commitment to doing a good job for the benefit of others, and believe that every human life is as precious as every other. Chances are probably greater that this will be the case in largely secular democracies, notwithstanding pretty gross experiences even there in recent times. 

The war in Ukraine has also demonstrated again that events in a far-away country about which we know little can be of great effect on the rest of the world – countries as far away as India, Egypt and Sudan will suffer food shortages or famine on account of grain exports from Ukraine not reaching them due to the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports. The key lesson from Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, however, to me, is that it thoroughly confirms the importance and powers of idiosyncratic ideas: in this case, that Putin, and all who support him or do not oppose him, are prepared to sacrifice thousands of lives for the greater glory of a social construct, in this case: Russia’s standing in the world. When from a Western point of view, the Russian people would have been infinitely better served by peace and trade. I know that there are Russians today who would agree with this perspective, and this is an old debate in Russia, encapsulated even in the illustration I chose for my book’s cover. It is a painting that today is in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, called “the Apotheosis of War,” painted by Vasily Vereshchagin.  When he wanted to exhibit it, along with other works, in St Petersburg in the 1880s, the organizers excluded this painting – it was seen as too critical of war!

In my book, I set out to illustrate how much ideas matter while also coming clean about the limited traction of ideas limiting atrocities. Explanations for the frequent escalation of violence, for atrocities, for casting aside restraining ideas can presumably again be found in social psychology, the study of crowd behaviour. But in addition to that, I am also persuaded by the argument made by the late David Benest, who clocked up the actual experience of this rising to the rank of Colonel in the British Armed Forces, and who at least where atrocities committed by soldiers are concerned, traced this back to poor, permissive leadership. Without absolving the rank and file if atrocities happen, this again focuses attention on the leaders, on their ideas and role models in their early careers. I am currently learning more about their education in the staff colleges of various countries, and again, my preliminary findings caution against relying on the persuasive power of the written word. It seems that we have come back to a situation similar to that of the Middle Ages, when only a few people, especially practitioners, read books: nothing is new under the sun… 

Tom Furse is a primary editor at the JHI Blog and a PhD student at City, the University of London. He researches the connections between strategic thought, the social sciences, management theory and political economy.

Featured Image: Romans fighting the Dacians. Creative commons.