The Study of War


I was asked some critical questions by my students last week at Phase 3 of ILE about the study of war and the effect that combat has on human nature. I am not an expert, but I will attempt to give some answers.

As both a military officer and a military history major I am fascinated by the study of war. Military history at its high points is really about studying men in conflict.

The reality of the human dimension of warfare like exhaustion, fear, depression and hunger is sometimes forgotten in the romantic ideals of grand strategy and dashing cavalry charges.

Preparing yourself intellectually is as important as preparing yourself physically for the rigors of combat. But the same questions always arise- ‘Where do I start?’ ‘What do I study?’

As an Infantry Major attending the Command General Staff College, and later in graduate school getting a degree in military history, I asked those same questions.

Other questions came up- ‘Are leaders more important than conflicts?’ ‘Are some wars more relevant than others?’ But there are some answers. I will try to provide them.

The Importance of a Military Education

The first object of an education is to develop character, the second to develop intellect, and the third to make good citizens. To think about the military profession in intellectual terms military professionals can think of themselves as “managers of violence.”

Samuel Huntington wrote a famous article called “Officership as a Profession” where he said, ““The direction, operation, and control of a human organization whose primary function is the management of violence is the peculiar skill of the officer.”

Training tends to prepare the military professional for known problems, while education better prepares them for the unknown, the unpredictable, and the unexpected. It sharpens their capacity to “shoot, move and communicate,” effectively.

Military professionals can think of their vocation in several terms. Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership & Education, Personnel, and Facilities (DOTMLPF). It’s mostly On-The- Job Training (OJT), learning their trade as apprentices and laymen through trial and error.

From this experience other things get thrown into the mix like Troop-Deployment Schedules, Command and Control/ Task Organization and Logistics. These items all have to do with the “management of violence.”

To think in-depth about your profession you need intellectual development. Strange, ambiguous missions such as being both warfighters and peacekeepers in the same deployment demands military professionals look at non-military influences and how they affect the mission.

Dynamics like culture, politics, religion and indigenous populations get thrown into the mix and must be addressed. Don’t think so? Just look what happened in Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

How do you prepare, then?

Sir Michael Howard

Sir Michael Howard is a British military historian at Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University. Howard is best known for expanding military history beyond the traditional campaigns and battle accounts. His contribution to history included wider discussions about the sociological significance of war.

Commissioned in the Coldstream Guards at the onset of World War II, Howard fought in the Italian Campaign. On January 27, 1944, he was awarded the Military Cross (the equivalent of the American Silver Star) – “in recognition of gallant and distinguished services in Italy”.

He knew war, and he applied this experience as an academic. He was influential in developing strategic studies as a discipline. His ideas brought together government, military, and academia to think about defense and national security more broadly and deeply than had been done before.

Howard wrote a 1961 seminal essay on how military professionals should develop what Clausewitz described as their own “theory” of war. I attached it to this email.

Howard’s Essay

Howard starts his essay off with the two great difficulties with which the professional soldier has in equipping himself as a commander.

First, his profession is quite unique. He may have to apply all his training and knowledge to only one chance once in his life. He compares to a surgeon practicing on dummies for just one operation.

Second, the complex problem of running an army completely occupies all his mind and skill. It is easy to forget what it is being run for- the conduct of war.

He states that there are three general rules of study that must be in the mind of the officer who wishes to study military history as a guide in his profession. He should study history to avoid its pitfalls (Howard, 1981).

First, to study in width: To observe how warfare has developed over a long historical period. Next to study in depth: To study campaigns and explore them thoroughly, consulting original sources and applying various theories and interdisciplinary approaches.

This is important, Sir Michael observed, because as the “tidy outline dissolves,” we “catch a glimpse of the confusion and horror of real experience.”

And lastly to study in context. Wars and warfare must be understood in context of their social, cultural, economic, human, moral, political, and psychological dimensions because “the roots of victory and defeat often have to be sought far from the battlefield,” (McMaster, 2014).

Study of War

To develop understanding in “width, depth, and context” we must be active learners, dedicated students of history. By looking at past conflicts we can see where things went wrong and right.

By studying history and having a professional discussion, helps leaders to understand the character of conflicts, and to have informed ideas of how armed conflict is likely to evolve. History help leaders understand the difficult interactions between military, political, and social factors that influence the situation in war.

Leaders cannot turn back time once war occurs; they must develop an understanding of war and warfare before they enter the field of battle. American generals from George Washington, to Winfield Scott, to Robert E. Lee, and to George S. Patton supplemented their formal learning through active reading, study, and reflection.


  1. Great article by General H.R. McMaster. A decorated troop commander, famous for the battle of 73 Eastings in Desert Storm. General McMaster went to command the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tall Afar, Iraq. He was the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence and is now the commander of TRADOC:

  1. Attachments:

The first is an article is by Samuel Huntington. He wrote a famous article called “Officership as a Profession.”

In 1957, he wrote a book called “The Soldier and the State.” He outlines the role of the military in a liberal society that lives with Jeffersonian Democracy, about what separates countries that work from countries that don’t—it was controversial.

Here is another article about him from the “The Atlantic” by Robert Kaplan-

Second is the article by Sir Michael Howard:

  1. Lastly, a video from CGSC by LTC Tito Perez, arguing the OE, a new video series about how non-military factors such as politics, governance, economics, identity, and ethical considerations affect military operations. Fascinating.