Table of Contents



Title page

Copyright page


1 Introduction

Defining Terms

A Range of Sub-Cultures

Strategic Culture

National Exceptionalisms: The Cases of the USA and Canada

In Quest of Symbols

A Western Way of War?

A Variety of Cultures

The Presentist Culture of Military History: The Case of the Revolution in Military Affairs

Christendom and Islam

Information Culture and the Rise of the West

Organizational Culture: The Whiggish Account Contested

Responding to Circumstances

Cultures of the Moment

Culture: Malleable, Nebulous, but Useful

2 The Culture of Gloire: The Royal Military

The Causes of War

The Pursuit of Prestige

Dynastic Rivalry

The Nature of Political Systems

Cross-Cultural Conflict

The Culture of Military Assessment

Gloire and Organization


3 Strategic Culture: The Case of Britain, 1688–1815


Strategy and Limits

Strategy and Dynasticism

Strategy and the Limits of Imperial Power

The Tone of Strategy

Seven Years War, 1756–63

War of American Independence, 1775–83

French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1793–1815


4 Organizational Cultures: Western Warfare, 1815–1950

Responding to New Technologies

War and Social Change

War and Politics

Conscription and Nationalism

Attitudes to War

The Military as Organization

Air Power


5 Strategic Culture: The Cold War

Fundamental Divides

The Domestic Dimension

Cold War ‘Realism’

Competing Societies


6 From the Cold War into the Future

War from 1990

Strains in the World


A Clash of Civilizations?

Internal Disorder and Foreign Intervention

Power-Projection by the Major States

Thinking the Future


7 Culture and Military Analysis

Popular Scholarship

War and Society


8 Conclusions

Cultural Turns

Looking to the Future

Western Perspectives

The Second World War

National Styles

Future Weapons and Platforms

Plotting the Future

Debating Strategic Culture

The Display of Power

National Cultures

War and Business: Comparisons and Contrasts




Selected Further Reading

For Peter Ward

Title page


In making the case for a culturally aware approach to military history, it is necessary to avoid the opposite dangers of dismissing and blindly accepting culture as an explanatory concept. In this book, I try to throw light on different, but overlapping uses of cultural analysis, or rather analysis in terms of culture. These different uses and sites of debate reflect the very varied definitions of culture in military terms, and also the extent to which these definitions have been utilized. The net effect is that culture as a descriptive and analytical tool lacks coherence. Moreover, it lacks constancy, as there is a marked tendency to adapt practices to the crisis of conflict, and that in a situation in which crises tend to take an unexpected form. Such adaptation may be hidden by institutional continuity and the maintenance of tradition, but neither is incompatible with change.

As a result, it is helpful to present culture as itself changeable, rather than being a constant force that imposes a set of practice on its subjects. Culture thus acts as a variable within a system of military activity and norms that is composed of variables, such as technology and international relations, each of which affects the other. Individual military cultures are shaped not only by these externalities but also by the nature of the military cultures of other states, for processes of emulation are particularly important, with competition leading to imitation as well as conflict. Thus, the idea of a form of cultural purity or rejectionism does not describe the willingness to adopt and adapt.

Adoption may lead to the borrowing of weapons, training, organizational structures, tactics, or doctrine, and adaptation may lead not only to this borrowing but also to the development of anti-weapons, anti-tactics, anti-strategy and so on, in order to lessen the advantages of opponents. These anti-processes can be described in terms of culture, not least with reference to the gap in method between the process being opposed and the response, and indeed such a description informs part of the use of culture as a descriptive and analytical term; notably with reference to Iraq and Afghanistan but, more generally, in response to radical Islam.

It is, however, necessary to distinguish between what can be classified as cultural responses and, on the other hand, the particular responses to specific functional circumstances. Looked at differently, each can affect the other, but that does not mean that there is not an element of difference. Moreover, it is important not to assume that the relationship between cultural and functional responses is (or was) in some fashion invariable.

The Preface provides the opportunity to add a personal note. Convention dictates that this takes the form of acknowledgements, and, indeed, I have been very fortunate in being able to discuss these and related matters with others in the fields of military studies and military history. I have also profited greatly from the comments of George Boyce, Guy Chet, John France, Mike Pavkovic, Patrick Porter and Dennis Showalter on an earlier draft of all or part of this book. The opportunity to give papers on this and related topics at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, at the universities of Oxford, Reading and Washington, on a Far Eastern tour in early 2011, and to ICAP has also been most welcome. It is a great pleasure to dedicate this book to Peter Ward, a good friend and keen navalist. His friendship and company on Devon walks and at Devon meals are much appreciated.

That, of course, is the conventional terminus, but I feel it might be interesting to reflect on how this subject has impacted on me over recent decades. I have been lecturing on military history for over three decades, and the subject has certainly changed greatly. When, in the 1980s and 1990s, I mentioned or advanced cultural perspectives, I very much felt that I was an isolated figure. The emphasis, instead, was on technology and on a teleological course of development that led towards industrial warfare and a total war capacity. This approach was accentuated with the notion of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and the idea of paradigm shifts towards modernity and then beyond. In my Causes of War (1998), I advanced an alternative reading in terms of a revolution in attitudes to the military, but it had no impact. In War and the World. Military Power and the Fate of Continents (1998), I concluded that ‘technology will not be able to provide barriers to protect “civilization” ’, but that assessment sank without trace. Far more typical of attitudes was the warning that ‘the Admiral is committed to the RMA’ which I was given in 2000 when invited to speak at the Naval Strategy School in Monterey, California.

The initial success of the coalition forces in Iraq in 2003, brought technological triumphalism to a crescendo, only to be followed by a reaction in which cultural factors were thrust to the fore. Much of the discussion over the last decade of both warfare and military history has adopted the language of culture in an attempt to make sense of a situation in which technological interpretations, still more technological determinism, does not carry so much credence as was the case in the 1990s and early 2000s. Indeed, it has also been argued that the rediscovery of culture is a response to imperial crisis, the crisis of Western power-projection.1 Armies, such as the American and British, are paying more attention to cultural factors, with culture playing an explicit role in recent doctrine, and the military have revived an interest in cultural anthropology. This development poses problems as well as offering valuable prospects.

In short, the causes of the cultural analysis appear to be a form of presentism, with military history swept along in the flow of a new current of concern with the present-day. Looked at differently, this concern has provided military historians with an opportunity to prove their relevance. The last has an institutional focus, as, partly due to the lack of support for military history in many universities, much of the work on military history is conducted within military education institutions, such as West Point. This situation encourages a determination to prove the relevance of the subject2 as, possibly, do the assertive psychological characteristics of those who tend to teach military history.

The use of cultural factors, however, has generally been similarly indiscriminate; and, indeed, some of those who pushed ‘technology’ with zeal and without sophistication have transferred to ‘culture’ with similar zeal and simplicity. This book is written because I am troubled about the misuse of cultural explanations just as I was concerned about their earlier neglect. I also feel that any single approach to military history and military studies is necessarily flawed. The scholar, like the analyst, needs to keep alert to questions and ambiguities, and to avoid the misleading rush to apparently certain answers.

At the same time, there is an attempt to offer an interpretation of important issues over time and space. To do so, I first provide a general chapter that outlines the major themes, and then chapters that focus on individual themes in the context of a period of particular interest. Thus, abstract theoretical discussion and concrete case studies are linked, showing how both can be mutually enriching. Moreover, especially in chapter 7, there is an understanding and presentation of military history itself as a form of cultural analysis that can, in turn, be subject to such an analysis. The last leads to the obvious conclusion, that there is no one way to approach this subject; but that point does not lessen its significance.


1 P. Porter, Military Orientalism. Eastern War Through Western Eyes (London, 2009), p. 6.

2 W. Murray and R. H. Sinnreich (eds), The Past as Prologue. The Importance of History to the Military Profession (Cambridge, 2006); J. B. Hattendorf, ‘The Uses of Maritime History in and for the Navy’, Naval War College Review, 66, no. 2 (Spring 2003), pp. 13–38. On military education, ‘History Curriculum and the American Military Universities: The Role of European History and the Revolutionary Period’, session in Consortium of Revolutionary Europe Proceedings 1986, pp. 96–125; G. Kennedy and K. Neilson (eds), Military Education: Past, Present and Future (New York, 2002).