Which Wars Are Most Important?  

Posted by T. Greer in ,

Kurz and Allison, "The Battle of Franklin," chromolithograph (1864).
Image source.

Not too long ago I listed "the conflicts discussed most in China's strategic literature and portrayed most often in contemporary Chinese pop culture." [1] Individual wars were included on the list because of their prominence in the historical memory of popular Chinese culture, or because they were (and still are) cited often when Chinese strategists need to cite a precedent or case study to prove their point. This was my list:
  • The Imjin War (also called the "Japanese Invasions of Korea," 1592-98)
  • The Second Sino-Japanese War (also called the War of Resistance Against Japan, the China-Japan War, or simply World War II, 1937-1945)

One could quibble with these bullets. The Opium Wars are not listed; given the many tears today's Chinese shed for the Gardens of Perfect Brightness, this may be a mistake. The many stories and battles from the Spring and Autumn (771-453 BC) and Warring States (453-211 BC) periods that are cited regularly in discussions of strategy are also omitted. These battles and stratagems are not presented in the original historical sources as full campaigns with operations that can be parsed and analyzed, but as individual episodes teaching some strategic or moral principle. It did not seem proper to include them. And of course, I ignored the wars fought outside of China, such as the First Gulf War, that have had an enormous impact on current Chinese strategic thinking. [EDIT: See my comments in the thread below on other Western wars often found in Chinese debates].

Yet overall I think this list is solid. If you want to understand how the Chinese think about war--either at the level of popular attitudes towards conflict or in the more sophisticated debates had among military men about strategy and diplomacy--a working knowledge of these wars will be useful. An American wishing to get inside the head of a Chinese strategist would find no better place to start than here. 

But what about the Chinese man who wishes to get inside the head of an American strategist? What wars would they need to study in order to understand popular American attitudes towards war or foreign policy, Western international relations or strategic theory, and contemporary debates in American policy circles? I suggest the list would look something like this:


  • The First and Second Indochina Wars (1946-1954; 1955-1975)
The ways in which these wars are used and remembered are not uniform. The Vietnam War and  World War II provide demagogues of all stripes with the simple metaphors they need to bludgeon their domestic opponents. All Americans with a university education recognize terms like "Munich" or "Pearl Harbor" instantly. In contrast, conflicts like the Boer Wars, the Malayan Emergency, and the First Indochina War are virtually unknown to the broader American public, but have been intensively studied and analyzed by defense analysts who sought to find lessons that could improve America's own counter-insurgency campaigns. The First World War and the Napoleonic Wars fall between these two extremes.

Which level of war is emphasized also varies from conflict to conflict. The tactics of the Hoplite armies that waged the Peloponnesian War are rarely referenced; if Thucydides is cited, it is for his insights on the political and grand-strategic levels of conflict. The antithesis to the Peloponnesian war is the Falklands Crisis, which is mostly studied and referenced when discussing naval tactics or operational art. The Civil War is the rare conflict (matched only by the Second World War) that has something for everyone. Its echoes ring strong in modern American pop culture and politics. Yet it has more than mass appeal: the American Civil War is subject to intense study by academics and professional strategists alike. These studies range in scale from assessments Lincoln's international diplomacy to  small unit leadership lessons gleaned from the Battle of Gettysburg. 

In sharp contrast to the Chinese list, the wars central to American strategic theory do not span the centuries.  With two exceptions, none occurred more than three hundred years ago. This should not be surprising. Western strategic theory is a much newer invention than its Chinese counterpart, and the American nation is less than two centuries old. The geographic distribution is more interesting. With the two conflicts from the ancient Mediterranean again excepted, either France, Great Britain, or the United States was involved in every war listed here. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these were wars waged by Americans. Interest in our own history at the expense of the history of others' is an ideological blinker that dims the brilliance of American strategic theory. However, this weakness is quite natural and likely inevitable. More telling are the conflicts from our own history that are missing from list: the War of 1812, the U.S.-Mexican War, and the myriad small campaigns with Native American tribes are rarely debated in American military circles, despite the trauma of the first and the epochal consequences of the latter two. 

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[1] T. Greer, "The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program (II)," The Scholar's Stage (28 May 2015)

This entry was posted on 09 August, 2015 at 4:52 AM and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

10 comments

Mongols!!!

August 9, 2015 at 11:27 AM
Anonymous  

Interesting that despite you mentioning the American strategic tradition not going back centuries, it is generally considered (including in this post) that ancient "western" conflicts like the Peloponnesian war are still part of its pedigree. By virtue of being a part of western civilization alone despite being so far removed from American soil in time or place? While it seems all the Chinese examples still generally stick to having to do with Chinese locations(even if not with current political boundaries).

By what reasoning does one place battles or historical conflicts within any one country's "tradition", especially for New World countries? Is it some kind of "cultural" genealogy? I can see some rationale for European history and classical antiquity as part of American history by virtue of being a predominately a European-derived tradition, as opposed to say pre-colonial Chinese or Indian or African battles (even if there are millions of African- and Asian-Americans whose ancestors may have took part in them centuries ago). But then, many modern conflicts like say WWII could arguably be part of the heritage of the majority of countries on Earth, and on all inhabited continents (including Europe's colonies). Is it also that a battle may not have taken place on a modern country's soil but is still remembered as being influential to the country's cultural ancestors?. What about technology? Does the chariot's invention in the Middle Eastern region, gunpowder's discovery in China, or airplane's invention in the US make tie any battle using these items back to those nations' lands today? If it is about tactics, couldn't any country study the historical battles of any other country for inspiration? After all, there have got to be commonalities among conflicts worldwide, especially at similar levels of technological progress, social organization etc. Does all of European (and classical Greek or Roman) military history become part of say, Japan's pedigree since Japan learned a lot about modernizing from Europe?

I wonder how useful it is to think of terms of countries "owning" a tradition that includes those battles taking place on their soil or that are remembered most in the collective memory. Also, I get the sense that like for many things (eg. pop culture, where American pop culture is "global", and other country's cultures are "local"), it seems that people often seem to think that the American can draw from anywhere (perhaps by virtue of being a new country) for inspiration while the denizens of modern India will draw from ancient India, or modern China from ancient China, etc. for cultural/historical inspiration, even if modernization and globalization, and influence from afar affects them too.

August 9, 2015 at 10:44 PM

Re: Anon's comment--

I discussed this issue a little in my original series on the Chinese stratic tradition. You can divide any "tradition" into two parts--strategic theory and strategic practice. Most of the time when I talk about "the Chinese strategic tradition" I am talking about the first of these--that is, the theories of folks like Sunzi and Mao Zedong about how to win wars, increase a country's wealth or strength, and create a favorable world order. Those who seek "a Chinese way of war" are more concerned with practice--that is, how have Chinese armies actually fought their wars over their history.

I wrote that series to show where more research needed to be done. China has had thousands of wars over its history, and almost none have anything written about them. How do you prioritize what to write? My suggestion was to work first on those wars that Chinese strategic theorists throughout the centuries were most likely to cite and discuss. I did not include Western or other international wars because plenty of research has been done on them already.

For today's purposes--what conflicts are most important to discussions of war and politics in contemporary China--it would be appropriate to add the Western conflicts Chinese read and think about to the list of Chinese ones listed above. Off the cuff I suggest the following:

*The Napoleonic Wars
*WWI
*WWII
*The Gulf War


The Napoleonic Wars make their way into the discussion mostly through Clausewitz, whom the Chinese have read and paid attention to since Mao. It is impossible to separate contemporary IR theory from WWI case studies, and as Chinese academics pay attention to international IR theory, this gets quite a bit of attention too. WWII and the Gulf War get in on their own merits. (COIN isn't a big topic in Chinese circles, so the many insurgencies on the U.S. list don't show up).

Perhaps Britain's naval campaigns in the 18th century might make the cut as well. There has been a big hullabaloo over the last 15 years in China about how all great powers were great sea powers, Chinese translations of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the whole nine yards. Britain & the USA are always the central case studies in this discussion.

I would think of the lists like this: You walk into a book shop and open ten new books, all written in 2015, each by some American strategic theorist or defense analyst of renown. What wars would they use and reference? I'd suggest the vast majority of references--especially the short asides where knowledge is assumed, not explained in detail--would come from this list. America wasn't around in 432 BC, but every American strategist worth his salt has read Thucydides cover to cover. He's part of the tradition.

Any war from any place or time could feasibly make its way onto any of these lists. If every War College in America required its students to read a few books about the Taiping Rebellion, then the Taiping Rebellion would make the list. I'm not holding my breath though. The simple fact is that most people across the world are most comfortable and most interested in the history of their own people or civilization, however they define it. I don't think it is wise to do things this way, and I think in the end the advantage will go to people like the Indians or the Chinese who are both familiar with their own history and strategic theory, and those of other countries once more strong and powerful than they. (One place where synthesis is especially likely is Japan, whose own historical tradition is very much in debt to Chinese texts and who have written much in modern times about Chinese history, but who also have been plugged into Western academic circles and political systems to have a lot of that bleed over.)

August 10, 2015 at 12:26 AM

Re: Noah Smith --He and I had a long discussion about the role on the Mongols in Chinese historical memory on Twitter after I saw his comment. Read it here.

August 10, 2015 at 12:26 AM
Anonymous  

It is obvious to say which war is the most important [to the world]. Just look at the two factors: the scale of the war and the immediate impact/results. WWI and WWII would be the top ones.

I propose a new idea. Which smaller war is the most important [to the world]? I would propose the answer: The First Indochina War, 1946-1954. This small war in the global scale resulted in the start of the collapse for the entire colonial system. It's the first time a small backward Asian colonial country defeated a much more powerful and bigger colonial master. And it inspired other colonies to revolt.

I always love the idea of the weaks prevail over the strongs. When I was a kid, I was born very poor, into a hell hole. My lineage was light-skinned Asian, but where I was born, there were a lot of dark-skinned Asians. Being poor, small and malnourished among the much bigger, stronger dark-skinned Asian kids, I was subjected to a lot of abuses.

By age 13, I decided to fight back and then prevailed over my attackers. At age 15, in my first mass battle, my group had 10 small light-skinned kids. We were trapped by 20 much bigger dark-skinned kids and yet, I prevailed with a decisive victory. The force discrepancy was 6 to 1 (20 kids x size-3 vs 10 kids x size-1).

-Drgunzet-

August 10, 2015 at 3:03 AM

The Spanish-American war. Not so much as a study in warfare but as insight into the American cultural mindset at the time. A culture that is still with us in many forms today.

August 10, 2015 at 5:38 AM

Where do Chinese in military/political circles get their knowledge of military history? I would imagine that the number who spend a lot of time reading classical Chinese and thousand-page studies for specialists is small. Are there a group of popularizers who boil down and gloss academic research, and how do they relate to the people who do original research and link it to things which academics are interested in? I am trying to imagine the Chinese equivalent of Victor Davis Hanson or Pen and Sword Books.

I would have thought that Jill Lepore's "The Name of War" would get some traction, but its postmodernist and its not an operational study.

August 11, 2015 at 10:38 AM
Anonymous  

Let me point out this very important point about the wars in ancient China and the various wars in the world.

Wars in ancient China were mostly State vs. State, not Race vs. Race. Wars in the world have been mostly State (and Race) vs. State (and Race).

Say, the 100-year war between Britain and France, it's also between British and French people. In contrast, Sun Tzu's Art of War wrote: War is the conflict between the States, not the people (Chinese).

So, the wars in ancient China were mostly about taking over, not wiping out the people. The wars in Europe for the most part involved wiping out the local races or enslaving, deportation, so on and so on with various deprivation to the locals.

Point and case: British subjugation of the Irish. The British kept the Irish folk so underfed and malnourished, the Irish folk evolved over time to be smaller in statue. In ancient China, the victorious State simply moved more of their loyal subjects into the newly conquered land and everyone eventually became one.

-Drgunzet-

P.S. I studied Sun Tzu's Art of War at age 13 and successfully applied its principles on street battles when I battled the dark-skinned Asian kids at age 15. I fought fist fight at age 7 and was constantly beaten until one day I rose up and fought for my right to exist. So, war is in my blood.

Sun Tzu's wrote: When you are strong, appear weak. When you are weak, appear strong. I have already modified it to: When you don't want to fight, appear strong. When you want to fight, appear weak.

I also studied Von Clausewitz and various Western ideas.

August 11, 2015 at 5:33 PM

@BooksandSword--

I've found that the average Chinese is much more familiar with their history--or at least a version of it--than Americans are. Perhaps this is because it is the subject of so many poems, novels, and television dramas. It is also a big part of the language. (Think phrases like "Crossing the Runicon" but times their quantity by 10).

There are of course popular historians like Victor Davis Hanson and Adrian Goldsworthy. Apparently it is much easier to make a living selling history books in China--or so I have been told by a Western historian whose managed to penetrate the market there.

And of course all the classics written in literary Chinese have been translated in modern Chinese and can be found in normal book shops.

Drugnzent--

That is inaccurate. "People vs people" really only came into its own during the French Revolutionary Wars. For most of the late Medieval and Early Modern period state leaders floated above their subjects, peasants not really caring who ruled over them if it meant lower taxes or an end to war's destruction. That most European states were then multi-ethnic empires not held together by common language or culture surely contributed to this. (I'd give you references on this, but this is solid historical orthodoxy. You'l find it in any history of European warfare).

Likewise, during the time of the Roman Empire or the post Alexander successor states, the most important fights were always between those speaking the same language and claiming the same culture.

Ancient China, for its part, was less ethnically united that it seems -- the Chu and the Qin were not considered Hua (the term back in the day for ethnic Han), and the writers of the era were sharply aware of different "national" characteristics of the people living in each state. And then they had different characters, weights and measures, and probably distinct spoken languages. Had the Qin (and then the Han) not united China I doubt very much that subsequent Chinese would consider themselves one ethnicity. Chinese sometimes call the warring states a "civil war." It only looks like one in hindsight.

Mark Edward Lewis has a good ten or so pages on this in The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han (History of Imperial China).

And of course, Eveything south of the Yangtze was once solidly in the "not ethnic Han" group. War played just as important a part as migration in bringing ethnic unity to the south.

August 11, 2015 at 7:18 PM

The commentator -Drgunzet- has been banned, and his comments (save the one responded to above) have been deleted from all threads. I don't have time to deal with arrogance and obvious trollery (or for that matter, trying to decipher his incoherent grammar). All subsequent comments by Drgunzet, or someone I suspect to be him writing underneath a different handle, will be deleted immediately.

August 13, 2015 at 5:28 PM

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