by Alex Verschoor-Kirss
Abstract: The tendency within the study of military history is to assume a general continuity and regularity to warfare that can be discovered and analyzed with enough backwards-looking study. This approach, however, yields untenable theories of warfare, such as that of “fourth generation warfare,” which institutionally blind the military establishment to the way in which warfare and conflict has been historically discontinuous. The theories of French philosopher Michel Foucault, with their emphasis on a “genealogical” method based on the questioning of supposed universals, provide a potentially transformative way for looking at military history. Through emphasizing historical discontinuities in its form of analysis adopting a Foucauldian approach at the very least provides a needed injection of creativity into the study of warfare and strategy.
The discipline of military history has often been charged with being anachronistic. Less often have these charges been fully explored to their resultant conclusions. Rather than representing a solely academic issue, the tendency to read military history as a smoothly contoured and progressive arc governed by a transhistoric and transcultural notion of military strategy has grave practical ramifications. The general focus on continuity within the study of military history, and its assumption of basic universals such as ‘warfare’ and ‘strategy’ institutionally blinds the military establishment to the multiplicity of ways in which warfare and conflict has been historically discontinuous. This blindness is then paid for in wasted resources and, more tragically, human lives, as backward looking military strategies and planning goes awry.
The tendency to view military history as progressive, and the resultant positing of war as a universal, seems so fundamentally correct that it is rarely questioned. Still it is these universals that appear so transcendental that should be questioned above all others both because of their broad reach and the potential catastrophic consequences should they prove to ultimately be false. The questioning of historical universals, while possessing deep historical roots, was codified by French philosopher Michel Foucault in his positing of the need for a dismissal of histories that rely only on restating generally assumed continuities. Instead he advocated for a new form of historical analysis that he variably termed either the “archaeology of knowledge” or “genealogy.” Advocating for the application of Foucauldian theories to military history has the potential to correct the oversights of existing ideological models, along with the attendant benefit of increasing creativity and innovation across a wide spectrum of military thinking. While it might be assumed that Foucault has nothing to offer to the study of military history, through specifically analyzing the way in which Foucauldian theories already fit into critiques of the idea of “fourth generation warfare” it becomes readily apparent that his techniques and methodologies might be much more applicable than previously thought.
Military history assumes that there is a regularity and continuity to warfare and conflict that can be determined with enough probing and study. Under a Foucauldian genealogical critique, however, the category of “war” as a transhistorical concept, along with the specific positing of “fourth generation warfare” as a logical historical progression, are revealed to be in many senses false universals. As such they need not be rejected outright, only interrogated in such a way that limits their ability to cloud judgment and future theorizing. Through investigating Foucault’s own struggles with the concept of war it becomes readily apparent that even if the category of “war” in and of itself should be accepted as a unitary phenomenon, the types of analyses that yield generational theories such as the theory of “fourth generation warfare” should be rejected in so far as they represent false unities. This conclusion furthermore is made all the more important because military history does not exist in a theoretical vacuum, but rather has real world applicability in the form of actual war and conflict. Theories of warfare that are backward looking, such as current conceptions of fourth generation warfare, do a poor job of preparing military leaders for the future conflicts that they face by emphasizing continuity and logical progression in an ever changing security environment that is anything but logical or predictable. While this essay, in and of itself, is too brief to provide anything approaching a full-on Foucauldian deconstruction of “war,” or a complete genealogical or archaeological investigation of the term, it hopes to open up the discussion of these issues in a way that challenges previously accepted assumptions about warfare while providing the analytical tools necessary to embark upon further genealogical critiques.