Pol S 407: International Conflict
--The Life Cycle of War--
“I wish I could take these stories I have written and pin them to a huge wheel, [and] spin the wheel, faster and faster, until the things of which I have written took life and were recreated, and became part of the wheel, flowing toward each other, and into each other; blurring,and then blending together into a composite whole, an unending circle of pain… That would be the picture of war.”- William March, Company K
What does it mean to understand war? Is a true understanding even possible, or do the vagarities of war defy comprehension from even its most astute practitioners and the most learned among us? While the axiom holds that those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it, an obsession with past glories and tragedies will prove equally disastrous. Focusing on individual battles, operations, and wars blinds us to the commonality of human experiences across conflicts. Likewise, abstracting the irrational, often uncontrollable forces of political violence to simple matters of coercion, of submitting an opponent to one’s will, render war unrecognizable to its victims. This course therefore aims for a holistic analysis of war. It is not enough to know sources of bargaining failure if one overlooks historical contexts and the subjective interpretations of the individuals involved. It is not sufficient to deter war by mere threat of force; one must empathize with the adversary’s situation. It is especially insufficient to consider war solely the purview of the military or political elites. War and humanity are mutually constitutive, and as such we must study the myriad ways that humanity both engages in and is shaped by war.
This course is divided into three primary sections, centered around the causes of, behaviors in, and potential ends to war. Within the first third of the course, we will examine systemic, domestic, and individual-level explanations for causes of war. Within the middle third of the course, we will learn about topics like battlefield effectiveness and civilian victimization. The final third of the course will consider questions of why wars end and whether war as a concept will ever know an end. As part of this section of the course, we will consider how collective reflections on war can be a double-edged sword, consider arguments for and against nuclear proliferation, and question whether great power war is already obsolete.
This course has three objectives. By the end of this course, you will:
- possess the conceptual and theoretical toolkit necessary for discussing generalizable trends in international conflict, while also noting where existing frameworks might fall short.
- be confident in your ability to apply the tools in this toolkit to explain historical and contemporary puzzles and phenomena in international relations.
- be able to juxtapose alternative or competing explanations for a given action (e.g. the American invasion of Iraq in 2003) and broader phenomena in world politics (e.g. why does war recur?)
This course combines discussion elements, writing elements, small group exercises, and audiovisual components with lecture material in order to achieve our course goals. Although there are no readings required for purchase, you will be expected to read the content to be discussed each week, as well as participate in the in-class discussions and exercises. The course’s concepts and the readings’ contents may be intellectually challenging and may deviate from your own worldview and/or experience.
Legalese from UW IT: