Introducing The Art of War

April 16, 2014

Given that this is a new column at War on the Rocks, you might be tempted to think that your humble columnist is going to use this space to discuss the ins and outs of Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and all the other centuries-dead philosopher/scholars of war.

You’d be wrong.

Well, sort of.  Let me explain.

This column – and the conversations I hope it inspires – is actually about the fine and creative arts, and what they can help us understand about the art and practice of statecraft.

There’s method to the madness, I assure you.  Bear with me.

I suppose when it comes down to it, the inspiration for this column can be traced to around the time that Field Manual (FM) 3-24 “Counterinsurgency” was published, just before the Surge.  FM 3-24 was, roughly speaking, the military’s “how to win Iraq” book.  Despite what you may think about the feasibility of counterinsurgency, (indeed, the manual itself was alternately described as “brilliant” and “incomprehensible”), one aspect of the manual was particularly noteworthy.  Namely, its underlying argument that commanders must think creatively about their local circumstances and adapt accordingly in order to win a population’s hearts and minds.   In order to spur such creative thinking, paradoxes were introduced, such as “the more force you use, the less secure you may be,” – a sort of Army/Marine Corps answer to a Zen koan (even though our beloved ground forces aren’t exactly “Zen”).

Homo Sapiens as Storytellers

This was no accident; the point of a koan – a counterintuitive Zen puzzle – is to inspire a deeper, non-logical level of contemplation.  But we haven’t always used koans to access those creative, intuitive, non-rational parts of our psyche.  Indeed, as Karen Armstrong usefully argues in A Short History of Myth, ever since we were cavemen sitting around campfires, homo sapiens (and perhaps even our Neanderthal cousins) have used stories and myths to communicate meaning, purpose and truth.  Myths were not expressions of religious belief per se; rather, they were an imaginative, non-logical attempt to understand who we are, and where we fit into our world.

Today, great art serves that purpose.  It turns out there’s a reason we gravitate towards creative works.  We’ve been programmed from our caveman days to use stories and myths as intellectual tools to learn, contemplate and interpret our circumstances in a creative and unbound manner.  And in our field, those circumstances happen to be international security policy and statecraft.

The Importance of the Arts to the Art of Statecraft

But don’t just take my word for it.  Indeed, some recent strategy scholars have started making this very point.

Christopher Coker, in his recently published book Men at War (reviewed here at WOTR) explores works of great fiction and what they tell us about the human condition and conflict.  He argues that “great authors like Homer and Tolstoy reveal to us aspects of reality invisible to us except through a literary lens,” and goes on to explore works of fiction – from The Iliad to Catch-22 – in order to help expose us to those not necessarily logical – but highly important – truths.

Charles Hill – a Yale professor and former State Department diplomat – in his work, Grand Strategies:  Literature, Statecraft and World Order, argues that literature and art are the necessary intellectual playgrounds of statesmen.  He writes:

a grand strategist . . . needs to be immersed in classic texts from Sun Tzu to Thucydides to George Kennan, to gain real-world experience through internships in the realms of statecraft, and to bring this learning and experience to bear on contemporary issues.

Hill goes on to explore works such as Emma by Jane Austen and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (among many, many others), discerning their respective themes and how they illuminate various aspects of national strategy formulation.  Emma, for example, illustrates the necessity of reliable intelligence; Dickens’ Tale inspires reflection on modern state terror.

Hill is making an important point: “only literature is methodologically unbound.”  And in a field like national security policy – alternately dominated by the behavioral sciences, technical arcana, and punditry – methodologically unbound, creative spaces are as important as they are, perhaps, underappreciated.

I could be wrong, of course.  But it’s been my impression that when it comes to figuring out what we’re going to do in our spare time, many of us national security geeks would rather steer clear of the arts and instead retreat into histories, documentaries, over-the-top political genre pieces or contemporary political debates.  Please don’t mistake me:  I strongly believe that many of the latter are extremely important to our own educations.  But they rarely provide that essential “methodology free” creative space wherein one grapples with a theme or idea in its most raw form.

The Purpose of this “Art of War” Column

Which brings us to the here and now.  The purpose of this column is to inspire a conversation about the arts, and the lessons they can illuminate for the practice of statecraft.  Every other week, I will be analyzing either a contemporary or classical piece of art, cinema or literature – many of which will have little, if any, direct linkage with national security policy – and drawing out some key themes for your contemplation and reactions.

Kind of like an online book-and-movie club, (mostly) without the gossip.  BYOB.

It strikes me that the need for creative thinking has never been greater.  Russia appears increasingly resurgent, Iran is a revisionist power in the Middle East that seems interested in destabilizing its neighbors as well as acquiring a nuke; Syria is on fire; North Korea is increasingly intransigent; China is increasingly flexing its military muscle while Japan is controversially rebuilding its military.  Afghanistan and Pakistan will most likely be messes for the foreseeable future.  The list of challenges grows longer; the need for creative solutions more urgent.

There won’t be easy answers, of course.  But perhaps together we can find new, genuinely creative ways to understand our world, and in so doing, different ways of grappling with the extraordinary challenges before us.

And hell, if nothing else we’ll be that much more interesting at cocktail parties.


Kathleen J. McInnis is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and a Research Consultant at Chatham House.  She served as a Pentagon strategist from 2006-2009.  She is the editor of the new WOTR series, Art of War. The views expressed are her own.


Photo credit: Chad Goddard