Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 8, Issue 3  /  

Because War Matters: The Communications Problem in Strategic Studies

Because War Matters: The Communications Problem in Strategic Studies Because War Matters: The Communications Problem in Strategic Studies
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To cite this article: Dolitsky, Phillip, “Because War Matters: The Communications Problem in Strategic Studies”, Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 3, winter 2022, pages 36-42.

“War is the Father of All Things”- Heraclitus[i]

You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you- Leon Trotsky[ii]

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, International Relations scholars are scrambling to see what this means for the various theories of world politics. Although classical realists are not likely fazed by Vladimir Putin’s actions,[iii] there will undoubtedly be a plethora of scholarship in the next few decades dedicated to addressing the assumptions that were proven wrong by the invasion of Ukraine (i.e., the decline of major war, the facets of strategic coercion and the role of nuclear deterrence in both). Some have already started building the onramps.[iv] Yet while scholars and practitioners watch the war unfold with dread and begin analyzing its perplexing qualities, many Americans, from today’s youth to sitting US congressmen, seem uninterested and indifferent; they do not see any legitimate reason why a war so far away should matter to them.[v] So while military historians, strategists and scholars witness the return of great power rivalry in the form of competition and armed conflict, with all of its nasty and brutish characteristics, those outside the academic study of international relations are unavailable for comment.

Perhaps there is a simple explanation as to why so few paid keen attention to the war in Ukraine: there was already enough to worry about. There is no doubt that the war in Ukraine came at an already tumultuous time. The COVID Pandemic, rising inflation, ugly domestic politics in the US and abroad, the fall of Kabul— every news cycle seems to compete for our current attention. A war in a distant country lacks the immediacy, urgency and tangibility that rising grocery prices have. In other words, much of the world was distracted by more pressing problems. Yet it seems that this explanation mistakes the tree for the forest. War is perhaps the most distracting and pressing phenomenon that affects the world. War has altered the landscape of history more than any other force. Those of us who study strategy know it to be true; why not the masses? For strategic studies to thrive, we must convey to the average citizen the most basic truth of strategic studies, the truth that explains the discipline’s existence and exonerates the language we use: war matters. War and the fear of war have been, by far, “the most powerful among the influences that have shaped the course of international relations over the past two centuries.”[vi] The disciplines considerable lack of conveying to the public is the fundament upon which the study of war and strategy sits and is what we may dub the “communications problem” in strategic studies. It is to explaining the chasm that separates the world of strategic studies and the general public that this essay now turns.

On Modern Attitudes Toward War

To bridge the gap, a proper understanding of the problem is the first step. Much of the gap is likely explained by the contemporary disdain for all things war. Of course, disdain for war is not new. Writing nearly 50 years ago, Bernard Brodie noted that “we have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that a feeling of distaste for war and of repudiation of its awful characteristics and consequences is a uniquely recent development. There are confirmations of such rejection among sensitive people in the past, but usually ambivalently, as though the sense of being appalled were coupled with a sense of the necessity of accepting that which is appalling—and even finding pleasure in it.”[vii] Today, however, that ambivalence is surely lacking. Even in 1973, Brodie saw that in modern times, “there is often an added dimension that was lacking [in earlier anti-war sentiments]: a sense of disgust and horror at something intrinsically evil.”[viii] That disgust has increased exponentially, especially among Gen Z and Millennials.

There is an irony at play with modern attitudes toward war. Globalization, spurred by technological innovation has made the world not only more connected but also more readily accessible. Families do not need to gather around the radio for the nightly broadcast to hear about events in far off countries; a glance at your phone can provide that information. Yet, Gen Z and Millennials are much more domestically focused than globally. A major study published by the Red Cross revealed that Millennials around the world view corruption, unemployment and poverty as issues more important than war and armed conflict.[ix] In America, nearly half of Gen Z believes that US foreign policy should prioritize climate change, whereas a mere 12% say it should focus on countering Chinese aggression.[x] Moreover, and herein lay a significant departure from past attitudes toward war, many think that war and conflict can be avoided altogether. Not specific wars, but war writ large; nearly 74% of Millennials share this view.[xi]

What accounts for these modern attitudes toward war is a separate essay (if not a multitude of books) in its own right. To be sure, there are many explanations. But high on that list must be the ever-growing ignorance of history that plagues the West. A sort of historical amnesia runs rampant throughout the modern condition, in some ways motivated by the false belief that society has triumphed so much so that everything that came before the present moment has no value to tomorrow; false utopianism breeds apathy towards the past.[xii] Moreover, there is a sad belief that Western governments have been agents of colonialism and subjugation, more than they have been agents of good.[xiii] Couple this historical (ahistorical?) attitude with the fact that many of those who bore witness to the global conflagration and evil of 1939-1945 are no longer with us, and you get the disdain, apathy, and contempt for all things war in the 21st century. If Sir Michael Howard thought it was hard “to convince the peoples of Western Europe that there is, or plausibly might be, a ‘threat to national survival’” in 1979, a problem exacerbated because that generation had “no experience of the Second World War and its aftermath,” it has only gotten harder.[xiv] Strategic studies and military history need to find ways to have their work be accessible and persuasive to the current, dominant discourse. Some convincing is necessary.

On Current Strategic Scholarship

The scholarship that strategic studies produces is often directed towards one of two groups of people. At times, it is written by the people for the people—in the discipline, that is. The highly specialized language is used without clarification, assumptions of first principles already implied. Even the word that defines the discipline, “strategy,” has so many definitions, [xv] each meaning totally different things, connoting so many different ways of thinking, that those within the discipline surely get confused as to an author’s true intent; some have rightly raised the alarm for more effective strategic writing.[xvi] The problem of ambiguous language is all the more acute for those on the outside, who nearly always assume “strategy” means “plan.” “Terrorism,” an activity that is more easily recognized than it is defined, boasts at least 200 definitions, from the disturbingly broad to the oversaturated, hyper-specific and constrained.[xvii] Moreover, it is hard to recommend any recent works on strategy that are able to be understood by those who don’t have tattered copies of Carl von Clausewitz’s On War on their shelves, yet even the great Prussian general’s tract is at times notoriously unclear. Perhaps one example: Clausewitz’s most famous dictum (although not his own), that “war is a continuation of politics by other means” is not such a simple aphorism in its own right, but suffers from a severe translation issue. Hew Strachan has noted that in the original German, Clausewitz used the word politik, a word that can either mean “politics” or “policy,” each with radically different meanings. But since Michael Howard and Peter Paret’s translation is the standard one in the English speaking world, a very significant textual question has been swept away, and with it the ramifications of future studies.[xviii] In this regard, those few floors in the Ivory Tower dedicated to war and strategy resemble an Ivory Prison more than other fields of inquiry. You truly need to be on the inside to understand what is going on. Visitation hours are nonexistent or kept to a bare minimum.

But there is another type of scholarship that so many try to produce: “policy relevant” scholarship.[xix] Professor Francis Gavin notes that “there has been a vigorous effort within the disciplines of political science and strategic studies to encourage scholars to become what is termed ‘policy relevant.’” Spurred on by “array of activities, including fellowships in government, training in opinion writing and media engagement, and funds,” scholars compete for the ear of the policy maker.[xx] To be sure, few things must be as exhilarating as influencing history in the here and now. But this type of relevance is shortsighted. If we cannot inspire the next generation of policy leaders to appreciate war and strategy, no amount of “relevance” will matter. If our thinking about an American defense of Taiwan falls on the ears of citizens who care not for war, who remain completely unaware of how precarious peace is and who elect leaders who share their disdain for international politics and strategy, the discipline will become as relevant as the dinosaurs.[xxi] Strategic studies needs to shift at least some of its attention to becoming a different type of relevant; relevant to the public.

The Main Thing is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

Much of the literature about communicating war is within the context of “selling” a given war and the policies therein, for “even the most justified military campaigns have required more and more hard sell.”[xxii] No longer are the days where war was the exclusive preserve of states and elites; public support is an integral part of a polity’s war plans and operations. Today, “no contemporary government war effort is complete without its Media Operations Centre with dozens of specialists working on the Events Grid, the Master Messages, Scripts, or Rebuttals along the lines of a political election campaign.”[xxiii] But both governments and scholars need to communicate war—its aims, its pressing importance, how it fulfills the state’s needs—before the tanks rolls in.[xxiv] This means taking stock of the blessings the current world order, carved in the blood of war, has bestowed upon us, and convincingly demonstrating how fragile our world truly is.[xxv] If hubris is a cause of war, it is also the cause of destruction.

In order to be relevant to the masses, especially to my generation of Millennials who haven’t witnessed war in the same way my parents and grandparents did, strategic studies needs to communicate the fact that “war and the fear of war have been by far the most powerful among the influences that have shaped the course of international relations over the past two centuries.”[xxvi] It is vital to tell the public that “war has made the modern world more than has any other influence.”[xxvii] It has also unmade the modern world several times. Of course, there is more to history than war and peace (technological change, medical innovation, etc.), but “the strategic dimension to international relations has been by far the most significant of the influences shaping events.”[xxviii] Perhaps the public understands the significance of a particular battle. But an appreciation for the seismic shifts that war inflicts on society? With perhaps one notable exception, Margaret MacMillan’s War: How Conflict Shaped Us, we have yet to scream this from the hilltops in a way digestible to the average citizen. [xxix] We have yet to convince so many of our neighbors that the answer to “why should one care about war?” is “because war matters. The stakes at play in the international system are simply too high to discount it.” If the disdain for traditional history identified earlier has led to presentism, articulating the long view of history—what has changed versus what has remained constant—is undoubtedly part of the solution.

Perhaps two suggestions on bridging the gap between the discipline’s recognition of the importance of war and the public’s apathy to war. First, it is imperative that in explaining the nature of our study, strategists and military historians counteract both the claims of our obsession with violence and of peaceful trends in the human condition.

Critics both in and out of the academy claim that strategists and military historians are fascinated by violence. They claim that strategists are emotionless when they discuss, for instance, potential nuclear holocausts.[xxx] In the introduction to one of his many brilliant works on nuclear strategy, Bernard Brodie summed it up best: “Who can enjoy finding himself in a position which, besides being somewhat lonely intellectually, seems by contrast with that of the opposition to be more than a little insensitive, heartless, and even wicked?”[xxxi] We must not allow ourselves to be branded as preoccupied with violence and destruction; we must dispel the notion that studying war with all its awesome consequences is somehow cold, heartless and violence obsessive. If we don’t level similar accusations against the oncologist for studying cancerous tumors, we ought to make clear that we too do not take some perverse pleasure in suffering and death. Indeed, the oncologist and strategist go about their professions in similar ways; to have a better tomorrow, we need to understand the evils of today. Si vis pacem, para bellum is our motto; we should strive for everyone to know that Latin phrase.[xxxii] Moreover, we need to counteract the fatalist claims leveled against strategic studies from our colleagues in peace studies. “Maybe if you stopped talking about war, it would go away!” is a frequent accusation leveled at the strategist. But we are not fatalists. We raise the siren in hopes of preventing catastrophe, not to welcome it.

It is of course uncomfortable to talk about war since war is fundamentally a human endeavor. From the soldiers who fight to the strategists who plan, to engage in war both physically and intellectually is to enter the often scary world of human nature. Mankind is, of course, uniquely capable of displaying acts of kindness and love. Yet, we have never been able to escape Thucydides’ triptych that we fight out of “fear, honor and interest,”[xxxiii] nor have we been able to alter human nature away from Hobbes’ understanding that we are inherently destructive, selfish, competitive, and aggressive.[xxxiv] We ought to remind those outside strategic studies and military history that studying war is, on some level, studying ourselves; an endeavor that is equally frightening and enlightening.

On the other hand, much of strategic studies’ reception has been tainted by the advent of what some scholars call “Pinkerism.” The eminent cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has argued in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that society has become less violent and the frequency of wars are declining.[xxxv] Although Pinker’s work has been critiqued by the strategic studies community, it has seemed to take hold of the public writ large.[xxxvi] We are likely heading into another bloody century, the start of which was ushered in by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Falling prey to our apparently newfound virtues means a future world that will be unprepared for those demons Pinker simply chocks up to randomness.[xxxvii] The public needs to know this. They need to know that even if we are tapping into the better angels of our nature, complacency and wishful thinking in foreign policy has often led to disaster; we should not count on having more angelic actors than not.

A second approach, which might be met with disdain by those looking for book contracts only from publishing houses out of Yale and Oxford, is the writing of historical fiction. The novel, and at times the movie, has been influential in shaping the attitudes the public has towards war.[xxxviii] Catch-22 captivated the anti-war sentiment in the sixties, and its influence is still discussed today.[xxxix] An entire generation of Americans bore witness to the risks and occasional absurdity that surrounded nuclear weapons doctrine with Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe, War Games and other movies.[xl] And of course, no intellectual history about the modern study of war is complete without noting the impact of H.G. Wells’ novels.[xli] To be sure— there are some recent novels written to explain the stakes of future war.[xlii] But we can, and should, do more. We must not only write works of futurology; we ought to write alternative historical fiction. Philip Roth is one writer whose works truly make a person grasp the severity of what can happen in the international arena if the bad guys win.[xliii] Historical fiction grounded in strong evidence about where we narrowly escaped catastrophe should stretch our collective imagination about what could have been. A United States where the South won, a world where appeasement was a farcical policy or where the Allies lost; those worlds should be dramatized, grounded in strong historical inquiry, and presented in moving prose. Fiction influenced the public sphere before and there is no reason why it cannot do so again. As great power rivalry rears its ugly head again, now is as great a time as ever.


Colin Gray once noted that those with an eye toward strategic history know that “nothing of real importance changes.”[xliv] Statecraft and strategy, at their core, remain unchanged and have for millennia; it is hard to argue that Alexander the Great or Napoleon or George Marshall would find themselves bewildered by today’s international arena. One such constant—perhaps the constant—is the fear and threat of war and its eventual outbreak. The use of violence for political ends is not going away. As Margaret MacMillan so eloquently notes: “it is not the time to avert our eyes from something we may find abhorrent. We must, more than ever, think about war.”[xlv] And while strategic studies continue to push the limits in scholarship and ideas, we must do what we must to bring the public into the fold. There will always be vigorous debate over what policy is wise, what causes we should die for; there is no one answer to any question in foreign policy. But we should hope that the public understands the stakes at play in the international system. Clausewitz is unlikely to enter into the lexicon of the public at large. But we should hope that we can at least inspire the public to see the significance in what he revolutionized; the forever important study of war.


[i] Heraclitus, Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, trans. Brooks Haxton (New York: Penguin Books, 2003) 22B53
[ii] Quoted in Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, Fifth edition (New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2015), 29.
[iii] Colin Gray, one of modernity’s most prolific classical realists, was quite prescient in his 2006 book, when he noted that a Russian invasion of Ukraine “would be intended not as a war, but rather as a vital step in the restoration of the Russian Empire,” a notion that Thucydides would readily recognize. See Colin S. Gray, Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare, Paperback ed, A Phoenix Paperback (London: Phoenix, 2006), 180.
[iv] Antulio J. Echevarria II, “Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine in 2022: Implications for Strategic Studies,” Parameters 52, no. 2 (2022): 21–34,
[v] Alyssa Lukpat and Emily Cochrane, “Rand Paul Holds up $40 Billion in Aid for Ukraine,” The New York Times, May 12, 2022,; Bill Drexel, “Ukraine War Portends a Leadership Challenge for Millennials,” Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2022, sec. Opinion,
[vi] Colin S. Gray, War, Peace and International Relations: An Introduction to Strategic History, 2nd ed (Abingdon, UK : New York: Routledge, 2011).
[vii] Bernard Brodie, War and Politics: A Mojor Statement on the Relations between Military Affairs and Statecraft by the Dean of American Civilian Strategists (New York: Macmillan [u.a.], 1973), 230.
[viii] Brodie, 231.
[ix] “They Didn’t Start the Fire: Millennial Views on War and Peace,” Campaign, International Committee of the Red Cross, January 9, 2020,
[x] Samuel Barnett Alkoutami Natalie Thompson, Sandy, “How Gen Z Will Shake Up Foreign Policy,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, accessed November 22, 2022,; “America Adrift,” Center for American Progress (blog), accessed November 22, 2022,; “The Clash of Generations and American Foreign Policy,” War on the Rocks, August 29, 2018,
[xi] “They Didn’t Start the Fire.”
[xii] Phillip Dolitsky, “The Disastrous Implications of Historical Amnesia,” The Imaginative Conservative (blog), January 10, 2021,; Eric Alterman, “The Decline of Historical Thinking,” The New Yorker, February 4, 2019,; James Hankins, “How to Renew Traditional Historical Study in Graduate Schools,” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal (blog), August 19, 2020,
[xiii] Some popular examples include. David Ignatius, “Opinion | Trump’s Betrayal of the Kurds Is Sickening to U.S. Soldiers,” Washington Post, October 15, 2019,; Dominic Tierney, “The Legacy of Obama’s ‘Worst Mistake,’” The Atlantic, April 15, 2016,; Robert Malley Pomper Stephen, “Yemen Cannot Afford to Wait,” The Atlantic, April 5, 2019, For scholarly works that are too keen on highlighting failures, see David Vine, Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (Skyhorse Publishing, 2017); David Vine, The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State, California Series in Public Anthropology (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2020); Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, First Picador paperback edition (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).
[xiv] Michael Howard, The Causes of Wars and Other Essays, 2nd ed., enl (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1984), 73.
[xv] For only nine possible definitions, see John Baylis and James J. Wirtz, “Introduction: Strategy in the Contemporary World,” in Strategy in the Contemporary World (Oxford: Oxford, 2019), 4. To be sure, there are many more.
[xvi] Lukas Milevski, “Enunciating Strategy: How to Talk about Strategy Effectively,” Military Strategy Magazine 7, no. 1 (Spring 2020): 18–25.
[xvii] David J. Lonsdale and Thomas M. Kane, Understanding Contemporary Strategy (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020), 300; Ben Saul, “Defining Terrorism: A Conceptual Minefield,” in The Oxford Handbook of Terrorism, ed. Erica Chenoweth et al. (Oxford University Press, 2019),
[xviii] Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 52.
[xix] Here too, the meaning of “policy” changes from organization to organization. A standard definition is elusive.
[xx] Francis J. Gavin, “Policy and the Publicly Minded Professor,” Journal of Strategic Studies 40, no. 1–2 (2017): 269–74. For more on the gap between scholars and policy makers, see Francis J. Gavin, “International Affairs of the Heart,” Yale Journal of International Affairs 7, no. 2 (September 2012): 1–8; Freedman, Lawrence, “Academics and Policy-Making: Rules of Engagement,” Journal of Strategic Studies 40, no. 1–2 (2017): 263–68; Christopher Preble, “Bridging the Gap: Managing Expectations, Improving Communications,” Journal of Strategic Studies 40, no. 1–2 (2017): 275–82.
[xxi] We would be wise to find ways to make Michael Howard’s small yet difficult book relevant to the masses. Peace is an invention and needs to be maintained intrinsically. Defending Taiwan, for instance, is as much a function of peacetime than it is of wartime. See Michael Howard, The Invention of Peace: Reflections on War and International Order (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
[xxii] Jamie Shea, “Communicating War: The Gamekeeper’s Perspective,” in The Oxford Handbook of War, 2012,
[xxiii] Shea.
[xxiv] Elbridge Colby’s essay in Time Magazine is one good example. See “Why Protecting Taiwan Really Matters to the U.S.,” Time, accessed November 20, 2022,
[xxv] John Bew, “World Order: Many-Headed Monster or Noble Pursuit?,” Texas National Security Review, November 24, 2017,
[xxvi] Gray, War, Peace and International Relations.
[xxvii] Gray.
[xxviii] Gray.
[xxix] Margaret MacMillan, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, Random House trade paperback edition (New York: Random House, 2021).
[xxx] Baylis and Wirtz, “Introduction: Strategy in the Contemporary World,” 9.
[xxxi] Bernard Brodie, Escalation and the Nuclear Option, Princeton Legacy Library (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).
[xxxii] Perhaps the greatest exposition of this Latin maxim is in Edward Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, Rev. and enl. ed (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001).
[xxxiii] Thucydides and Jeremy Mynott, The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge, UK New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
[xxxiv] Thomas Hobbes and David Johnston, Leviathan: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, Second edition, A Norton Critical Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2020).
[xxxv] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity (London: Penguin, 2012).
[xxxvi] See the critiques in Christopher Coker, Can War Be Eliminated?, Global Futures (Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity, 2014); Christopher Coker, The Improbable War: China, the United States and the Continuing Logic of Great Power Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 173; Colin S. Gray, The Future of Strategy (Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity, 2015).
[xxxvii] Eliot A. Cohen, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power & the Necessity of Military Force (New York: Basic Books, 2016), 7–10.
[xxxviii] Christopher Coker, Men at War: What Fiction Tells Us about Conflict, from the Iliad to Catch-22 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
[xxxix] Ron Rosenbaum, “Seeing Catch-22 Twice,” Slate.Com, August 2, 2011,
[xl] Freedman, Lawrence, “Lessons from Dr. Strangelove: How Fiction Helped Shape the Future of War,” National Post, March 12, 2018,; Sean M. Maloney, Deconstructing Dr. Strangelove: The Secret History of Nuclear War Films (Lincoln [Nebraska]: Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, 2020).
[xli] See the important discussion surrounding Wells’ impact in Lawrence Freedman, The Future of War: A History, First edition (New York: Public Affairs, 2017).
[xlii] Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis, 2034: A Novel of the next World War (New York: Penguin Press, 2021); P. W. Singer and August Cole, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the next World War, First Mariner Books edition (Boston New York: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) are perhaps the best two (only?) examples.
[xliii] Philip Roth, The Plot against America, 1. Vintage international ed (London: Vintage, 2005).
[xliv] Colin S. Gray, Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy, Pbk. ed (Washington, D.C: Potomac Books, 2009), chap. Nothing of Real Importance Changes: Modern History Is Not Modern.
[xlv] MacMillan, War.