A Discussion of the Western Way of War

2010 May 24

by Michael R. Parmele

For almost as long as I can remember, the confluence of political history and military history has fascinated me.  With war being the final hammer political entities can wield, war as a political tactic is rather influential.  Below is a scholarly paper I wrote for a military history class, discussing the view that there exists a unique “Western Way of War” and how that unique descriptor came to be.  Again, I post this to generate discussion of the topic not as an answer to any question.


Since the late Fifteenth Century, the thrust of military history has been to create, sustain, and perpetuate an image of Western global military power.  For the most part, the writings inherited for study today were written within a Eurocentric framework, one that made several assumptions about its audience, the world, and the preordained situations in which military action has taken place.  That is not to say that the writers of military history endeavored to generate such a framework, merely that it was generated, as a result of myriad reasons.  There are three main reasons for the lens which has colored the majority of military history compiled and written since 1494; First, and most foundational, was the politicization, spread, and wide acceptance of Christianity by the European world.  Second were the advances in technology, both military and civilian, which aggregated into what would be called the Industrial Revolution.  Third was the imposition of “western culture” into non-western lands, through trade companies, colonialism, and currently western globalization.  These three reasons conspired to create and sustain the notion of inevitable victory of the Western world over its non-Western counterparts in the Americas and the Middle and Far East.

The underlying foundation to the notion of Eurocentric Supremacy espoused by military historians for over five centuries is the political sanction and spread of the Christian faith.  Beginning in 300 CE, with the conversion of Constantine, the connection between Christianity and the politics of men would be inextricably connected.  In his book, War and the Liberal Conscience, Michael Howard commented, “[T]he teachings of the Gospels were sufficiently ambiguous and the policy of the Church sufficiently flexible for Christianity to become, and to remain for a thousand years, one of the great warrior religions of mankind.”[1]  Since that conversion and the acceptance of Christianity as a State religion, the predominant organization of western states and their points of view as they gazed upon the world has been, decidedly Christian: those that accept the faith were destined to rule the world, benevolently in the name of the Prince of Peace.  This foundation of belief within the context of Christianity has led to innumerable military campaigns, wars, attacks, and reprisals.  These actions were not limited to those acting from within the Western world against those residing without.  Many military actions resulted from conflict among the Western powers arose from conflict concerning the orthodoxy or apostasy of those powers viewed through the lens of the Christian Church.  As Jeremy Black said in his, Redressing Eurocentrism, “[T]he Crusades, however, were also directed against ‘heathens’ (in Eastern Europe, for example Lithuanians), heretical Christians (such as Albigensians and Hussites), and opponents of the Papacy.”[2]  Likewise, many military campaigns of the various western powers outside the confines of the “West,” resulted in colonization, slavery, mercantilism, and various other Western constructs were predicated on the belief that these actions were sanctioned, encouraged, and, in fact, commanded by the tenets of Christianity.  National governments and their sovereigns, in collusion with the Western Christian churches, wielded Church teaching for national and personal economic, territorial, aggrandizement and gain. 

As compilations of memoirs, letters, reports, and narratives of extra-Western military exploits were examined and compiled; it is found that they are replete with characterizations of conquered peoples set within the rubric of being defeated because of their “non-Christian,” “heathen,” or “barbarous,” descriptions.  One such instance, related by Michael Howard in War and the Liberal Conscience, resulted from a discussion of Emeric Cruce’, a French monk regarded as a virulent pacifist.  Cruce’ did not believe that there was such a thing as a “just war,” however, Howard said, “[T]he ‘warrior spirits’, Cruce’ admitted, could probably not be eliminated altogether; but they could be put to service in a small professional army whose main function would be to make war on pirates and ‘savages’…the unfortunate inhabitants of the extra-European world were excluded from his ironical intentions.”[3]  As writers of military history took up the various actions conducted across this time frame, the vast majority of these writers were from one or another Christian denomination, imbued with all of the same basic biases, preconceptions, and assumptions as those who took the field against heretic, heathen, or sepratist.  Military historiography is rife with comments describing the inherent “unchristian-ness” of a people and the impact that fact had on the inevitable defeat of that people.  As can be seen, the foundation of Christianity throughout the Western world significantly contributed to the Eurocentrism evident in much military historiography developed since 1494.

The technological advancements that would become compiled into the period known as the Industrial Revolution, lent considerable momentum to the generation of the assumed supremacy of the Western way of war.  In his discussion of technology and modern war, Martin Van Creveld asserted that,

war is completely permeated by technology and governed by it.  The causes that lead to wars and the goals for which they are fought; the blows with which campaigns open and the victories with which they (sometimes) end; the relationship between the armed forces and the societies that they serve; …-not one of these is immune to the impact that technology has had and always will have.[4]

It is that devotion to technology, as the beginning, middle, and end of warfare, along with the never ending thirst of the Western world to improve upon technology, that lead to the perceived invincibility of western power in military history and the assumed invincibility in the histories recorded by military historians.  Jeremy Black, in his European Warfare 1600-1815, related the exact moment that the scales shifted, largely due to technological superiority between the Western world and the non-Western world, as the string of victories over the Turks at the hand of the Austrians between Peterwardein (1716) and Belgrade (1717).  Discussing the significance, Black mentioned, “[T]he shift …, as the best way to put a definite temporal boundary on the Military Revolution (in Parker’s valuable globalist sense of the term) is to isolate the period when Europeans became militarily superior to peoples who in the past had been their equals or superiors, most notably the Turks…the military balance between “West” and East” had reversed.”[5]  According to Black, at this moment inertia was overcome and the Western way of war began its march to dominate warfare on the world’s stage. 

            It is granted that the Western world, primarily the Western European powers and then, later, the United States of America, won myriad victories during this time frame, against myriad non-Western opponents throughout the world; the Americas, Asia, Africa.  One estimate placed the occupation of the world by European colonial powers at 84 percent as late as 1914.[6]  However, the continuing investment in technology, which generated a greater need for the Western powers to go farther into the world to acquire raw materials and, therefore, necessitated a continuing need for the refinement of military technology, contributed to the belief that the Western way of war was supreme, unstoppable, and invincible. 

            The third member underpinning the Eurocentric Supremacy notion within military history can be directly tied to the imposition, or attempted imposition, of Western culture outside the West.  Militaries of Western origin have attempted on many occasions to make their enemies fight on Western terms, by Western conventions, and with Western technologies.  It is through this rather smart military strategy, namely getting your enemy to fight on your terms, which enables the belief in Eurocentric Supremacy to be perpetuated.   Primary sources of military action during the colonial adventures of Britain in the sub-continent relate that it is not the technology of the enemy that ordains defeat, but rather the subpar quality of those individuals fighting that consigned the enemy to be vanquished.  Rear Admiral Charles Watson, as cited in Black’s, European Warfare, 1600-1815, discussed the victory of the British at the Indian stronghold of Gheria, commented that, “…had the garrison been provided with men of spirit and knowledge it must have been a much dearer purchase to us.”[7]  It was this contempt for non-European peoples that buttressed the notion that the march of the Western colonial powers would go on unfettered, undeterred, and unchallenged by any other than a rival European power. 

            Once securely developed, the notion of European Supremacy generated dire results for the indigenous peoples encountered by conquering Europeans.  After being indoctrinated by the theology, dogma, and interpretation of a conquering faith as found in colonial Christianity, and being supplied by a continuously evolving array of technological measures, the expeditionary forces sent to encounter the non-European powers were superfluously capable of wrecking havoc the likes of which the native peoples of the Americas, Asia, India, and Africa had not previously seen.  Parker illustrated this havoc with many examples in The Military Revolution Abroad, “[D]ifferent as these regions, and their inhabitants, undoubtedly were, their experience of the European invaders was, in one crucial respect, identical: the white men, they found, fought dirty and (what was worse) fought to kill.”[8]  Parker went on to describe the fact that the Europeans endeavored upon war to control land, raw material, and to extinguish opposition.  This is in stark contrast to the non-Western peoples who conducted wars to control the labor, by taking the vanquished as slaves instead of to slaughter.[9]

            Christianity, the Industrial Revolution, and the colonial imposition of European culture form the underpinnings of the Eurocentric view which has overshadowed the works of military history in the modern world.  The Western world has told and sold the best story, having combined the theology of a missionary and conquering warrior theology with the ability to generate and employ technologies with incredible deftness and agility, and the ability to overwhelm by fighting a more gruesome, quantitatively different style of war than the non-European world.  The use of superior technology, in a far more destructive manner in the name of God, allowed the Western world, more often than not, to be the victors in military conflict in the last five hundred years.  As the age old adage states there are two great things which are the province of the victor: the spoils of war and the right to write the history.  While not invincible, the quantity and quality of victories won over the non-Western world has allowed the Western narrative to be the narrative of record.

[1] Michael Howard, “Chapter I: The Growth of the Liberal Conscience, 1500-1792,” in War and the Liberal Conscience. The George Macauley Trevelyan Lectures in the University of Cambridge, 1977, (The Trevelyan Lectures), (London: Temple Smith, 1978), 13.

[2] Jeremy Black, “Chapter 3. Redressing Eurocentrism,” in Rethinking Military History, (London: Routledge, 2004), 74.

[3] Howard, 19-20.

[4] Martin van Creveld, “Part II: Elements of Modern War, Chapter 11: Technology and War I: to 1945,” in The Oxford History of Modern War, edited by Charles Townshend, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 201.

[5] Jeremy Black, “Chapter 1. European Warfare and its Global Context,” in European Warfare, 1660-1815, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 14.

[6] Geoffrey Parker, “Chapter 4. The ‘Military Revolution’ Abroad,’ in The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 117.

[7] Black, European Warfare, 1660-1815, 2.

[8] Parker, The ‘Military Revolution’ Abroad, 118.

[9] Parker, ibid, 118-120.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. May 23, 2011

    I found this article very interesting.
    Q. How has the “Western Way of War” influenced the wars in Afghanistan & Iraq.

  2. May 24, 2011


    Thanks for reading. I’ve been thinking about your question for a bit and I don’t think that The Western Way of War has influenced the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think that they are the two most recent examples. Think of “democracy” as the new Christianity; but you still have the Western power using superior military technology and I think you’d agree that the tactics used by the U.S. is qualitatively different than that of the opponent.

    Where I see the difference and, I believe, the reason that the West has not been able to “win” in the sense discussed in the paper, is that the West is unwilling to completely annihilate an entire people in a military campaign. I don’t necessarily think that is because the West is inherently more humane than traditional colonial powers (although, as an idealist, I cling to the hope that some portion is that we are), but that in a world globalized and connected as we are now, there would be no way to keep those images out of the media. With that said, I do think that current western powers manipulate the media in order to sanitize the public into apathy and indifference. The fact that 1%+/- of the population serves in the military allows the rest of us to either be uninformed or discuss things on a policy and hypothetical level (as we are here), instead of the level of the innocent indigenous civilian whose only crime is his address when the city block is leveled by intended or unintended assault.

    What do you think? Do you agree that a distinct “Western Way of War” can be seen over the last five hundred or so years?

    Thanks again for reading, check back often and “like” us on facebook.

  3. May 24, 2011


    Check out my fellow Moose’s answer to this discussion here:

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