Episode 59: Tarak Barkawi: The Vocation of Arms

In analysing the myths of a Western way of war, historian of colonial warfare and iconoclast Professor Tarak Barkawi from the London School of Economics talks to Peter Roberts about commonalities in the vocation of war between militaries.

Using examples as diverse as the battles of Isandlwana and Kunu-ri in Korea, Tarak explains how others might view the Western way of war – specifically, through the prism of defeats rather than victories.

Play the episode

  • Peter Roberts: Welcome to the Western Way of War, a weekly podcast that tries to understand the issues around how to fight and succeed against adversaries in the 2020s. I'm Peter Roberts, Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Service Institute on Whitehall and every week I talk to a guest about the issues around the Western way of warfare, national security and the Western approach to war. We've focussed for the most part over the last two seasons on the Western experience and attitude to war and warfare through European and Western eyes, yet, as people are fond of saying today, one of the critical aspects of any Western way of war is the use of allies. If we look slightly further back into history than we're used to perhaps, Western allies included a really large number of British, French, Italian and German flagged forces. In this I mean coming from overseas colonies. There's a growing acknowledgement of this in written work and even in memorial services but we've yet to answer how these forces really felt about the Western way of warfare as they were forced to fight it. Often this must have been really different to their own indigenous ways of fighting, perhaps. It would be tempting to draw parallels to today from such a conversation. How should the US think about European and Indo-Pacific allies in the light of the lived experience from a century ago? Yet, we're not going to do that for a variety of reasons that I hope will become apparent during this episode. My guest this week is Professor Tarak Barkawi, Professor of International Relations at LSE. 


    His research interest concerned armed conflict between the West and non-European world in historical and contemporary perspectives. He's written on colonial armies, small wars and imperial warfare. He's also written on the Cold War in the Third World and on counterinsurgency and the war on terror. More generally he's interested in the place of armed forces in histories and theories of globalisation, modernisation and imperialism, especially from a post-colonial perspective. He's written on international relations theory, the so-called democratic peace and strategic studies. Tarak's 2017 book called Soldiers of Empire is about the Indian army in the Second World War and relates to the debate over why soldiers fight. We might get into a bit of that later. So, Tarak, thanks so much for coming on the show. Can I start by posing you this first question that we ask all our guests, what does the Western way of war mean to you? 


    Tarak Barkawi: Thank you, Peter, and thank you for having me. If there were a straightforward answer to that question you wouldn't have a long series of podcasts about it but I think the thing that I would say most centrally about the Western way of war is that it is a myth or framework for myth making that Westerners use to do identity politics about war and in particular it is a very misleading framework. It confuses us about ourselves and it confuses us about our enemies. That is how I would principally understand the term, let me give you a couple of examples of these kinds of confusions. One of them is that there's something called the West that has existed as a stable subject in history since Ancient Greece across the centuries, the Greeks and Romans spent a lot of time wrestling and dancing naked. They're not us, they're different peoples. History is complex and has many different influences on the societies and polities that have understood themselves as West, so that's a confusion. Another confusion is this idea that we invented a special way of warfare, be that regular warfare or decisive battle in Victor Davis Hanson's phrase and that no one else did this, that we're the ones who do this. So, you get a figure as smart and interesting as John Keegan in the immediate wake of 9/11 saying that Orientals are sneaky and that the West stands up to fight proper battle, that's a confusion. 


    What about a stealth fighter or basic fighter tactics where you sneak up on someone, shoot them down and they never saw you coming out of the sun? It's a great way to kill people and the West does it just like everybody else does. So, I think there are a variety of ways in which we have reference to this idea of the Western way of war and our specialness that is deeply confusing. I'll leave you with a last example of this, just as the People's Liberation Army was about to kick us out of North Korea in the fall and winter of 1950 one of MacArthur's generals was on about how one US soldier is worth twenty laundrymen. That's a, kind of, standard reference to the idea that a few Westerners can defeat a lot of Easterners. It's the kind of idea that may make you invade Iraq with so few divisions. So, these are the kinds of things I would say are central to me about the Western way of war, a kind of deeply confusing identity politics with which we use to make sense of war that leaves us in a bad place all too often. 


    Peter Roberts: There are two elements to the answer that you've given, the first is this idea of identity politics and who's worth more, the, sort of, values around communities. The second is this idea of, sort of, fairness and how people fight. You know, that the West, as you say, this sort of fictionalised account of the West fights fairly and everyone else fights sneakily, which just doesn't work in any kind of historical analysis whatsoever. In many ways I'd love us to be prouder of how we've been sneaky and conniving and underhand. It's how we've succeeded a lot more than we've failed. It's a fantastic reversal but there are those two distinct elements, right? 


    Tarak Barkawi: There are many elements to this, I think, and I think one of the things that it does is overlook what is really a fundamental thing that is very interesting about the modern West which is the application of rationality to warfare at all levels. That I think is really interesting and distinctive, and I think also very problematic. You use various forms of rationalisation to direct operations in ways that I think overlook the role of passion, emotion, contingency and so on in warfare but set that off to the side to come back to later. I think the notion of fairness and a stand up fight, it is fantastical and one of the, kind of, ideas that go with the West has been-, and particularly the Anglo-American West has been the centre of world power for a couple of centuries. Our period I think in top table is coming to an end in part because of defeats engendered by overestimation of our military abilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a failure to understand what was going to happen when we invaded those countries and tried to set up governments. This issue of fairness overlooks the fact that it is often the West invading and invading in unfair ways with what looks like overwhelming force. The chief trope of the Western way of war is a small band of white men fighting off an Oriental horde, take the Battle of Rorke's Drift which has, I'm sure this audience will know, the most Victoria Crosses awarded for a single engagement in all of British military history, even though a single company was involved. 


    Why does Rorke's Drift stick out in our imagination? It's an iconic battle of the Western way of war where a small number of Western soldiers fight off a Zulu Impi, it's about 150 versus 4,000. Now, what this overlooks, of course, and this will be equally familiar to your audience, is the Battle of Isandlwana which happened immediately beforehand. This happened because the British and South Africa wanted to take over Zululand and ginned up a reason to invade, having ginned up a reason to invade because they underestimated their opponent, despite advice they were getting from Afrikaners in their forces, Chelmsford divides his forces thinking the Zulus would never be able to concentrate in the way that they did or cross the amount of ground that they did as fast as they did, and he was defeated in detail or at least half of his army was defeated in detail. So, Rorke's Drift works to disappear that defeat and to leave us with the image that a few of us can defeat a lot of Zulus, yes? I think the more we re-tell battles like that the more we reinforce this myth. 


    Peter Roberts: We often say, don't we, that the victor writes the history, which is slightly amazing, but when you read the history of Shaka Zulu and the Zulu expanse, an expansion across north in Africa, it is an amazing set of principles and we'd recognise most of it as, sort of, manoeuvre warfare, right? It's speed, it's fire power, it's massing at the right time, it's a concentration of forces. It surprises all those principles of war that we'd recognise from a Prussian school. 


    Tarak Barkawi: Exactly. If you look at the way that Victor Davis Hanson handles the Zulus, he talks about them as primitive and their way of warfare as akin to hunting. You know, you couldn't get more racist than that. If you look at the Zulus with an objective eye they look rather similar to Roman Republican armies, age grouped cohorts. They even have a throwing spear they release on contact with the enemy and, of course, well-drilled tactics that are very useful against their opponents. It looks like a regular disciplined force and that's something we would be able to see if we didn't have this idea that we were special and they were the opposite of our special qualities, if we're advanced they're primitive and so on. So, I think this idea of fairness in battle overlooks the fact that it's been the Anglo-Americans who have been invading places for a long time and, you know, often we try to do so with overwhelming (TC 00:10:00) force and win through attrition and we do a pretty good job of that against peer competitors. Where we lose and have lost badly since the late 19th century is in small wars in the non-European world and that's precisely where this idea of the Western way of war confuses us fundamentally. 


    Peter Roberts: We focus in professional military education a lot in our staff rides in those great victories, even in what we regard as hard won fair fights, you know, Normandy, Gallipoli. These do feel like very iconic pieces of warfare and yet we neglect some of the long and forgotten wars that happened, for example, in Africa, right? 


    Tarak Barkawi: We neglect a lot of things. I think if I were running staff rides I'd run staff rides of bad defeats and I'd run staff rides of forgotten defeats. I think one of the-, this, kind of, Rorke's Drift, Isandlwana combination I think can be found in a lot of places, one of them that I've been paying a lot of attention recently to is Chinese intervention in North Korea in 1950. The US Marine Corps makes a big deal of the chosen reservoir campaign, which is, as you know, a fighting retreat out of being surrounded and in the words of the commanding general O. P. Smith of the First Marine Division, 'We were attacking in another direction,' which is, of course, a great way to inspire troops who are surrounded. He was a very careful and excellent general and he got his guys out of a situation that MacArthur had gotten them into. But there's another battle that happens at the same time on the Western side of the peninsula at Kunu-ri where the US Second Infantry Division was defeated in detail, two regiments destroyed. The one regiment that gets out gets out because the commander disobeyed orders and went out by a different road. That's a battle that does not occupy a place in the American military imagination but it's a place where the Chinese whipped us in stand-up fighting, right? Not in sneaky guerrilla warfare. These are some of the kinds of things that I think that one would recover if one weren't so obsessed with this idea of the West being fair, the West being on the defensive, the West being able to win these decisive battles. 


    Peter Roberts: We often think about very small numbers of, as you say, white infantry defending against the hordes who were attacking with sharpened guava fruits but this is just not the reality, right? There is also a large period of history where colonial forces have fought for the West, more often than not they've done it under European command rather than their own commands. They've been forced to fight in a way that the West wants them to do, including in uniforms that they wouldn't be used to fighting in. I mean, is there even evidence around for us to make a judgement about how they felt about that transition of fighting styles? 


    Tarak Barkawi: Well, I would say a couple of things to get us started on that subject. One of them is that one of the, kind of, fundamental misunderstandings we have about Western military power is that it is nationally organised. In world history imperial military organisation has always involved recruiting and organising forces from people you're colonising or otherwise have dominance over. The secret both of British Imperial power and of the very different form of the American World Order in the post-1945 world was to find creative ways of raising and using colonial troops. There are very good reasons for this, one of them is that democratic societies don't like spending the lives of their children in imperial warfare, especially after people get the vote and especially after we have modern news media from the late 19th Century on. That's the point at which fighting in a non-European world becomes politically problematic. So, having, as it were, Asian boys to fight Asian wars for you is a really decisive leg of Anglo-American world power and in, sort of, valorising and thinking only about our national military traditions we overlook this. Now, the way the British did this was largely through colonial forces officered by Europeans, of which the British-Indian Army in its 200-year history, or over 200-year history, is the stand out example. The way the Americans did it is through the advice and support of the militaries of non-European states, states that were subordinate or client. 


    You know, Reagan's trick on this in the 1980s was to start advising and supporting guerrilla forces and 'freedom fighters' as well as the armies of third world clients. So, this kind of imperial organisation of military power has always been a standard aspect of Anglo-American world power and our militaries are very, very good at raising and directing, and training non-European troops. The French, the British, the Americans all have bits of their militaries that really specialise in this. The US Marine Corps is very used to doing this. That is where I would start with the significance of foreign troops for Western military power. It's one of the things that we overlook. Now, in terms of the question that you're asking about how did they think about us, I think here we want to be a little bit careful. You know, drill, marching, volley fire on command, rote practising of manoeuvres that you're going to make on the battlefield, these are things that are not especially Western, right? The armies of North India and South India didn't fight in completely different ways. You know, you get down into how they're organised when people have money and settled taxes to create regular armies, armies start looking like other armies. There's a very good reason for that because war is a harsh teacher, it tends to make armies similar at the tactical and organisational level. It tends to make you have more in common with the guys on the other side of the line than even with your own civilian society. 


    I think there's a way in which war has created huge underlying commonalities in military organisation. Now, obviously that's a generalisation. There are many exceptions to what I'm saying but I think it begins to suggest why it is, as Gwynne Dyer put it many years ago, 'Anybody's son will do.' You know, if you're training an infantry unit and you have good officers and NCOs and you have about six months you can produce a battalion of good infantry that is trained to fight whatever particular kind of tactical stuff that you need to do. If that infantry is Indian, if that infantry is Algerian, if that infantry is Vietnamese, if that infantry is Chinese or Filipino, it works relatively similar to Western troops. Now, why aren't they as good as Western troops? Well, often they don't have the same quality of weapons, often it's not the best officers who go to command them. But an even more interesting reason why they're not often the best is because when you're busy raising foreign troops to fight your wars for you, especially in colonised situations, you need to make sure that you politically control those troops in ways that often work against military effectiveness. So, for example, in the British-Indian Army after the mutiny of 1857 the British divided and ruled the army by creating battalions organised around martial races, you know, one company of Sikhs, one company of Hindu Dogras, one company of Punjabi Muslims and the idea was they wouldn't all mutiny at once. 


    This isn't something forced on you because only martial races will fight, that was a myth, right? The first British-Indian troops were Tamils from the south. It was done for reasons of imperial control but it worked to make the army very, very difficult to sustain in high intensity warfare because you suddenly needed to have a whole bunch of different kinds of replacements, Sikh troops, Hindu troops, you know, Muslim troops. You had all these different languages that the companies used, you had these different scales of rations so the army was very effective at frontier warfare where you had low casualties but put it in World War One and World War Two and you start exposing its weaknesses. Those weaknesses aren't because Indians can't fight well, they can. Those weaknesses are because of the way they've been organised for purposes of imperial control. I'll say one more thing about this in the American case, you're often recruiting armies from the very peasants who are inspired to join the revolutions that you're trying to put down. You as it were are asking them to support the landlords and to fight in civil wars on the side of a foreign power and that's automatically a situation where your guys are not going to fight as well as their guys. So, it's this imperial setting that I think undermines the fighting qualities of non-European troops who are in alliance with us rather than any sort of indigenous properties of their abilities. 


    It's rather obvious that the Vietnamese or the North Koreans, or the Chinese can fight extremely well. It depends on the particular war and what they're fighting for whether they're going to give it their all. 


    Peter Roberts: It strikes me from what you're saying that it feels feudal in the way that it was organised in how you recruit. You know, and if you go back to Henry V's time of when you were recruiting in England and what you were seeing was a similar thing. You were recruiting the same agrarian workers to fight for you in the King's Army organised by very basic fighting formations but these were the same people who, if not employed, would be poaching and conducting crime in order to survive. I mean, there is a long and august history of this kind of organisation, isn't there? 


    Tarak Barkawi: Absolutely and now we're getting down to what really makes armies work. In India it was the pension that (TC 00:20:00) secured a long service army. The Latin derivation of soldier is one who serves for pay. So, your common yeoman archers or soldiers that you're recruiting from European peasantries, because you can provide cash payment, in modernising economies that require cash, that's a way of securing a very significant kind of material base for your army. It doesn't mean that they're going to fight and give their lives, that comes from other, kind of, passionate stuff that you have to instil in soldiers, you know, identities and all the rest of it but without pay you wouldn't be able to have a stable army. That, again, is something that is cross-cultural, right? It's not only Western. One of the secrets of the British-Indian Army is that Britain created in India the Raj, a cash economy which required payment in taxes so families in the Punjab would send a son to the army. This gave them access to colonial authorities and it gave them access to all kinds of financial goodies that the British made available to their soldiers, which, whatever was happening with commodity prices and, you know, drought and all the kind of things that affect agricultural earnings, you would have a steady source of income. 


    Then make people feel good about that income and that it's an honourable profession, and of course being in the military is exciting and interesting, and fun to do, outdoor life, all this kind of stuff, and you've got the basis for an army. None of that has to do with a particular culture. In fact, if there's a culture at work it's the culture of arms, the vocation of arms, which again I would argue is cosmopolitan. It's something that works anywhere. Now, of course armies around the world are in some ways in Western image because we are coming out of a period of Western dominance. It's the particular Western forms of drill and uniform, and weaponry that have been spread with Western power and we see that as having to do with our culture. I think we miss some of the features of it which are in fact cross-cultural. 


    Peter Roberts: It is and I was struck as you were talking then about the era of the warring states in China and the rise of Sun Tzu. This is exactly the same organisation that we can see in China before it was China, as we can see in India or Africa or Europe. I mean, it feels very strange for us to be classifying or over-classifying things but we do have a tendency to do so. Why do you think that is? 


    Tarak Barkawi: I mean, every people does this. It's not special about us, you know, the Chinese also think they're very special and war is a space of identity politics. It's a space where you draw distinctions between yourself and the other. It's a space where you have to convince people that they're on the right side. You know, if you're a subaltern leading your troops up the hill that's good enough, right? If you're in the business that you and I are in, or in high command you need to have a clear view of this situation and see some of the commonalities and that we are not always on the right side. I think one of the interesting things about the, sort of, identity politics of the Western way of war is what do you do about the Nazis, right? So, Victor Davis Hanson, he leaves them entirely out. The Western way of war is really just democracy and the Anglo-Americans and he leaves out the Romans after they become an empire. You have to start dropping out all these Western powers that don't look like your good guys but, of course, there's nothing as modern and Western as the kind of genocide that the Nazis launched on Europe, as Hannah Arendt (ph 23.29) comments what was really special about the Nazis is they were doing in Europe what Westerners had been doing outside Europe for a long time. Now, that's not entirely true. 


    There's a very special quality that the Holocaust, which I don't in any way wish to overlook that kind of modern machine organisation of death is different than the way in which colonial genocides were conducted in Australia or North America. But her point nonetheless sticks, there's nothing more Western than the Germans and if that's the case the Western way of war starts to look a little more shady and difficult than we like to think. 


    Peter Roberts: That brings us right back to the start, right? I mean, we've fictionalised and added so much mythology to the Western way of war that we sometimes forget the realities of how we've waged it very successfully, whether it's in economic warfare, political warfare, assassinations, sabotage, subterfuge. I mean, these are the tools that we've really excelled at and in many ways we've tried to gloss over them. Others perhaps haven't done so in the same way and still find that victory at the end, you know, the ways justify the means and I don't know if that's going to hold true globally. Is this romanticised way of viewing war, is that just a European thing? Does it happen in Africa? Is there a contemporary feel about this in South East Asia? 


    Tarak Barkawi: In some ways those are outside my specialities. I think war is of a piece, you know, I think there's something really special, for example, about the King's College London Department of War Studies, right? War is what you study and what that does, a valorisation of the self, thinking you're wonderful is something everybody who fights war does. What I would point out in the context that you're raising this, I know you keep trying to get me to talk about the non-Europeans and I keep coming back but we've been having this debate about the Western way of war, about fairness, decisive battle, all this kind of stuff while we've been droning around the world-, well, not quite around the world but in the Islamic world seventeen-year-olds on mopeds for some time now, out of the blue getting blown up and in quite some number. Now, I understand why we've been doing that and I understand in many cases that this is, you know, a very important thing to be doing but it sure doesn't accord with our self-image of the stand up fight or the small band of white men fighting off a horde. That's how we have appeared to the non-Western world for the last twenty years and I think it's really worth thinking about that, you know, we have suffered major defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. 


    They have contributed to the breakdown of political order in the United States which has a spread of weaponry in a politically divided society that is not dissimilar to the spread of Soviet Bloc AK47s, etc. to Africa and elsewhere that led to the era of warlord wars in Africa. You know, there is a real danger of civil war in the United States and Afghanistan and Iraq will have played a role in that. Those are the kinds of things that it becomes extremely difficult for us to see while we're having this debate about how strong we are, how we fight decisive battle, how we have very special technology and so on. You know, we're at a transition point in Western world power and it doesn't look good. I think one of the things that's very interesting about the debate going on right now about Afghanistan is it's framed in terms of, 'Should we be good Westerners or bad Westerners? Should we stay there and help girls go to school or should we get out because we've tried very hard to set up a democracy in Afghanistan, it's not worked, it didn't take and it's time for us to go?' We don't pause to think that when we leave Afghanistan power abhors a vacuum. The Chinese, the Turks, other powers will enter that space just like in Syria, which I think is the moment that this starts, you know, we decide not to put up a no-fly zone, we decide not to take out Syrian air defence. 


    We think, 'Okay, well we just had too many of these wars of choice. We can't go helping the Syrians right now.' We didn't stop to think that that was going to be a chief opening for Putin to put his air force in, to put his stamp on that conflict, that we are so unused to peer-on-peer thinking, to great bower (ph 27.54) politics with armaments, partly because we're off having this debate about the wonders of the West and all the good we've done in world history. I think it's really, really misleading right now. We need some very cold and calculating thinking about our power position and what we're going to do about it. 


    Peter Roberts: There is a real intellectual gap at the moment it strikes me from what you're saying, about how the West and Western militaries adapt to this era of contestation. It's a really serious conversation and very few people seem to be taking it seriously. Jim Mattis famously said, you know, 'The West has no preordained right to victory,' and yet that seems to not reflect certainly in popular culture. If you look at the number of blockbuster movies around the world at the moment, they are about, as you said right at the start, they're small bands of determined white people going to fight. It's about the SF community all around the world doing great things for beautiful values and interests and perhaps not about the reality of drone operators blowing up, you know, various things around the world, whether it's Yemen, Syria or elsewhere. Tarak, listen, we've run out of time. Thank you so much. It's been an absolutely fascinating half-hour. Thank you so much for coming on the show. 


    Tarak Barkawi: Thank you, Peter. It's been a real pleasure. 


    Peter Roberts: The show is produced by Peppi Väänänen and Kieron Yates. It's sponsored by the good people at Raytheon UK. You can find out more about RUSI, our research and our thinking at RUSI.org/milsi. Thanks for listening. 

Western Way of War Podcast Series

A collection of discussions with those in the Profession of Arms that tries to understand the issues around how to fight, and succeed, against adversaries in the 2020s. We pose the questions as whether a single Western Way of Warfare (how Western militaries fight) has been successful, whether it remains fit for task today, and how it might need to adapt in the future? It is complemented by the ‘Adversarial Studies’ project that looks at how adversaries fight.

2021 Trench Gascoigne Essay Prize

Submissions are now open to our annual competition for original writing on contemporary issues of national and international defence and security. Find out more details on the 2021 Trench Gascoigne Essay Prize and how to enter.


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

View profile

Explore our related content