Abstract: The tendency within the study of military history is to assume a general continuity and regularity to warfare that can be discovered and analyzed with enough backwards-looking study. This approach, however, yields untenable theories of warfare, such as that of “fourth generation warfare,” which institutionally blind the military establishment to the way in which warfare and conflict has been historically discontinuous. The theories of French philosopher Michel Foucault, with their emphasis on a “genealogical” method based on the questioning of supposed universals, provide a potentially transformative way for looking at military history. Through emphasizing historical discontinuities in its form of analysis adopting a Foucauldian approach at the very least provides a needed injection of creativity into the study of warfare and strategy.
The discipline of military history has often been charged with being anachronistic. Less often have these charges been fully explored to their resultant conclusions. Rather than representing a solely academic issue, the tendency to read military history as a smoothly contoured and progressive arc governed by a transhistoric and transcultural notion of military strategy has grave practical ramifications. The general focus on continuity within the study of military history, and its assumption of basic universals such as ‘warfare’ and ‘strategy’ institutionally blinds the military establishment to the multiplicity of ways in which warfare and conflict has been historically discontinuous. This blindness is then paid for in wasted resources and, more tragically, human lives, as backward looking military strategies and planning goes awry.
The tendency to view military history as progressive, and the resultant positing of war as a universal, seems so fundamentally correct that it is rarely questioned. Still it is these universals that appear so transcendental that should be questioned above all others both because of their broad reach and the potential catastrophic consequences should they prove to ultimately be false. The questioning of historical universals, while possessing deep historical roots, was codified by French philosopher Michel Foucault in his positing of the need for a dismissal of histories that rely only on restating generally assumed continuities. Instead he advocated for a new form of historical analysis that he variably termed either the “archaeology of knowledge” or “genealogy.” Advocating for the application of Foucauldian theories to military history has the potential to correct the oversights of existing ideological models, along with the attendant benefit of increasing creativity and innovation across a wide spectrum of military thinking. While it might be assumed that Foucault has nothing to offer to the study of military history, through specifically analyzing the way in which Foucauldian theories already fit into critiques of the idea of “fourth generation warfare” it becomes readily apparent that his techniques and methodologies might be much more applicable than previously thought.
Military history assumes that there is a regularity and continuity to warfare and conflict that can be determined with enough probing and study. Under a Foucauldian genealogical critique, however, the category of “war” as a transhistorical concept, along with the specific positing of “fourth generation warfare” as a logical historical progression, are revealed to be in many senses false universals. As such they need not be rejected outright, only interrogated in such a way that limits their ability to cloud judgment and future theorizing. Through investigating Foucault’s own struggles with the concept of war it becomes readily apparent that even if the category of “war” in and of itself should be accepted as a unitary phenomenon, the types of analyses that yield generational theories such as the theory of “fourth generation warfare” should be rejected in so far as they represent false unities. This conclusion furthermore is made all the more important because military history does not exist in a theoretical vacuum, but rather has real world applicability in the form of actual war and conflict. Theories of warfare that are backward looking, such as current conceptions of fourth generation warfare, do a poor job of preparing military leaders for the future conflicts that they face by emphasizing continuity and logical progression in an ever changing security environment that is anything but logical or predictable. While this essay, in and of itself, is too brief to provide anything approaching a full-on Foucauldian deconstruction of “war,” or a complete genealogical or archaeological investigation of the term, it hopes to open up the discussion of these issues in a way that challenges previously accepted assumptions about warfare while providing the analytical tools necessary to embark upon further genealogical critiques.
One of the most egregious examples of anachronistic labeling in military history is the relatively popular trend towards applying an evolutionary metaphor to the historical progression of warfare. Works such as those by T.X. Hammes seek to demonstrate the ways in which warfare progresses in an easily discernable pattern that moves through distinct phases or “generations.” While the term “fourth generation warfare” was first seriously proposed in 1989, it accurately represents the manner in which military history emphasizes continuity and progression even when doing so fails to capture many of the nuances of warfare historically. A major critique of fourth generation warfare has been leveled by Antulio Echevarria, who notes that not only have attempts to define the “fourth generation” of warfare not been historically consistent, but that the continuity of warfare it posits is hopelessly artificial. He notes quite strongly that:
Portraying changes in warfare in terms of ‘generations’ implies that each one evolved directly from its predecessor and, as it must be the natural progression of generations, eventually displaced it. However, the generational model is an ineffective way to depict changes in warfare. Simple displacement rarely takes place, significant developments typically occur in parallel.
While it is possible to try and rehabilitate the theory by arguing that the progression of generations is not absolute, or that the move from one generation to the next is inherently discontinuous, such arguments do not fully rehabilitate the failed method and the ethos of continuity that it embodies.
While likely unintentional, Echevarria, in pointing to the discontinuities and breaks in the cleanly postulated continuity of military history and generational warfare, finds himself closely in line with the historical critiques of French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault’s methodological work is devoted to the breaking down of what he terms “false unities,” those historically constructed universals that appear trans-historical but are actually themselves the product of historical circumstances. He states that, “we must question those ready-made syntheses, those groupings that we normally accept before any examination, those links whose validity is recognized from the outset.” In the field of military history there is no greater assumed synthesis then that of warfare itself. Represented as an aggregation of violence, it is assumed that war is a primordial human activity that has its origin in the deepest roots of civilization.
Foucault similarly comes down strongly against reading the apparent progression of events or concepts in terms of an evolution. He writes negatively about:
The notions of development and evolution: they make it possible to group a succession of dispersed events, to link them to one and the same organizing principle, to subject them to the exemplary power of life…to discover, already at work in each beginning, a principle of coherence and the outline of a future unity.
The history of warfare is clearly a “succession of dispersed events” in the sense that every war has its own individualized historical circumstances that are only tangentially linked to previous wars. The continuity of warfare, therefore, must be explained through an “organizing principle,” that of an abstracted notion of “strategy” or “warfare in general.” If one is to try and see a continuity in events, however, Foucault believes that it should not be through their coherence but rather through their discontinuity: “perhaps one might discover a discursive unity if one sought it not in the coherence of concepts, but in their simultaneous or successive emergence, in the distance that separates them and even in their incompatibility.” This apparent paradox might seem in a large part disingenuous, but it forms the basis of Foucault’s methodology. It allows for the deconstruction of false unities through a genealogical investigation while acknowledging that once that process is completed it is possible to retain some unities. In this way Foucauldian methodologies do not ultimately yield a form of nihilism and allows for the existence of some unities.
In a series of lectures delivered at the Collége de France in 1976 Foucault elaborated both upon his genealogical method and more specifically how that method applied to military history and warfare. In regards to his genealogical method he goes on at length to describe its specificity:
You can see that this activity which we can describe as genealogical, is certainly not a matter of contrasting the abstract unity of theory with the concrete multiplicity of the facts. It is certainly not a matter of some form or other of scientism that disqualifies speculation by contrasting it with the rigor of well-established bodies of knowledge. It is therefore not an empiricism that runs through the genealogical project, nor does it lead to a positivism, in the normal sense of the word. It is a way of playing local, discontinuous, disqualified, or nonlegitimized knowledges off against the unitary theoretical instance that claims to be able to filter them, organize them into a hierarchy, organize them in the name of a true body of knowledge.
Here Foucault nicely summarizes the key contents of his genealogical method: 1) its divergence from previously supposed “scientific” methods, 2) its failure to lead to a reconstructed unity or “positivism,” and 3) its location within a field of “discontinuities” rather than hierarchical or organized structures. While these features do not make up the totality of Foucault’s method, they represent some of its most important characteristics.
Foucault himself never embarks on a complete genealogy of warfare. Rather, he first defines power as a relationship of force, “that which represses.” He then moves towards an understanding of power as emblematic of the competition inherent in war: “If power is indeed the implementation and deployment of a relationship of force…shouldn’t we be analyzing it first and foremost in terms of conflict, confrontation, and war?” Foucault’s main insight is the somewhat simplified inversion of Clausewitz’s aphorism that war is politics by other means. To Foucault “ politics is the continuation of war by other means.” Foucault here is very self aware that his radical redefinition of war as an all-encompassing activity that contains within it forms of political action is somewhat strained. Not only does it closely run the risk of creating a non-genealogical definition that sets up war as a transhistorical unity outside of individual historical circumstances, but it also represents a break with traditional definitions of warfare based on its martial characteristics. He notes “are we really talking about war when we analyze the workings of power? Are the notions of ‘tactics,’ ‘strategy,’ and ‘relations of force’ valid?” Foucault’s concern here is not with constructing a definitive genealogy of war. Rather he is most concerned with how war relates to his greater claims surrounding the structuring and outlays of power across history.
The figure that forms the beginning of Foucault’s analysis of war, Carl von Clausewitz, will similarly form the backbone of any genealogical critique of the unity of war. Clausewitz’s oft (mis)-quoted aphorism that “war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means” has shaped theoretical understandings of war since the 19th century. Given the intense and dazzling array of technological changes in the waging of war since the time of Clausewitz, it seems absurd to imagine that the tenets that Clausewitz espoused still hold their same power. Even in Foucault’s admittedly brief analysis of Clausewitz he points to the problem with abstracting Clausewitz from his historical circumstances: “the principle that war is a continuation of politics by other means was a principle that existed long before Clausewitz, who simply invented a sort of thesis that had been in circulation since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and which was both diffuse and specific.” Foucault’s critique of Clausewitz in this regard is not overwhelming. Even if Clausewitz’s writings primarily represent the codification of what was a widely known or understood fact, his analysis remains prescient.
More important, however, is what Foucault’s critique of Clausewitz implies; namely that to read Clausewitz outside of his own historical circumstances as representing a universal or transhistorical truth is ultimately detrimental. The problem with modern attempts to rehabilitate Clausewitz is that even as they seek to acknowledge the fact that On War is historically rooted in the time of its writing, the general assumption is that its insights are still applicable for modern times. Even if Clausewitz’s examples are dated it is possible to recover the deeper insights or truths at which he is grasping for use in modern days. Such an analysis is only possible when working under the assumption that there is a clear continuity and regularity to warfare and strategy that exists outside of individual historical circumstances. This assumption, of a transhistorical notion of warfare, is precisely the type of unity that needs to be suspended under a Foucauldian critique. If such a regularity exists it should be later built up through a genealogical method, not assumed at the outset.
A similar injustice is done when warfare and conflict is assumed not just to be transhistorical, but also transcultural. Another site that should be investigated while constructing a genealogy of warfare and conflict is the only theorist of war that has a claim of primacy similar to that of Clausewitz: Sun Tzu, the purported author of the Art of War. The obvious issues with looking to works such as the Art of War for insight into modern warfare are the same as with Clausewitz: the incongruity of historical circumstances with modern ones. The historical distance from the time of Sun Tzu, which is far greater then from Clausewitz, further compounds this issue. Modern analyses of Sun Tzu also share the assumption that there is a universal essence to warfare that can be discerned and applied to circumstances irrespective of the unique siting of such circumstances in different historical times. Michael Handel, in a thoroughly problematic attempt to read Clausewitz and Sun Tzu together, quotes the former in order to justify his approach: “war, though conditioned by the particular characteristics of states and their armed forces, must contain some more general—indeed, a universal—element with which every theorist ought above all to be concerned.” Such a supposition is deeply troubling under Foucauldian theories.
Western interpretations of Sun Tzu invariably also represent untenable acts of orientalism in their positing of a spiritual, mystical “East” that is fundamentally incomprehensible, and therefore invigorating, to a rational and reasonable “West.” John Minford writes in the introduction to his translation of the work that The Art of War “encapsulates a part of the irreducible essence of Chinese culture.” He continues, “But The Art of War offers more than an insight into Chinese ways of doing things (including business)…it lends itself to infinite applications…The strategic advice it offers concerns much more than the conduct of war. It is an ancient book of proverbial wisdom, a book of life.” It is difficult to entirely quantify how much of the provenance of The Art of War in modern times is a product of this fundamentally flawed viewpoint that values works from “the East” because they stand either in apparent contradiction with those of “the West.” Or, as is often the case, works from “the East” are raised up when they are read as reinforcing the insights of Western philosophy and theory. Under this latter reading Sun Tzu becomes relevant to modern studies of military history and strategy because adding it to the discussion strengthens the argument for a transhistorical concept of warfare that glorifies Western scholarship such as Clausewitz. If Chinese philosophers are seen as working through similar issues in military strategy it strengthens the narrative of European supremacy in military affairs because of later imperial conquests, while also strengthening the argument that military strategy and warfare is not just transhistorical but also transcultural.
It is hopelessly naïve to believe that works of scholarship are valued purely on the basis of their factual arguments. Especially as a historian works backwards, individual texts are accepted or rejected based on a complex calculus that includes the availability of the text, the comprehensibility of the text and the ideological orientation of the text as well as the validity or strength of its arguments. Historians have a tendency to highlight and include those texts that support their arguments while suppressing those that might argue contrary opinions.
Casting a wider net through a Foucauldian genealogy causes the historian to question more deeply why certain texts have or have not been included as part of a scholarly canon, or why texts have or have not been accepted by a particular discipline. When one looks at military history it becomes immediately clear why this is the case. Allowing too many works into the canon causes for the myth of an overarching universal conception of warfare and strategy to become strained. It becomes clear that warfare functions in clearly different ways for different cultures and time periods. For Heraclitus “war is father of all, and king of all. He renders some gods, others men; he makes some slaves, others free.” Such a definition of war is directly contradicted be the modern thinking of Jean Baudrillard, who argues that war cannot exist in modern society because the overpowering disparity of force between industrial superpowers and third world opponents makes victory a foregone conclusion. In regards to the Gulf War he notes that, “Since this war was won in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed…this is not a war.” The advent of non-state terrorism and other forms of asymmetric conflict have similarly challenged the notion of universal transhistorical warfare.
The reason for holding to a neatly packaged definition of war as a transhistorical universal is similarly clear. The idea that in order to fully understand modern conflict one needs only to look to past conflicts is a profoundly reassuring one. It appears to remove much of the chaos and unpredictably from the waging of war. The outcome of each war could have been predicted had an individual only fully subsumed and understood the lessons of the past. This idea, however, is a dangerous falsehood. As the American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has so clearly shown, even if it were possible to predict the outcomes of future wars based on past events and strategies, it is exceedingly difficult to do so. The accumulated empirical evidence points quite clearly to the unpleasant truth that this difficulty is most likely due to the fact that there is no continuity of warfare and strategy to be understood. Rather it is a false unity that should be broken down.
There are many reasons, however, why military thinkers have been loath to embrace the work of Foucault among others that seeks to point out this issue. In the first place the details of Foucault’s biography as an open homosexual and his ultimate death from an AIDS related illness raise the hackles of what remain a staunchly conservative military environment. Works by authors such as James Miller have sought to portray Foucault’s liberal lifestyle as one of libertine excess, riddled with sado-masochism and homosexual eroticism. These issues present barriers to the serious study of Foucault in the military establishment. A perhaps more pressing concern, however, is the apparent refusal to study Foucault and other liberal thinkers because their ideas cut at the very core of the disciplines of military history and strategy. The critical reexamination of closely held beliefs that Foucault demands is not just difficult and time consuming, it is also profoundly destabilizing and frightening. Given the obvious flaws that holding to a model of military history that emphasizes continuity and seamless transitions from one generation to the next, however, and the real world consequences in terms of human lives lost and resources expended, the fear of questioning these deeply rooted beliefs can not afford to be used as an excuse. The consequences of inaction in this regard are just too great to be ignored.
Adopting Foucauldian methodologies in the realm of military history at the very least will leave those who undertake such a process with a greater understanding of the merits and drawbacks of the discipline as it stands. Applying a Foucauldian critique to supposed universals does not inevitably lead to the destruction of those universals, or worse a form of nihilism or extreme relativism in which all arguments and theses are equally valid. If a unity does possess some validity, a genealogical critique will uphold its validity. Foucault himself is aware of this apparently contradictory fact that genealogical investigations may lead back to universals. He asks what purpose is ultimately served by this suspension of accepted unities, if, in the end, “we return to the unities that we pretended to question at the outset.” The rhetorical answer that Foucault doesn’t explicitly provide, but seems apt, is that the investigative process possesses some inherent merit in and of itself. As well, Foucault acknowledges the impossibility of a world without any unities. Rather, it is important to disturb the unities so that they can be more properly understood, paradoxically strengthening them if they are upheld. He writes, “these pre-existing forms of continuity, all these syntheses that are accepted without question, must remain in suspense. They must not be rejected definitively of course, but the tranquility with which they are accepted must be disturbed; we must show that they do not come about of themselves, but are always the result of a construction the rules of which must be known, and the justifications of which must be scrutinized.”
The destabilizing nature of Foucauldian genealogies, while potentially frightening, is ultimately beneficial if it allows for military planning and thinking to predict with greater accuracy the potential conflicts and situations that modern militaries might find themselves in. The genealogical focus on discontinuities and breaks with accepted narratives provides an outlet for creativity and innovation that the structured current thinking in military history and strategy does not provide. Rather then emphasizing study and inquiry that upholds accepted norms and standards, Foucauldian genealogies provide a greater scope of inquiry that encourages the study of deviations and discontinuities within these accepted narratives. Given the clear failings of the accepted narratives in the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where intricate insurgencies appeared to surprise the military establishment and proved difficult to suppress, a new approach appears worthy of investigation. That is not to say that a Foucauldian ideology or outlook could have prevented the costly counterinsurgency campaigns that the U.S. has waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. It would appear difficult, though, to argue that a greater diversity of opinions amongst military planners and strategists would have hurt efforts to come up with an effective strategy. The base of any shift in military ideology, or the adoption of a Foucauldian or quasi-Foucauldian framework for analysis, even in part, must be a rigorous genealogy of warfare and combat. The preceding analysis has hopefully provided some direction as to where such a larger investigation would need to begin, but the real legwork remains to be done. Only then can the true benefits of the creativity and innovation that Foucauldian theories add to academic discussions be fully realized in a military context.
 Hammes, T.X. The Sling and the Stone. Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2004.
 William S. Lind, Keith Nightengale, John F. Schmitt, Joseph W. Sutton, and Gary I. Wilson, “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation,” Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989, pp. 22-26.
 Echevarria, Antulio J. “Fourth-Generation Warfare and Other Myths.” Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, November 2005. Page 1.
 Ibid., 10.
 Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Vintage Books, 2010. Page 22.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 35.
 Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collége de France, 1975-76. New York: Picador, 2003. Page 9.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 18.
 Von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984. Page 87.
 Foucault Society, 48.
 Handel, Michael I. Sun Tzu and Clausewitz: The Art of War and On War Compared. Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. Professional Readings in Military Strategy, No. 2, 1991.
 The term “orientalism” originally referred to the European or American study of Middle Eastern, Asian, or African topics. It acquired a negative connotation following the publication of Edward Said’s discipline transforming work Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978). In his work Said demonstrates how the siting of such studies in the “west” means there are inherent biases and assumptions about “eastern” cultures that are difficult or impossible to ever fully combat.
 Qtd. in Curtis, Neal. War and Social Theory. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Page 1.
 Baudrillard, Jean. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995. Page 61.
 Miller, James. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
 Foucault Archaeology, 28.
 Ibid., 25.