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War and Human Nature

June 9, 2014-June 20, 2014

War has always and inescapably been a defining part of the human condition. Courage and cowardice, heroism and tragedy, love of country and hatred of enemies, loss, blood, death, and memory—the human drama plays out, in sharp relief, on both ancient and modern battlefields. While many human beings are spared the direct and brutal agonies of war, everyone lives in a world shaped by the legacy of past conflicts and the possibility of future ones.

This course will explore the place of war in human life from a variety of angles: what drives men to fight; what makes war moral or immoral; how soldiers and civilians live with the specter of killing and dying; what war means for statesmen and generals, for ordinary soldiers and passionate revolutionaries, for wives and children. In no small measure, our ideas about the meaning of war reveal who we are and what we value, in this life or the next.

This course will draw on a mix of classical texts about war—from Homer to Thucydides, Clausewitz to Machiavelli. It will study specific wars—both ancient and modern—looking at how they were fought and what they meant for the nations, cultures, and citizens involved in them. It will explore the ways in which strategists of war think about the deeper human questions, and how our moral ideas about the meaning of war shape different war strategies. We will also look at what the new sciences of man—especially evolutionary biology and neuroscience—may teach us about the place of war in human life. And we will examine how new technologies—especially weapons of mass destruction and the use of drones—are shaping and re-shaping the human meaning of war, for better and perhaps, tragically, for much, much worse.

The seminar will be led by two of the world’s leading scholars of war—classicist and historian Barry Strauss and historian and policy analyst Frederick W. Kagan. We will also be joined by various experts—including soldiers and statesmen—who have lived the dilemmas of war firsthand.