A unique arsenal of intellectual firepower

March 28, 2003

The crisis in the Middle East makes the war studies department at King's College more vital than ever, its director tells Martin Ince

Wars looms large over much of 21st-century life. But although UK universities house dozens of media departments and more than 100 business schools, there is just one war studies department.

Asked why this subject does not make bigger waves, Sir Lawrence Freedman, director of the war studies department at King's College London, replies modestly that the issues his department works on are also addressed in any international studies school - and that the peace studies department at the University of Bradford looks at much the same ones, although from its own perspective.

As Freedman sees it, the origins and aftermath of wars, along with relations between the civil and military elements of society, are at least as important to war studies as fighting. Another key issue is postwar conflict resolution, which, he says, "leads into a lot of other areas".

Relations are now good with the Bradford peace studies department, which in the past was regarded as the polar opposite of war studies at King's. "When we were set up in the 1950s by [Sir] Michael Howard, a decision was taken to adopt a name that was free from euphemism," Freedman says. By contrast, the Bradford department was first funded by Quakers and tended to have a more radical, pacifist approach.

Today, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence are two of King's' key contacts. Freedman's knighthood indicates the value his Whitehall allies place on his work, but he stresses that war, while raising broad concerns, also needs rigorous research. He was originally a social scientist, and research students in the department take social science methodology courses. "It is very important for us to be academically serious," he says. "We use a variety of methodologies because subjects such as international relations, politics, science and philosophy all form part of the subject, but we respect evidence and reason in all of them."

The department has grown fast, despite predictions made at the end of the cold war. Then, Freedman says, people in the corridors asked him when the place was closing. The post-cold war world has been a less predictable place than imagined, and interest in his field has been great.

Frank Barnaby, former director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, says that the end of the cold war eroded the difference between war, peace and international relations as academic subjects.

Although war studies used to have a lot to do with deterrence, it has now had to look elsewhere for its justification and has taken in areas such as international law. "Peace studies still has more of an emphasis on conflict prevention and resolution than war studies does," he says. "But the academic community has friendly relations."

The end of the cold war marked the start of war studies as an undergraduate subject at King's. When Freedman arrived in 1982 - on the day before the start of the Falklands war - there were five people in the department. Now the headcount is about 100, working in three groups: the original war studies department; the defence studies department, based at the MoD Defence Academy at Shrivenham in Wiltshire; and the International Policy Institute in London, which does mainly contract research outside the academic mainstream, for example work for the Department for International Development. The Shrivenham group's work was behind the department's recent award of the queen's anniversary prize for further and higher education and is regarded by the MoD as a significant contribution to Shrivenham's mission to enhance the education and analytical skills of officers. Now Freedman wants to spread the department's influence more widely. He is excited by its new contract with the UK e-university, which should allow its teaching to be provided online to new audiences outside the UK.

He says the variety of conflicts has given them a lot to cover. While "we do not teach people how to fire weapons", the department has a strong interest in military science and technology - it covers the work of Bhupendra Jasani, a world expert on spy satellites. A MacArthur Foundation award will allow the department to expand its work on science and security through the appointment of a new professor and lecturer.

The present crisis in the Middle East brings new demands for such analytical thinking. "We are there to use our experience to read the picture as clearly as we can, which is difficult because the present US administration is very hard to predict," Freedman says. "They have piled on the arguments for war, including the al-Qaida link, which is not a strong case. The strongest part of the case is that there are chemical and some biological weapons not accounted for from the 1990s." As someone who thinks of himself "mainly as a historian", he is alarmed at the poor sense of history being brought to bear on the issues.

While he doubts that hundreds of thousands will be killed in the US-led attack on Iraq, he fears the civil war that could follow would involve mass casualties. "If the different sides are going to trade numbers, they should be as accurate as possible and our role is to inform that debate," he says.

Freedman interacts with the central London think-tank world but has no desire to join it. "There are huge advantages to being in a university department. The biggest is the presence of students, who keep you honest and challenge you, as well as providing the pool from which we recruit."

Some King's postgraduates have had tough experience of conflicts in places such as Somalia and East Timor, while another was a United Nations weapons inspector. They take what Freedman calls "a committed but very unemotional stance" on the problems. While he thinks that the British government was wrong to plagiarise the work of a Californian postgraduate student, Ibrahim Al-Marashi, for the document on the Iraqi threat that it released in January, he says that by comparison with government documents he sees, "it would be wrong for anyone to be sniffy about a PhD thesis".

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