Studying war

Studying war

The Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM) is the research institute of the French Ministry of Armed Forces. Its purpose is to lie at the intersection of defense and academia. Created in 2010 by the merging of four Ministry research centers, it consists of around forty staff, both civilian and military. Its principle goals are to improve French research into security and defense issues and eventually generate dedicated “War Studies”, which has so far not been consolidated as a field in France.

École militaire where IRSEM is located.
(© free use on the Internet)

The researchers are divided into five areas: Northern Regional Issues (Europe, the United States, Russia and the former-Soviet Union, China, Japan and the Korean peninsula), Southern Regional Issues (Africa, the Middle East, the Gulf, the Indian subcontinent, South East Asia and the Pacific), Armament and Defense Economics (economic, technological and energy issues), Defense and Society (the sociology of violence, war and the armed forces) and Strategic Thought (the study of armed conflicts on the strategic, operational and tactical levels). This division is only to serve the internal organization and, in practice, many subjects are transversal.

On Asia and the Pacific, we have Benoît de Tréglodé (director of research, specializing in Vietnam and strategic issues in South-East Asia), Juliette Genevaz (China researcher, specializing in the People’s Liberation Army), Mélissa Levillant (Indian subcontinent researcher, specializing in Indian foreign policy) and Marianne Péron-Doise (North Asia researcher, specializing in North Korea and maritime security). A new status of associated researcher, which will be implemented in the upcoming weeks, will allow us to complement these skills.

Our researchers come from academia, holding a doctorate and often a post doctorate, and publish books and scientific articles. Several of them are university professors and have a parallel academic appointment. Others, civilian and military officials, have developed an expertise through the course of their careers. This diverse team, qualified in different disciplines (political science, history, geography, law), with theoretical knowledge and practical experience, possess the necessary skills to study war.

“War Studies” can be defined as a multidisciplinary research field with war, in a broad sense, as its subject. It rests on the presumption that war is a “total social fact”, not only in the sense that Marcel Mauss gave the expression, but in the sense that war, in all its forms, always simultaneously relates to numerous disciplines. It is an all-encompassing phenomenon which is not suited to disciplinary division and can only be understood through a transversal approach. From this perspective, War Studies includes, by definition, every disciplinary approach of war (military history, the law of armed conflicts, the ethics of war, the sociology of armed forces, defense economics, etc.). Its raison d’être is precisely to combine these fragmented approaches.

Recognized as an academic discipline in the English-speaking world for at least fifty years, War Studies particularly developed in British universities. The Department of War Studies of King’s College London, founded in 1962, remains the global standard. Since the 1970s, the numerous attempts in France to create university research or training centers in this field have rarely lasted and/or have never reached critical mass. This is the fault of two problems: marginalization and fragmentation.

The marginalization is partially due to history of anti-militarism in France, but also to the practical dimension of the subject. It requires exchanges with military personnel and politicians, which are not always warmly regarded. This contempt of the practice is also unique to France: in the United States, for example, careers that move between academia and public service are common, and it is evident to all that in these fields (foreign policy or defense) it is clearly mutually enriching.

The fragmentation is firstly disciplinary. In France the main disciplines studying war defend their private domains and rarely talk amongst themselves, even though War Studies is founded on interdisciplinarity. For this reason, turning towards war studies often costs turning away from one’s original discipline, at the risk of being marginalized. Fragmentation is also institutional: armed conflicts are contemplated in many locations- universities, think tanks, ministries (Defense, Foreign Affairs, Secretariat-General for National Defense and Security) and even in large corporations- but generally not together.

Nevertheless, the situation is starting to move in France. For several years there have been developments, for several reasons: generational shifts, both on the interior (thanks to Ministry of Defense scholarships which fund numerous Ph.Ds.) and on the exterior (more and more young French people want to study abroad, in countries where War Studies are taken more seriously); the security context (an increase in overseas operations, terrorist attacks at home); political willpower and financial resources generated by the Ministry of Defense (“Higher Education Pact”; the signature in January 2017 of a convention between the Ministry, the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the organization of university presidents (CPU)); the hope for cross-fertilization between the military and researchers (more and more researchers are participating in the military reserve and, reciprocally, there are programs to encourage  military personnel to undertake doctorates).

One study into the way in which War Studies managed to emerge abroad shows that its development depends essentially on three parameters: social awareness of the subject’s importance (a condition which, since November 2015, has been mostly fulfilled in France), the promotion of interdisciplinarity (which remains an impediment) and attention to being politically useful (which also remains problematic in France due to the dream of “purity” of many academics, afraid of being seen as the “Prince’s advisors”- while being frequently flattered for being so when their advice is requested).

The promotion of interdisciplinarity is a greater struggle, of which the CNRS is attentive. It has already witnessed interesting developments with other approaches, by topic rather than by discipline- foremost Gender Studies and Area Studies. This current movement that allowed the creation of Scientific Interest Groups (GIS) on the Americas, Africa, the Middle East and the Islamic world, and of course Asia, is an encouraging example for those who, like us, support War Studies.

It is within this framework that IRSEM works on the Asia-Pacific region. Our researchers are regularly sent there for their research projects but also to participate in the seminars and conferences we organize with institutions in this region (the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, the ADV in Hanoi or the NIDS in Tokyo, to take the most recent examples). In parallel with these actions in Asia, IRSEM regularly welcomes researchers from this region for seminars within our walls (most recently, Prof. Ren Xiao from Fudan University in Shanghai) or outside at scientific events co-organized with partner universities: the one last March at Paul-Valéry University of Montpellier 3 around the 50th anniversary of ASEAN highlighted in particular how much the Asia-Pacific strategic theaters, if not the Indo-Pacific, are intertwined and deserve a comprehensive approach. Our next event in this field is an international conference on China, which will be held on June 8th at the Ecole Militaire, in English ("Five Years of Xi Jinping", see the accompanying poster).

International conference on China "Five Years of Xi Jinping: China's Political Development".
(© libre de droit pour Internet)

All these activities in Asia developed within our institute show that besides a desire to reinvigorate strategic studies on Asia and the Pacific in France, IRSEM also has its own interest in Asian studies, and area studies more broadly, since they promote interdisciplinarity.

Keywords: War Studies, Defense, interdisciplinarity, interdisciplinary, IRSEM


Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer

Director of the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM)



Jean-Vincent Holeindre : « Des Strategic Studies aux War Studies : la structuration d’un champ d’études », in S. Taillat, J. Henrotin et O. Schmitt, Guerre et stratégie : approches, concepts ; Paris, PUF, 2015, p. 499-514.

Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, « Le tournant des études sur la guerre en France », Revue Défense Nationale, n°800, May 2017, p. 51-61.

Olivier Schmitt, Si vis pacem, intellege bellum. Etudier la guerre pour préparer la défense, Note de recherche n°38, IRSEM, 9 May 2017.