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Bookshelf: Spring Q&A Footnotes, Christian Potholm '62


In Winning at War: 7 Keys to Military Victory Throughout History (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009) Bowdoin's DeAlva Stanwood Alexander Professor of Government Christian Potholm '62 draws on more than four decades of studying and teaching war to offer seven factors that have served as predictors of military success over time and across cultures. Potholm examines these seven keys as a pattern for success in war—a "Template of Mars"—employing a metaphorical concept of Mars, god of war, to offer objective analysis, freed of moral and ethical variables. In addition, Potholm provides case studies from ancient battles to modern day that demonstrate their implementation.

Christian Potholm '62

Bowdoin: How did you come to the strategy of using Mars to provide a morally detached standard to this study of war?

Potholm: Teaching about war over the last twenty years has become harder and harder since fewer and fewer students come to its study with any background.  Also, many think it is enough to simply say, "I don’t like war" or "I don't like this war" or "I'm not interested in war." But Trotsky got it spot on when he said, "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." Moreover, the second Iraq War cast in sharp relief the difficulties of analyzing war in the context of one's country's national policy. Students and many professors had a very hard time getting beyond "war is bad" or "I don't like George Bush" or "my country right or wrong" when they were trying to understand what was going on in the war qua war. By taking one's country and the "rightness" or "wrongness" of a particular war out of the equation, everything became much clearer. The concept of Mars, the god of war, and the Template which arose out of looking at war strictly through the eyes of Mars, became for me a most useful conceptual tool with which to examine all wars throughout time and space.

B: What was your greatest challenge in employing the "Template of Mars" in this examination?

P: The hardest part was the initial acceptance of the notion that you could study war in a moral vacuum. That was personally difficult and even painful to do. But once I developed the Template and began to apply it to battles and wars and focused on what led to success in warfare regardless of the cultures, peoples or countries involved, it became easy and productive to utilize it across millennia of warfare.

B: After 40 years of scholarship and teaching about war, I wonder what you might have learned in writing this book?

P: I started by turning material from my lectures in "Government, War and Society" into portions of the book. This was much more labor intensive than taking one's basic research and turning that into a lecture or series of lectures. The process seemed backwards when I started and much more difficult than I anticipated. But it turned out to be very rewarding. Writing about a broad subject such as war forced me to do a great deal of extra research and to confront many other theories about war, culture, society and the relationship between the Template and different peoples. I really learned a lot writing the book.

B: Fascinating not only from a layman's and a scholarly perspective, this book also provides a practical guide in the Template of Mars for waging effective war. Do you envision our government and military leaders using the book in this way? Was that an initial goal of the book?

P: Well, I've already gotten a review which I'll cherish for a long time. An American soldier fighting in Afghanistan got "Winning at War" for Christmas and he emailed me urging me to please send a copy to his commanding officer as soon as possible. I have heard from many others in the military that "Winning at War" contains not just facts but context, analysis, non-Eurocentric examples and perspectives they had not seen before, especially in the final chapter on insurgency and counter-insurgency. This has been very gratifying.

B: What do you hope that readers of this book—lay, scholar, practical—will take from it?

P: I wish every American could read Winning at War in order to understand what war is really all about. Some reviewers have said this is a pro-war book, others an anti-war book. It's neither. But I think by looking directly at the true nature of war and seeing what it takes to win – or lose one – citizens can better judge what they expect from their civilian and military leaders and hold them more accountable for their decisions. 

Currently in America there is a huge gap between those and their families involved in warfare and those for whom it is something outside their lives. It is very important as we go forward for people to have an understanding of war and its imbedded nature in humankind in and not simply dismiss it cavalierly and hopefully as an aberration.

B: Is it at all frightening to provide this essential blueprint for waging successful war knowing that it could be used by any side of a conflict?

P: That's a very good question and I fear the answer is evil people can learn as much from Winning at War as good people. Unfortunately, as it turns out, Mars is not always on the side of good, right or justice.

I recently saw Hurt Locker and found it to be a superior war movie, far better than most films or books in capturing the essence of warrior-hood. It is very hard for most of us to understand that for some – even many – there is an attraction to combat that extends far back into human history and across many, many cultures and societies. There is a Pathan saying to the effect that "a Pathan is only truly at peace when he is at war" which captures this ethos. Just because most of us are appalled at that notion does not make it any less a well-spring for human motivation, especially when coupled with ideology, religion or nationalism. And that motivation casts the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan in sharp relief, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates did when he said he didn't want Afghanistan to become a South Asian Valhalla. For some, Valhalla is a desired goal, not something to be avoided.

What I find very interesting is that so many, many societies throughout recorded history have strong taboos against killing but by ritual, training, inculcating new values and preempting those taboos by religion, ethnicity, nationalism, ideology and an appeal to the atavistic warrior spirit are able turn out soldiers so readily.

Listen to Potholm discuss the book
during the Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN) program, Maine Things Considered, December 28, 2009.

Posted May 13, 2010