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Why War?

The Cultural Logic of Iraq, the Gulf War, and Suez

Why did America invade Iraq? Why do nations choose to fight certain wars and not others? How do we bring ourselves to believe that the sacrifice of our troops is acceptable? For most, the answers to these questions are tied to struggles for power or resources and the machinations of particular interest groups. Philip Smith argues that this realist answer to the age-old "why war?" question is insufficient. Instead, Smith suggests that every war has its roots in the ways we tell and interpret stories.

Comprised of case studies of the War in Iraq, the Gulf War, and the Suez Crisis, Why War? decodes the cultural logic of the narratives that justify military action. Each nation, Smith argues, makes use of binary codes—good and evil, sacred and profane, rational and irrational, to name a few. These codes, in the hands of political leaders, activists, and the media, are deployed within four different types of narratives—mundane, tragic, romantic, or apocalyptic. With this cultural system, Smith is able to radically recast our "war stories" and show how nations can have vastly different understandings of crises as each identifies the relevant protagonists and antagonists, objects of struggle, and threats and dangers.

The large-scale sacrifice of human lives necessary in modern war, according to Smith, requires an apocalyptic vision of world events. In the case of the War in Iraq, for example, he argues that the United States and Britain replicated a narrative of impending global doom from the Gulf War. But in their apocalyptic account they mistakenly made the now seemingly toothless Saddam Hussein once again a symbol of evil by writing him into the story alongside al Qaeda, resulting in the war’s contestation in the United States, Britain, and abroad.

Offering an innovative approach to understanding how major wars are packaged, sold, and understood, Why War? will be applauded by anyone with an interest in military history, political science, cultural studies, and communication.

Read an excerpt.

264 pages | 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2005

History: Military History

Political Science: Diplomacy, Foreign Policy, and International Relations

Rhetoric and Communication

Sociology: General Sociology


Why War? is a terrific book: sophisticated, fascinating, passionate, and beautifully written. Contending that the standard ways of understanding wars leave much unexplained, Philip Smith instead applies cultural binaries to conflicts that include the War in Iraq, the Gulf War, and the Suez Crisis. It could hardly be more timely and will go on the same shelves with some of the great works of military theory and history, as well as on the very short list of serious and nonpartisan attempts to understand the Iraq War.”--Wendy Griswold, Northwestern University


Wendy Griswold | Wendy Griswold

“That our perceptions of war reflect both its qualities and the experience we bring to it is a venerable theory, but it lacks any formulation of how symbols convert our experience into perceptions. Philip Smith brilliantly fills this gap. He identifies the actual narrative forms, from the ‘romantic’ to the ‘apocalyptic,’ that have organized debate about three wars in four different nations. The result is a fascinating account of culture’s role in mediating the political realities and individual understandings of international conflict. No one, after reading his groundbreaking book, will ever think the same about war.”--Barry Schwartz, University of Georgia

Barry Schwartz | Barry Schwartz

"A theoretically-inspired as well as inspiring book. Smith raises questions that push us to extend the boundaries of conventional sociological thinking."

Monika Krause | Theory and Society

"Why War? deserves the careful attention of diplomatic and cultural historians, political scientists, sociologists, and cultural studies scholars, all of whom may find the volume a thought-provoking assignment for their graduate and advanced undergraduate students."

Chris Toensing | International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies

Table of Contents

1. Why War?: Theorizing the Role of Culture and Civil Discourse
2. Investigating Culture in War: Methodology, Causality, Case Studies, and Data
3. The Suez Crisis of 1956
4. The Gulf War of 1991
5. The War in Iraq of 2003
6. War and Narrative

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