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SOC 250, The Western Way of War: Conflict and society through the centuries

Sociology professor Miguel Centeno’s course, SOC 250: The Western Way of War, is an iconic course on campus. While the class is listed as a Historical Analysis distribution requirement, The Western Way of War is not simply a history course: according to the course registrar, the class offers a “historical and analytical overview of war focusing on the origins and consequences of organized violence, the experience of battle, the creation and behavior of warriors and the future of such conflicts.”

The course is also one of the most popular lecture courses on campus, with 282 students currently enrolled.

“P?ut simply, war is seductive,” Zoë Rose Buonaiuto GS, a second year Ph.D. candidate in the history department and preceptor in the course, said in an email statement. “It has been such a central part of human history and societal change. In our collective historical consciousness, war dominated the 20th century in an unprecedented scale.”

What, then, does the phrase “Western way of war” mean? In Centeno’s class, the “West” of the title is broadly defined to include parts of the classic Middle East, medieval and modern Western Europe, post-18?th century North America and post-­Meiji Restoration Japan. As for the concept of a Western way of war, much of the ideas in the course are derived from or motivated by Victor Davis Hanson’s 1989 book, “The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece.” In his book,? Hanson argued that the “Western way of war” is unparalleled in its effectiveness compared to non-­Western war strategies, an argument that is one of many that the course examines. Whether this particular form of military conflict is a significant characteristic of Western Civilization is one of the many contemporary questions that motivate the class.

“[Twenty-first] century warfare­­ [from] 9/11 on­­ has already differentiated itself, and I think students recognize they are bearing witness to an important period of change,” Buonaiuto said.

Part of the central attraction to students taking the course, however, are Centeno’s lectures.

“Professor Centeno’s lecturing style really makes the course come alive,” Buonaiuto said. “His enthusiasm is palpable in lecture, and he makes the material relatable and accessible, despite the horror.”

Centeno’s style derives from a mastery of the material and a willingness to engage in a simultaneously meticulous, and but less scripted way.

“I have taught the course enough times (10+) that I feel confident about covering the material and this allows me to be spontaneous in my lecture including discussion of latest scholarship I have read,” Centeno said, in an email statement. “It’s the best of both worlds: tried and true, but always evolving.”

The course’s reading list is diverse and spans thousands of years, ranging from ancient Greco-Roman cultural touchstones such as Homer’s “I?liad” and Virgil’s “A?eneid,” to ?Thomas E. Ricks’ work on the U.S. Marines, “M?aking the Corps.”

“The syllabus is full of classics, but I’m most drawn to ‘T?his Republic of Suffering’ ?by Harvard historian and president Drew Gilpin Faust,” Buonaiuto said. “The book is a model for my own research on World War II military casualties, and I look to it often for inspiration."

Students are drawn to the course for a variety of reasons. Madelyn Baron ’18 decided to take the class to learn about conflicts in the Middle East.

“I wanted to learn more about the conflict in the Middle East which will be learning about last,” Baron said, in an email statement. “I also have a military family and wanted to see what other perspectives on that are.”

In all, Centeno believes the course can be useful in many contexts.

“I think [the class] slows them to do two things: study a fascinating social phenomena with which they are not familiar, and use this to discover underappreciated aspects of their own lives and experiences,” Centeno said.