History Department Online Courses

HST 395 – A Social History of War


Taught by: Dr. Ben Smith

– Over the last hundred years, between 150 and 200 million people have lost their lives during armed conflicts.  According to the most recent statistics, around 33 million have been military casualties, and around 170 million civilians. The technology employed during these wars was something entirely new. Arm chair generals could now erase millions at the push of a button. Yet total warfare and the generation of mass casualties is not the sole prerogative of the twentieth century. Historians estimate that during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the population of Germany and the Czech Republic decreased by nearly a third. The Swedish armies, the most efficient killers of the day, caused the destruction of 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages and 1,500 towns alone.

Yet, over the past fifty years, the citizens of the United States and Western Europe have remained relatively untouched by the effects of warfare.  US casualties since 1945 have numbered just over 110,000. Although British soldiers have been involved in 16 wars since 1945, they have caused less than 3000 British deaths.  In comparison with the rest of the globe, our situation is particularly unusual. Nearly 87 million people have died in military conflicts since 1945. For the vast majority of the world’s population war is either a terrifying reality or an immediate and miserable memory.

This course covers conflicts from the Peloponnesian war of the fourth century BC to the decolonizing wars of the late twentieth century. The course looks at the common experience of the millions of everyday soldiers, ripped from their families, dressed up in uniforms, given weapons, and sent to fight enemies they neither knew nor hated.  Yet it is not straight military history. Students will also be asked to look at the social effects of war; on the relationships between men and women, on the relationships between different races, and on individual communities. Because “A Social History of War” is offered online, students will be asked to delve into a huge range of sources, from written accounts of common grunts, through the vocal lamentations of war widows, to contemporary descriptions of warfare in films and documentaries.

The course is offered as part of the history department’s online courses. As such, it asks the student to think historically about both primary and secondary sources. However, as a 100-level course, it can be taken by any Social Sciences major, and should concern anyone with a passing interest in the experiences of their grandparents or the countless other non-Americans involved in conflicts to this day.