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Armed Conflict in Asia

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Armed Conflict in Asia

The military is a great affair of the state. It is the ground of life and death, the Way (Dao) of survival or extinction. One cannot but investigate it.–Sunzi

black and white photograph of several men in military unifroms walking through ocean water, with several boats behind them.
General Douglas MacArthur wades ashore during initial landings at Leyte Island in the Philippines. Source: Wikimedia Commons at National Archives and Records Administration. Photo by US Army Signal Corps officer Gaetano Faillace.

Learning about the profound multiple causes and effects of armed conflicts on past, present, and possible future generations is a critical component of a liberal education and an imperative part of reflective democratic citizenship, including, and especially, electing executive and legislative leaders.

Numerous studies, at least in the US, including a 2018 Princeton University Woodrow Wilson National Fellowships Foundation Center (renamed the National Institute for Citizens and Scholars in November 2020) survey indicate that American adults are ignorant of the most basic information about history, including wars and other armed conflicts. In the Princeton study, 60 percent of US adults surveyed were ignorant of which countries the US fought in World War II. Furthermore, respondents under forty-five years old were over three times less likely to know these rudimentary facts when compared with respondents sixty-five years old or higher.

If similar knowledge deficits regarding the history of armed conflict specifically exist in the US or other developed countries, can anyone seriously assert that large percentages of respondents lack this low level of basic knowledge, yet have broad and nuanced knowledge regarding armed conflict and its intended and unintended consequences?

The following EAA archival recommendations encompass a broad array of sample articles and are multidisciplinary. Although historians are authors of several articles, authors from other academic disciplines were selected as well. Teachers and students in a wide range of courses should better understand contemporary cultural, economic, and geopolitical topics through reading the selections. Important relevant topics like the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Việt Nam ’s wars, and the Mongol invasions are not included in this column, either because they have been addressed in other Digests, or the annotations that follow feature different perspectives about armed conflict in Asia that need consideration.

Chinese languages and literature specialist Mark Metcalf in “New Perspectives on the Sunzi (Sun Tzu) from Contemporary Chinese Military Writings” (Spring 2016, Vol. 21, No. 1) links China’s most famous student of armed conflict to contemporary geopolitics, and, most specifically, how Sunzi influences PLA officers as they actively study and debate his teaching.

Armed conflicts, of course, permanently change the lives of tremendous numbers of people. Historian Yasuko Sato in “Pacific Heart of Darkness: Remembering World War II Combat Experiences” (Winter 2012, Vol. 17, No.3) does a masterful job of using film, documentaries, and print sources to tell the story of how the Pacific War impacted ordinary combatants, and often their families. The film resources included in her article are even more accessible today than when the piece was published nine years ago; a testament to their quality.

The histories and cultures of multiple Asian nations have been dramatically affected by colonialism and imperialism, in some cases by both Western and Asian overlords. In “The Philippines: An Overview of the Colonial Era,” (Spring 2015, Vol. 20, No. 1) anthropologist Dana Herrera authors a superb introduction to the Filipino experience including descriptions of numerous armed conflicts in the archipelago, as well as enduring cultural influences both the conquerors and the conquered exerted on each other. It should be noted that since the new EAA archives launched in 2020, Professor Herrera’s article is by far the single most popular article, even though numerous other articles have robust reader numbers as well.

The existence of the two Koreas cannot be fully grasped without an initial understanding of the first significant global “hot” Cold War conflict. Historian James Matray’s “The Korean War 101: Causes, Course, and Conclusion of the Conflict,” (Winter 2012, Vol. 17, No.3) has consistently been present on the “Most Viewed” EAA archived articles for months. Reading the Matray essay is a critical first step in a basic understanding of several contemporary issues including the two dramatically different political systems currently governing Koreans today.

For many readers, historian John Steinberg’s The Russo-Japanese War and World History (Fall 2008, Vol. 13, No. 2) might seem esoteric if one doesn’t teach world or East Asian history. I challenge those Digest readers or their students whose first reactions are like the one predicted to read the essay and then contemplate the social, political, economic, and technological changes—including global cross-cultural perceptions the war helped alter. As you’ll see in Other Teaching Resources, the rise of a pop-art form coincided with the Russo-Japanese War and left a fascinating primary source treasure trove.

OTHER TEACHING RESOURCES: “Asia Rising: Japanese Postcards of the Russo–Japanese War (1904–1905)” by John W. Dower from MIT’s Visualizing Cultures

black and white photograph of men in military uniforms.
Military attaches, journalists, and photographers from around the world flocked to Asia to observe the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). This photo depicts “embedded” Westerners who accompanied Japanese forces led by General Kuroki. Source: “Asia Rising: Japanese Postcards of the Russo–Japanese War (1904–1905)” by John W. Dower from MIT’s Visualizing Cultures at

Pulitzer Prize winner John Dower’s digital unit is a powerful tool for courses or individual student research projects. The unit contains rich, complementary content in accessible prose for high school and beginning university students, and a secondary school curriculum long-time EAA contributor Kathy Krauth developed for the unit.

This article was published as part of the April 2021 EAA Digest.