New Just War or Just New Wars?

Co-authored by Hannah West and Lucie Pebay.

New Just War or Just New Wars? Was the topic of the inaugural European War Studies Network Graduate Conference held at Universite Paris II Pantheon-Assas on 27th and 28th January. Hannah West and Lucie Pebay from the University of Bath and the Defence Research Network ( were lucky enough to attend what was a fantastic conference, a really friendly crowd with supportive senior academics. A really encouraging forum for many first year PhD students to share their initial thoughts about their research. A two day conference can be a lengthy thing to report on so rather than a blow by blow account of the proceedings, we thought we would share our highlights with you as well as a few reflections on what we got from the conference, being that Hannah and Lucie are at different ends of our PhDs.

To give you a bit of a sense of the conference though, it was opened with a keynote by Professor Thierry Balzacq who gave a vibrant talk on the subject of ideas, ideology and grand strategy and the importance of articulation to trace how meaning structures evolve over time. This was followed by six panels of four speakers chaired by an established academic who gave carefully considered and useful feedback to all the speakers. The panels were shaped around the themes of novelty and military innovation; new actors, new disciplines, new paradigms, new wars and new technologies (you get the idea!). It was also commented on that the gender balance of the conference was very encouraging for the future of war studies with over 50% of the speakers being female.

Some of the highlights we both picked out were:

  • Vicky Karyoti’s talk on ‘21st Century Soldiers: Military Profesionalism in the Era of Articifial Intelligence’ whose research is exploring what it means to be a pilot today and the shift from being a specialist in violence to a specialist in management and what this means for military professionalism.
  • Marie Robin’s talk on the concept of Jihadist revenge with ‘Fighting with words. A strategic analysis of jihadists’ revenge’.
  • Laure de Rochegonde’s overview of the legality of lethal autonomous weapon systems or ‘killer robots’ and in particular her question: ‘Will the emergence of a dehumanised means of combat, and the gradual withdrawal of soldiers from the battlefield, make war less inhuman?’.
  • Eva Portel’s presentation on how cultural destructions by the Islamic State group might be understood a as a strategic tool.
  • Sorina Toltica’s insights into new practices of remote warfare against Boko Haram in Nigeria.
  • Ruben Stewarts’ reminder that researching civilian harm has fallen out of fashion and the challenge of instilling tactical and strategic patience to enable civilian responses to keep up with military operational tempo.
  • Rupert Culyer’s exploration of cybernetics as underpinning contemporary battle rhythms, removing the ‘oriental other’ from war.
  • Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen’s introduction to the challenges of light foot-print engagement in Africa.

Hannah’s reflections:

As a final year PhD student, I presented, for the first time, an outline of what will form the basis of my findings. For me, it was great to be presenting to a diverse war studies crowd as I have more recently presented in more of a gender and politics/IR or Women, Peace and Security arena so it was helpful to test my logic in front of a more mainstream crowd. I was very grateful for the thought that Prof Daniel Brunstetter had put into my paper and the really useful feedback from him and the audience through questions which I know will inform my ongoing thinking about what I include and what I don’t. And apart from it being a very sociable conference, a nice size to get to know people over the two days (and some delicious French food!), I found it so useful to step out of my immediate field and look across the broad field of war studies to realise that there were lots of connections I could draw and enjoy discussing concepts with scholars from other fields or with different backgrounds encouraging me to read a broader literature and keep the big picture in my mind. This was not a conference where you spend a long time travelling to speak for 10 minutes and get one question and go home again, not much the wiser. It was quite the opposite.

Lucie’s reflections:

Having just started my PhD last October, I was quite unsure about presenting at a conference at such an early stage. But the experience turned out to be excellent and I left Paris with absolutely no regrets. Just like me, a few of the speakers were also presenting for the first time which was reassuring and I found it to be a friendly and supportive environment. When talking to them, I understood that I was not the only one to be nervous and apprehensive to share my thoughts and research to a crowd, but we all agreed to say that this was a great place to start. Because the conference is dedicated to PhD students you tend not to suffer as much of the too well-known imposter’s syndrome when presenting your work. You also get to have inspiring feedback and constructive criticism that can only help you improve your project.

Before sending my abstract, I was told that I could present at any stage of my research. Four months in, I am still trying to figure out more specifically my research. I am mostly focusing on my literature review and did not have any ground-breaking ideas to bring forward. For that matter, I presented a scoping study, which was well received. I think that presenting at an early stage is really beneficial when doing a PhD. It is the perfect place to get new ideas and have a better sense of where you want to go. But more than that, the conference also help you build confidence. People listen to you and show a great interest in your research which can be very motivational.

Not only was it very helpful to get feedback and discuss my own work, it was also very inspirational to hear the presentations of the other members of the six panels. Each one of the speakers exposed brilliantly their very interesting subject of research. The conference also proved to be a great place to meet people who share similar interests and to network. And, as Olivier Schmitt highlighted, there is no reason why we should not start creating connections at this early stage of our career, it can only be beneficial for our research and helpful for the future.

I would really encourage anyone who is starting their PhD to give a presentation early on, at an event  like the European War Studies Network Graduate Conference. It helps you overcome gently the fear of a first talk and gives you confidence for the next one. It also breaks the preconceptions you might have of the PhD life: it does not have to be a lonely experience and people are actually interested on what you do! Finally, it can be one of many steps to slowly cure your imposter’s syndrome!

We both want to thank Marie Robin, Prof Jean-Vincent Holeindre and Centre Thucydide for this fantastic opportunity and would recommend that PGRs keep their eyes peeled for next year’s call for papers.



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