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Teaching Why We Fight to Undergrads & Master's students - Chris Blattman

Chris Blattman

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Teaching Why We Fight to Undergrads & Masters Students

I use Why We Fight in my undergrad international development class [syllabus], an intro-level course in an interdisciplinary major. Students love it, both the ideas and because the anecdotes gave them a sense of how development work and research are conducted. I’ve enjoyed it a lot myself. —Penn State sociologist Brian Thede

Graduate students and scholars will benefit from the way that Blattman organizes a vast literature. I would wholeheartedly recommend this as *the* book for those either starting war studies or working in relevant fields. —NYU political scientist Cyrus Samii


Why We Fight can work as a short unit on conflict within a longer class on economic development, international relations, political economy, comparative politics, or conflict studies. Below are sample syllabi, assignments, slides, videos, and contemporary case studies you can use in class.


Teach as a unit

1 week

I’d recommend having students engage with Part I of the book only, especially chapters 1–5. This will give them a good overview of the causes of  war literature.

You could use a selection of the slides below to walk students through the strategic concepts in lectures. Alternatively, students have enjoyed small group work, where they met in or out of class to apply the concepts to a familiar case (e.g. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, or tensions between China and Taiwan) and then present back ideas to the class.

2–4 weeks

I’ve taught the bulk of the material in 7–8 classes as part of a broader class on international development (syllabus).

Lecture slides:

Introduction: Pre-conceptions ♦ The incentives for peace ♦ Unchecked leaders & uncertainty ♦ Commitment problems ♦ Intangible incentives ♦ Misperceptions ♦ Paths to peace I ♦ Paths to peace IIAll PDFAll PPTX

I like to run the first class as an activity and discussion, where I pick a few contemporary conflicts (not covered in the book), break the class up into groups, and then have them work together to list commonly-described causes of that conflict, then each group summarizes their discussion to the rest. Then we return to these conflicts throughout the next few weeks, examining, refining, discarding, and classifying some of these preconceptions.

Teach a full conflict course

Recently I did all of the above and taught the book over 9 weeks to a class of second year Master’s students (syllabus) and I plan to run the same course for undergraduate students this year. It’s mostly oriented around analyzing cases and critiquing policy.

Others have done more technical versions. Here’s a more research and article-based version of the class taught at Harvard:

I organized my graduate class at Harvard [syllabus] around Why We Fight. We read a chapter a week along with related articles. The great thing about teaching the book is that it organizes an interdisciplinary literature on why violence does and does not occur at every level of analysis—from interstate war to civil wars to street gangs. It clearly articulates theories of war and shows how a host of literatures—both “rationalist” and “behavioral”—can be synthesized within its framework. —Texas A&M political scientist Bill Clark, visiting professor at Harvard Government Department



There are a variety of possible assignments:

  • Here is an example problem set with solutions, to help students work through some of the examples in the book.
  • If I am teaching this material as a longer unit or full class, I have students work through a contemporary conflict in small groups, and then report back to the class with presentations. See weeks 4–6 of this syllabus for an example.
  • Or I ask students to read and critique policy reports or contemporary books on dealing with violence, from UN reports to US plans for tackling gang violence. See weeks 8–9 of this syllabus for an example.
  • If you are teaching a more article-based version of the course, you can have the students write 1-critical reflections on one or more of the articles. Or have them write a referee report on new unpublished working papers in the field.


Technical appendix

Here is an online appendix for the “pie-splitting” examples in the book, in case you want to work through them in class or as a problem set.


Overviews of the book

  • This Boston Review piece gives the main ideas in about 5000 words
  • Teachers and students can also hear summaries of the book on various podcasts or talk about current events though the lens of the book. I recommend these:
  • For videos, here is a 30-minute talk I gave to a Directorate in the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff that sums up the book.

  • And here is an interview at the U.S. Institute of Peace that I think hits all the big points:

Applying the book to contemporary cases

Sample syllabi, assignments & slides, by level

Why We Fight - Book Cover