Desolation Studies

Edward Luttwak

  • The Lessons of History by Michael Howard
    Oxford, 217 pp, £17.50, March 1991, ISBN 0 19 821581 9

I still recall my acute disappointment with Michael Howard’s The Franco-Prussian War, published some thirty years ago. The subject was exciting – what with the desperate German infantry assaults at Gravelotte and the dramatic unveiling of the ultra-secret mitrailleuse – and the book was thick enough to promise much good fun to any schoolboy eager to read of battles with a threepenny bag of crisps at his side. Gravelotte was there all right, and the siege of Sedan too, but both only in miserably cursory fashion, with none of the stirring evocations of daring fights that filled the pages of the paperbacks that gave us the British version of the Second World War slice by heroic slice. Instead of leaving behind the dreary complexities of polities, society, economy and culture to march the reader straight into the dramatic simplicities of combat, Michael Howard’s prelude was interminable, and when he finally reached the battlefield he left it again almost immediately, to revert to his portrayal of two regimes and two societies at war.

Recalling Polybius and Thucydides, not to speak of far closer predecessors, it would be absurd to claim that Michael Howard found military history made of battles, and rebuilt it into the history of conflict, i.e. history tout court, except intensified by the acute dilemmas of insecurity, and the brutal urgencies of war. But it is undeniable that Howard’s writings, teaching and example have played a great role in the post-1960 rescue of Anglo-American military historiography from the antiquarians, official annalists, regimental pietists, and purveyors of battle stories to schoolboys of all ages, that had long had the subject to themselves.

Certainly between 1918 and c. 1960 the subject was unrespectable: war being murderous stupidity, it was not deemed a fit subject for well-meaning intelligents. In academia, dedicated Military History positions were very rare, and separate departments unknown. Hence historians burdened with that label could rarely secure appointments, though as authors they always found ample readerships. There has been no great increase in the teaching employment of military historians as such – hardly possible given the fate of English-speaking universities in general, and of their history departments in particular. But their works now crowd reading-lists, and the specialisation no longer disqualifies candidates for posts in ‘general’ history. Historiography itself is the beneficiary, for it is no longer distorted by that wilful disregard of its military dimensions which was once de rigueur.

The new military history – analytical rather than descriptive – requires skills that are directly applicable to the examination of contemporary defence and arms control problems as well. But to venture into the undocumented present, to engage in public controversy, and to write ephemera for public consumption, are all contrary to the natural temper of most historians. Among the exceptions, Michael Howard has long been pre-eminent, both as the leading light of the International Institute of Strategic Studies and as a most influential individual voice in print and electronic media alike.

There are few explicit references to the sharp controversies of the decade in this collection of reprinted lectures and essays, which begins with Michael Howard’s 1981 inaugural lecture as Regius Professor at Oxford, and ends with his valedictory in 1989 – all writings firmly historiographical. But one may easily detect the influence of his engagement in the contemporary war/peace debates in Howard’s treatment of the past: he writes of the decisions of 1914 or 1939 as the disabused observer of current policy-making, and with a sense of urgency that reflects at every turn the intensity of far more immediate concerns.

Naturally his tone throughout is properly detached, as befits academic discourse, but only a reader exceptionally obtuse could fail to sense the powerful emotion that propels the author’s intellect: pathos, as the Greeks themselves defined it – the feeling experienced by the sensitive witness to an unfolding tragedy. With acts one and two already wrought by the two world wars, by 1981 the terrifying possibility of a yet more catastrophic act three was very much in the air. If only in a low-key aside in the approved Oxford manner, Howard reminded the audience at his inaugural lecture (on the teaching of history) of the nuclear facts of life, and death: ‘If the statesmen of the world do not conduct their affairs with prudence, I might well be the last occupant of this Chair.’ But Howard can be less restrained. In the Pentagon, during the Gulf War bombing campaign, I heard him cited by a bewildered radio commentator to the effect that the war was being fought on the principles of Tacitus, not of von Clausewitz. No doubt it all started with Colin Powell or Schwarzkopf or some lesser uniformed genius claiming the authority of Clausewitz for the brilliance of their plans, and Howard, his translator, interpreter and succinct biographer, was asked to comment, allowing him the opportunity for an effective put-down (though most unfair to old Cornelius).

Pathos and intense preoccupations notwithstanding, Howard is a historian first and last, always on his guard against the distortions of anachronistic perspectives. Thus in the short essay on ‘Empire, Race and War in pre-1914 Britain’ he reconstructs Imperialism, Racism and Militarism as expressions of contemporary idealism (empire as duty, racial superiority as obligation, war as necessity), with Lord Cromer cited in 1908 to warn against baser motives: ‘We need not always enquire too closely what these peoples ... themselves think best in their own interests ... But it is essential that each special issue should be decided mainly [on the basis of what] we conscientiously think is best for the subject race, without [reference to] any real or supposed advantage which may accrue to England as a nation or – as is more frequently the case – to the special interests represented by some one or more influential class of Englishman.’ There! Things have really changed, because nowadays we do attend very closely at least to the views of a few oil sheikhs, even if we still ignore the multitudes.

Echoes of contemporary controversies are louder in the next essay on the ‘Edwardian Arms Race’, which recounts how the Liberals came into office in 1906 on an arms-reduction platform, only to preside over an accelerating naval arms race after two years of modest reductions. In reviewing this much-studied story, Howard isolates the mechanical imperatives (German naval construction for Britain, Britain’s dominance of German sea approaches for Germany) from the ‘threat-inflation’ wrought in general by fears, fictions and fabrications, and in particular by the alternation of capabilities and intentions (whereby each side seeks capabilities that match the intentions imputed to the other side). Even those who know the huge literature on the subject better than this reviewer will find the results of Howard’s method illuminating.

Two lectures delivered before very different audiences reveal Howard the social historian of war – ‘Churchill and the Era of National Unity’ (before the English-Speaking Union) and ‘War and Social Change’ (at the University of Warsaw in December 1988); and one, ‘Military Experience in European Literature’, shows that he is a deft hand at literary history, too, if not at deconstruction – an activity obviously foreign to one who seeks above all to resuscitate the authentic voices of the past, instead of depriving their words of the meanings they intended. But no purpose would be served by further abbreviations of essays and lectures replete with arguments too subtle to be usefully condensed.

Most begin with a telling evocation: for example, ‘Men against Fire: The Doctrine of the Offensive in 1914’ is introduced by a gloss on Bloch’s celebrated projection of 1898, La Guerre Future, which leads to the subject from the chronological rear that is always the historiographical front. ‘Empire, Nations and Wars’ begins and ends with the evocation of a lost friend, Yigal Allon (the occasion was the 1982 Yigal Allon Memorial Lecture at the Tel Aviv University), who went from commanding the ragged troops of 1948-49 straight to Oxford, where Howard first met him in the company of ‘the British strategic thinker B.H. Liddell Hart’, that being the studiously impersonal description of Michael Howard’s mentor and most intimate friend. One cannot help thinking that his relationship with the complex figure of Basil Liddell Hart explains, at least in part, the transgenerational empathy that adds so much power to Howard’s work on the First World War. For whatever the ostensible subject of his ample conversation and innumerable writings, it was always the massacres of the Somme and third Ypres that shaped Liddell Hart’s thoughts.

Sir Michael Howard is Robert E. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University, we are told on the dust-jacket, and a very fine American university professor he is too. So what? Scholars have always been itinerant if not outright vagabonds, so why should he not be at Yale? He was certainly not overlooked at home, not in London where he frequented Whitehall in addition to teaching (I remember him c. 1963, one evening on the Bakerloo line, wearing a proper Whitehall bowler hat), and not in Oxford as Regius Professor. With long productive years still ahead of him to Yale he went, and so what? Nothing at all really, but had he been an American he would never have been allowed to translate himself to Britain – not so long as further academic honours, gold and ‘research facilities’ (more gold) could keep him. For countries do not lightly surrender their natural resources – not unless they are ruled by primitives who cannot tell valuable ores from mere rocks. Britain could still lately send an armoured division, brave RAF lads in inadequately equipped flying-machines, and generals besotted with Arab head-dresses, to Saudi Arabia, there to watch American precision bombing win the war that restored indolent potentates to their oily sands. Britain could still afford yet another pathetic elongation of the empire game (if only because this time at least it was well subsidised), but it could not keep at home the teacher supreme, the master of his trade.