War within wars

Paul Addison

As he looks forward to his 70th birthday Sir Michael Howard can also look back over a distinguished career which began with Wellington, Christ Church and the Coldstream Guards. In 1943, as Lieutenant Howard, fresh from the University, he led his platoon in a dangerous uphill charge against a German position north of Salerno. For this he was awarded the Military Cross, and ended the war, twice wounded, as Captain Howard. Returning to Oxford, where he had already obtained a first in Part I of Modern History, he set his sights on an academic career. But as a result, perhaps, of the distractions of the Oxford Union, and a performance just before finals as Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, he missed a First in Part II. This was a stroke of luck which, by ruling out a tutorship at Oxford, freed him to pursue his interests in military history as a lecturer at King’s College, London. His first book, a history of the Coldstream Guards written jointly with John Sparrow, was published in 1951.

And there you have Michael Howard. Though he has grown in fame and distinction, and moved in governing circles on both sides of the Atlantic, and held four chairs including the Regius Professorship of Modern History at Oxford from 1981 to 1989, his career has been all of a piece. The scholar, the actor, the dashing young subaltern and the Union debater, have all gone into the making of this extremely elegant and rather grand figure. In teaching, research and administration his career is a testament to the rise of a new professionalism in the Universities since 1945. But into this brave new world he has imported much of the style and spirit of the pre-war gentleman scholar, for whom learning was the extension of a spacious, cultured and pleasurable existence.

Military history is a subject with a strong traditional core. The narration of battles, campaigns and wars goes back to Classical times and it is only a short step from Thucydides to Liddell Hart or G.M. Trevelyan. Howard, who wrote the first history in English of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and a brilliant volume in the official history of grand strategy in the Second World War, demonstrated long ago his mastery of military history in its classical form. But he was also an innovator. He recognised the need to rescue military history from the reputation it had acquired, in the realm of the liberal humanities, as an antiquarian field over-populated by retired military men. Military history, he argued, was the history of war itself; and wars could only be understood in their social, economic and political contexts.

Michael Howard was a pioneer in a second respect. He was a founding father, on this side of the Atlantic, of strategic studies: the academic analysis of the means and ends of military force in a nuclear age. This was a field which had been pioneered in the United States by academics who sought to apply mechanistic theories to nuclear war. Howard, by contrast, believed in the empirical study of the problems, enriched by a knowledge of history and the classics of strategic doctrine. During the early years of the Reagan Presidency many of us feared that some hawk in the Pentagon would persuade the old boy that a nuclear war could be won. In Britain the leading defence intellectuals, including Michael Howard, Lawrence Freedman, and John Erickson, continued to press the case for deterrence, détente and multilateral disarmament. Whether they played any part in steering the world away from a catastrophe I do not know and neither, perhaps, do they. But at the very least they maintained a sane and rational position during a paranoid phase in the relations between East and West.

It is crystal clear from Michael Howard’s writings that he was never, in Mrs Thatcher’s phrase, ‘one of us’. Like many other dons and civil servants who began their careers during the Second World War, he believes in a nation beyond party which it is the duty of an enlightened élite to discover and promote. He might, perhaps, be classified as a One-Nation Tory: but he was the cousin and friend of Richard Crossman and perfectly at home in the company of Labour politicians. One of his hallmarks is an interest in the ideas of the Left and a readiness to address them with a measure of respect. He is, indeed, strongly reminiscent of the type of army officer in the Second World War who believed that the troops should have the chance to discuss current affairs. In War and the Liberal Conscience he argued that radical and socialist thinking about the causes of war was deeply flawed. But, he wrote, the liberal tradition had not been wholly mistaken: ‘how can one fail to share the aspirations of those who carried on this tradition, or deny credit to their achievements?’ The answer is, of course, that right-wing ideologues have no difficulty in rejecting the aspirations or denying the achievements.

Historians, increasingly, are specialists who communicate only with other specialists in their field. But Michael Howard belongs to the old school of public historians who sought both to interest a lay audience and instruct them in the ‘lessons of history’. If this takes him into a realm where the arts of rhetoric cut across the kind of analysis expected in the seminar room, and history is employed as a parable to point a contemporary message, he is perfectly content provided he can persuade his audience to think. Towards the end of the miners’ strike, in November 1984, he gave a lecture to the English-Speaking Union in honour of Churchill. The message he intended to convey was that Mrs Thatcher’s government was displaying too little compassion in its treatment of the miners. It was a message that nine historians out of ten would have been only too happy to deliver. But how could Winston Churchill, with his controversial record in the General Strike, possibly be enlisted on the side of this particular ‘lesson in history’? Howard didn’t try to prove that Churchill was the miners’ best friend. Instead he summoned up the greater Churchill, who stood for national unity in the Second World War, against the lesser Churchill who was only too eager to put down strikes, and who – as depicted by Howard – was, of course, an indirect representation of Margaret Thatcher.

It was not to be expected that Michael Howard’s achievements as a publicist would be reflected in the scholarly contributions of pupils and friends to his festschrift. Of the 17 contributors, all but one – the former Chief of Defence Staff, Lord Carver – are academics by profession or adoption. Nor are we given much of a biographical portrait of Howard himself, though Michael Brock, who was at school with him, provides some important details, and Robert O’Neill pays tribute to his labours in the Oxford History Faculty.

A festschrift often consists of a somewhat miscellaneous collection of bits and pieces. On this occasion the editors have assembled a sequence of essays which coherently reflects the interests of the scholar to whom they are dedicated. Eleven essays in military history, marching in chronological order from the 16th to the 20th century, deal with the conduct of war from a variety of angles. Geoffrey Elton does what he can with the distinctly intractable subject of war and public opinion in the reign of Henry VIII. On a similar theme, P.J. Marshall argues that the defeat of Tipu Sultan by Cornwallis in 1792 marked the point at which India became die focus of a new popular imperialism. The myth of the special relationship between Britain and the United States is further undermined by John Gooch’s essay on the doctrines taught by the US Army and Naval colleges between the wars to a generation of cadets. With occasional exceptions, instructors were hostile to Britain and cadets were taught that a fundamental conflict of interests existed between a generous American democracy and a grasping British Empire.

There is not much in the book about the development of military potential – the organisation of manpower, finance and materials. The exception here is an attractive cameo of 17th-century family history by Ian Roy, which shows how the brothers Edward and Alexander Popham contributed to the growth of the armed forces in the Cromwellian era. But several of the essays deal with the history of strategic doctrines and the perceptions on which they were based. N.A. Rodger tries to settle the great 18th-century controversy between maritime and Continental schools of thought by arguing that on strictly strategic grounds, the maritime school were correct: the motives for sending armed forces to the Continent were mainly political. Bryan Ranft explains how the Royal Navy stumbled into the First World War with the almost fatal doctrine that the system of convoy was out of date and could no longer be employed for the protection of merchant shipping. The Admiralty also comes out badly from Paul Hayes’s analysis of its pre-1914 plans for a sudden descent on Germany. But for the resistance these plans encountered, he writes, ‘the catastrophe of the Gallipoli campaign might instead have been enacted in Friesland. The effects on morale, prestige and on government of a disaster so close to home would have been shattering.’

It is good to know that military historians still pursue their traditional goal of seeking out the skeletons in the cupboard. Rhodri Williams shows how British prejudice against their French allies led to the folly of the Battle of Loos in September 1915. David French, on the other hand, explains how the responsibility for another great disaster, the third Battle of Ypres, was subsequently blamed on the French by Haig and Lloyd George, who ‘agreed to launch the Flanders offensive in the full knowledge that French military support would be minimal’.

It is a familiar paradox in time of war that the mutual animosity of allies often poses a more deadly threat than the enemy. Never in history was there a closer alliance than the one that was formed by Britain and the United States during the Second World War. There was even a Combined Chiefs of Staff with a general jurisdiction over global strategy. But Alex Danchev, who depicts its inner workings, concludes that it was an extremely fragile organisation, viewed with considerable reservations on both sides. ‘We are all in favour of give and take,’ wrote Sir Alan Brooke, ‘but cannot help feeling that it is we who are doing all the giving and our friends who are doing all the taking.’ The measure of Brooke himself is taken by Brian Bond, who does not question his greatness as a military leader, but convicts the editor of his diaries. Sir Arthur Bryant, of making extravagant claims. Bryant tried to make out that Alan Brooke, not Churchill, was the mastermind of British and Allied strategy. Bond maintains, more convincingly, that it was Churchill who possessed the vision, and, more alarmingly, a passion for extremely dangerous projects. Brooke’s main contribution to Allied strategy was to prevent a Churchillian fiasco.

After a lucid but circumspect account of Britain’s role in Nato by Michael Carver, the book enters the terrain of strategic studies with essays by Malcolm Mackinstosh on Soviet strategic thought, Robert O’Neill on problems of command in limited warfare, and Lawrence Freedman on strategic studies and the problems of power. It includes a sweepingly historical and comparative essay by Paul Kennedy on the capacity of the great powers in the 20th century to perceive and formulate a grand strategy in harmony with their national interests. Grand strategy, as Kennedy defines it, is a problem that ranges far beyond the question of military policy, critical though that is. It is a matter of co-ordinating all the resources of a nation – including its economic, social and moral assets, and its diplomatic and political skills – in the long-term interests of the state.

Kennedy’s analysis, which draws freely on his book The Rise and Fall of the great Powers, is an attempt to discover past trends and extrapolate them into the future. Alas this seldom works and he himself, like some of the other contributors, has been overtaken by the collapse of the Soviet superpower, a development he plainly did not foresee. But this does not impair the vitality of his essay as history. Many of the contributors follow Michael Howard in researching a precisely defined problem in depth. Kennedy is the only who follows him in the quest for a broad conceptual vision of the past, accessible to a lay public. This is not to imply that his approach is preferable or superior: only that few now take on the role of historian as public sage and oracle. We leave the state of the nation to be defined, twice nightly, by the economic analysts of the City.