Michael Howard

The Lessons of History

VTR Date: May 13, 1991

Guest: Howard, Michael


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Sir Michael Howard
Title: “The Lessons of History”
VTR: 5/13/91

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

My guest today is widely known as one of the world’s most eminent military historians…though preferring himself to call his discipline the history of war, seeing its specifically military aspect as only part of a larger, societal driven totality. And war, after all, as he frequently quotes Karl von Clausewitz, about whom he has written so authoritatively: “War is merely a continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means”.

Well, Sir Michael Howard recently retired from his distinguished Regius Professorship of Modern History at Oxford. He teaches now at Yale, is President of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, and has long been an advisor to leading Western military persons.

But in these perilous times it is delight with his newly published Yale University Press volume “The Lessons of History” that led me to invite Sir Michael to THE OPEN MIND. For as an erstwhile historian, 40 years ago I began my own “Documentary History of the United States” with a tribute to the late Charles A. Beard for his understanding that “all written history is an act of faith”. And what a pleasure, then, to embrace Sir Michael’s recognition,”…how impossible it is for historians to detach themselves from their environment. Our agenda is set…many historians’ agenda is set…by current controversies, whether we wish it or not. If we take part in them, we have no right to claim that our historical studies provide a kind of inner light denied to lesser mortals. Historians are as prone as anyone else unconsciously to formulate conclusions on the basis of temperament, prejudice and habit, and then collect the evidence to justify them. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise”.

How refreshing for the author of “The Lessons of History” to note that “history, whatever its value in educating the judgment, teaches no ‘lessons’…The past is infinitely various, an inexhaustible storehouse of events from which we can prove anything or its contrary…”In short”, says Sir Michael, “historians may claim to teach lessons, and often they teach very wisely. But ‘history’ as such does not”.

And Sir Michael assures us, “The trouble is that there is no such thing as ‘history’. History is what historians write, and historians are part of the process they are writing about”.

Yet Sir Michael is far from demeaning the Muse Clio or her disciples. And I want to begin our program today by asking him to elaborate upon his own act of faith, “Far more than poets”, he writes, “can historians claim to be the unacknowledged legislators of mankind; for all we believe about the present depends upon what we believe about the past”.

That gives to historians considerable power, doesn’t it, Sir Michael?

Howard: It certainly gives us considerable responsibility. And quite often we are got at by the people who ought to know better, who complain that we do not give the image of the past, which they would like us to give and to reflect, as it were, our national values, or the outlook on the world as a whole which they would wish us to reflect.

Heffner: Yet you do reflect your contemporary culture.

Howard: Inevitably. Anybody reading my books in a hundred years, of there’s anybody around doing so, will say “these could only have been written between 1950 and 1990” and the same as when I read a great or even a lesser historian, like (???), I say “this is a man who is writing in the 1830’s or in the 1840’s.

Heffner: Well, then the demand made upon you, as you suggest, by your contemporaries, to reflect their points of view is not that outrageous, is it?

Howard: It’s not that outrageous, but within one’s own environment, within one’s own generation, there are a very large number of points of view. And the point of view which a historian should express, as anybody else, is one which he should derive from his own best judgment, which has been created, particularly by his study of the past. And may not coincide with the point of view of political authorities, who say that what you are writing is subversive, of current beliefs and if your books are widely circulated, they may undermine faith in the
American way of life, or the British way and purpose, or the, the superiority of Marxist/Leninism. I mean it’s our business to go where out study leads us. Although it is not going to lead us outside our own capacity for understanding.

Heffner: As a historian of war, have you been put upon by those who would have you lead us as poets? And you maintain that historians are indeed the poets of our time, in different direction.

Howard: I think that all military historians, perhaps almost more than any others, are tempted to write with a certain kind of nationalistic prejudice. Wars, after all, do on the whole, define one’s sense of national identity, almost more than any other kind of event. And the kind of history which most people start by reading, because it’s glamorous and exciting, is actually military history. I should think that if you were to take a poll of kids aged nine or ten and ask “What kind of history do you find most exciting?” an overwhelming majority would say military history, for all the wrong reasons. Now military history can so easily be confined to a not only “drum and trumpet” history, but nationalistically biased history in that “our side has always won”. Our nation is being created by defeating its adversaries in the past. It justifies its existence by showing it can still defeat them in the present – Operation Desert Storm – and by golly, we’re going to lick them all in the future.

Heffner: What does that do then, to a people? That point of view, in your estimation, as you read history?

Howard: Well, it has a good side and it has a bad side. The good side is that it can create a genuine sense of national unity and national identity, which I think is by no means a bad thing. All states, all nations, all peoples, if they are going to function effectively do need some kind of socially cohesive force. And, having fought a rather successful war does provide this in the way in which it provided for Britain after World War…certainly World War II, and as it’s provided for you after Desert Storm. The down side is, of course, that it does create a kind of emphasis upon military values…in my view an overestimation of the significance of war, the value of military power. Which not only is a bad thing in itself, but can create a reaction against it, which in itself can be very unhealthy and very disruptive.

Heffner: Does…may I pick up the notion then that military historians…if I read you “large”…that military histories tend, as generals to look at what it is they study and what it is they practice with a more jaundiced point of view than those of us on the outside, are less enthusiastic about the practice of war?

Howard: Well, I would not agree, looking at my colleagues in the field of military history. Most of them are rather enthusiastic about war, indeed, to a degree which I myself cannot share. They, they describe the battles, they analyze the tactics, the weapons systems, they take sides for or against a certain General with an enthusiasm which does sometimes, I think, make them get out of proportion what they’re actually writing about. Military historians are not very good, on the whole, at describing the downside of war. They…in certain cases such an imminent horror like the western Front in World War I, you cannot get away from the appalling consequences of certain sorts of war, the suffering, the losses, the hardships, the deaths, and all the spin-off horrors. But, it is all too easy for military historians, and very dedicated ones, to describe for example, the Battle of Gettysburg in terms of a heroic clash of noble armies, and ignore what that battlefield looked like afterwards…carpeted with dead. And I think that one of the great things about your recent television series on the Civil War was that it did emphasis that downside. It was a horrible business, and any military historian I think, who does not take that fully into account and give it adequate emphasis is betraying his trust. And an awful lot do.

Heffner: Sir Michael, I hear what it is that you say. I, I look to a question that I had written down. I was so taken with some of the things that you wrote, that I wanted to make this as precise as possible. I wanted to say to you, do you prefer history of war to military history? You prefer to be known as a historian of war rather than a military historian. And you quote that war is merely a “continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means”…

Howard: Yes.

Heffner: …you even have written a book on the man who said it. And I wondered as I read that, doesn’t this in a sense become an integrative approach that almost normalizes war in…as, as a simple extension of the political process, instead of making it the horror that you now seem to say it really is and that too few people recognize as such?

Howard: I think that every historical process has got a pretty grubby underside, if you look at it. Let us take the colonization of the United States, and its spread Westward. Well, we now realize there was an underside in respect of your treatment of the indigenous population of this country, which didn’t appear very largely in the earlier books and the history of the United States. History of the extension of European empires, which seems to get written in a very sort of one-sided fashion…One can see the suffering which all that caused and the downside as well as, as well as the upside. It’s, it’s hard to think, really, of any kind of historical study or any, any object of historical study which does not have in it aspects which, when one looks at them coldly, one recoils from the things “How could this have happened? How could people have done this to one another?” in peace as much as in war? So yes, I think I do normalize war because war throughout society has been a fairly normal occurrence. But also because although in war suffering becomes concentrated in a way in which it does not in peace. If one looks at sort of long-term developments, in long military situations, there are pretty horrible things which have to be reckoned with there also.

Heffner: What are you saying the, Sir Michael, about your own sense of the nature of human nature and its revelation in history?

Howard: I’m not sure that it is human nature that I, that I am talking about which because that would suggest that the bad things which happen, the neglect, the starvation, the deaths, is the result of an internal quirk in man, or people. And that is a philosophy which I am not entirely sure I do agree with. I think that in any major historical process there are winners and there are losers. There is no way that one can really escape from that. And that the historian has to explain why the winners won and why the losers lost.

Heffner: But doesn’t that sound very much like nature read in tooth and claw, as a law of nature?

Howard: I don’t see it as being quite so clear-cut as that…

Heffner: But you say…

Howard: …I think…

Heffner: …but you say every…

Howard: I’d say this is, this is the way in which it has happened. And that progress, or if, if one calls it that, I prefer to call it by a fairly value-free term, “development and change”, while it does create advantages for some and my personal belief is advantages on the whole for most, there are those who suffer terribly by it. Nature read in tooth and claw was a rather simplistic Darwinian way of putting it, and I think it’s applying an analogy which isn’t really appropriate to what I’m talking about.

Heffner: Well, the Social Darwinians did just that…

Howard: I know.

Heffner: …but, but, but what is it that you are saying then when you, when you posit first that every process involving war or not involving war, every developmental process does involve some people lying metaphorically on the battlefield.

Howard: Yes.

Heffner: What does it say about what we are like if we make…well, I won’t use the word “progress”…if we develop…

Howard: Yes. (Chuckle) It may not say…what it says may not be about human beings as such, or human society as such. It says something, I think, about the way in which society has unfolded, and I suppose I lack the imagination to see how it would have happened otherwise. This is the way that it has been. This is the way that it is. Partly I think through an appreciation of this having been the way in which we have got to where we are…we should be sensitized to the damage which we have caused by getting where we are, and the excellence of many of the causes who are lost, which should make us more sensitive to, and tolerant of, causes with causes which we may not entirely agree.

Heffner: But doesn’t it, by the same token, make us enormously aware of the futility of thinking that it is possible, seeing how it has not happened, that it is possible to achieve development without that conflict, with someone lying on the battlefield.

Howard: Well, let me put it in a, in a rather different way. Science technology and in particular medicine, has enormously improved the standard of living and the length of life and the quality of life for the whole of mankind. Or very nearly the whole of mankind. It has also increased life expectancy, which has resulted in an enormous population explosion…that population explosion has created huge problems for not only our own societies, but for societies less economically capable of absorbing a surplus population which they engender. One could say it is a pity that this happened. But the fact of the matter is that if you do have that kind of scientific improvement, this is one of the spin-off benefits. And I think that theologians and moralists have invented various kinds of myths to explain this, including the eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That, in fact, the world is a sadly complex place and as one solves problems, one does create further ones.

Heffner: Talking about complexity, I’ve wondered what your own response has been to questions about the extraordinary matter, in very contemporary terms of the trade in arms of the major nations of the world continuing to sell arms…to make and to sell armaments to those…not only to those who take up those arms against them, but seemingly to foster the wars that you then study. It, it seems outrageous to me, and I wonder what your own response is. Again, part of the development?

Howard: Well, one…this, this is a, a problem which goes back about a hundred years. In fact from the exponential growth of technological change, which took off in about the 18…well, it’s 150 years…takes off in the 1840’s and the 1850’s…when science and technology makes possible the improvement of weapons far beyond the horizons imagined at any earlier stage. Now, the problem is whether it would…one can conceive of technology developing and the weapons not developing with them; Whether one could, as it were, be stuck with weapons of the 18th century in a 20th century technological environment. Well, clearly the answer is “no”, you can’t. You are, therefore, going to have weapons developing and developing competitively. In the same way as you have any other kind of machines developing. And you are going to have states which are so far as they possibly can insure…are going to insure that they are armed with weapons no worse than those which their opponents…the putative opponents, are impossibly better. And in free market economies you’re going to have people who will do their best to provide those for them. So the real problem is that this is something which is going to happen unless steps are taken to prevent it. And you then have to ask, ask the question “Is it not feasible, and should it not have been done before for the nations of the world to get together to control arms development and, and the extension of arms”? And the answer is, “Yes, of course, it should have happened”, and then you ask, “Why does it not happen?”, and you then get into what is basically a political problem and a political argument about the nature of the international system.

Heffner: And you think it is possible, within the framework of the international system that we labor under?

Howard: I think we ought to have a bloody good try. And I don’t think we have tried nearly hard enough, quite frankly.

Heffner: You know, you have been quoted as, as saying about the same thing were talking about: “Changes are necessary. We have got to learn that heavy expenditures on defense are no longer an essential part of the global structure. In the long run we have to be bold and drastic in the reorientation of military structures”. It occurred to me that you might mean an orientation toward nuclear weapons rather than the massive traditional weapons. Am I misreading you?

Howard: I don’t know when I wrote that, but certainly I did not have nuclear weapons in mind. Although I have passed through many phases (laughter) of ideas over the last 30 years, I have always regarded nuclear weapons as evil, perhaps a necessary evil, but certainly not something to emphasize.

Heffner: But why more an evil, why more possibly a necessary evil than armaments generally, then war generally, which, as you describe the Western Front in World War II was horror, or the Battle of Gettysburg…why more? What, what is the, what is the function of nuclear weaponry that distinguishes it from destructive weapons generally?

Howard: I didn’t say they were more of an evil, and indeed I think it’s very necessary to get them into context with previous weapons systems, and realize that previous weapons systems were horrible enough, thank you very much. That we were able to destroy Japanese and, indeed, German cities with old-fashioned high explosives and create more casualties, and create more damage and destruction than we actually did with nuclear weapons. What you can do with nuclear weapons is you can create a great deal of destruction very fast, and on a very much larger scale. But the people are no less dead than if they had been blown up by high explosive. So, I was never one of those who regarded the advent of nuclear weapons as introducing a totally new element into war…and the sense that somehow conventional weapons are alright…they’re not. What nuclear weapons do, and even more so, the means of delivery of nuclear weapons do, is it makes it possible to wipe out, rapidly, what one short-hand calls “civilization”. And that this can be done with a speed and an irrevocability which is totally unprecedented. In the old pre-nuclear days it really took a very long time to eviscerate a country. We did ultimately eviscerate Germany, but it took us the best part of three years to do it. Now one can do it in 3 seconds dead. And that does create a rather different type of situation, and does make the prospect of nuclear war an even more horrendous one then the prospect of prolonged conventional war.

Heffner: Regretfully, we just have two minutes left. But you write that we may be witnessing a transformation which makes historical analogies irrelevant, going back to defining the nature of history. You mean not just in Eastern Europe, but in the West, too, that everything is being moved about now. And we may not have the same stand to maintain as we have in the past. Is that…

Howard: I think one has always got to be very careful about historical analogies because the situations do, do vary so much. It was, however, fairly easy to draw historical analogies about a comparatively simple structure of the international order when one had two, or possibly three, or four major powers competing with one another, bi-polar or multi-polar systems. Now I think we’re moving into a far more complicated world in which power is going to be so much more diffuse, in which economic power or cultural power is going to be almost co-equaled with military power. And how this all functions, and how it functions in a world in which there’s such a diversity of cultures, but at the same time instantaneous communication is extraordinarily difficult to see.

Heffner: And the, the old bases on which we could hang our hats seem to be gone.

Howard: I think that one has got to be very cautious about assuming that there are patterns in the past which will inevitably replicate themselves.

Heffner: Sir Michael Howard, I do appreciate your joining me today on THE OPEN MIND, and I, I must admit, and I’m sure I speak for everyone in the audience, it’s a fascinating subject that you’ve presented us with. Thank you again.

Howard: My pleasure.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s extraordinary guest and theme, please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.

Continuing production of THE OPEN MIND has been made possible by grants from The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and from the corporate community, Mutual of America.