Sir Michael Howard and Queen Elizabeth II in London​, the United Kingdom, October 2002
ROTA / Camera Press / Redux

Sir Michael Howard, who died on November 30, 2019, a day after his 97th birthday, was a giant in the worlds of military history and strategic studies. A decorated veteran who redefined the study of war, he was also a voice of reason and conscience in some of the most important policy debates of his time, offering sage commentary on subjects as wide-ranging as nuclear policy and counterterrorism. Some of his most important writings appeared in these pages, where he contributed 12 articles between 1960 and 2002.

Howard is perhaps best known for his invaluable translation of Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, undertaken with his former student Peter Paret. But it was Howard’s prize-winning book The Franco-Prussian War that established military history as a serious area of scholarship and him as a leading practitioner. Prior to the book’s publication in 1961, military histories had mainly sought to describe specific campaigns or battles. What Howard demonstrated was the need to consider the conduct of war against the backdrop of broader social and economic changes. His later works—including War in European History, War and the Liberal Conscience, and The Invention of Peace—are masterpieces of concision, capturing big themes with economy of language and elegance of style. His lectures at King’s College London, and later at Oxford and Yale Universities, were delivered with wit, timing, and an eye for telling detail.

Born in London in 1922, Howard was educated at Wellington College and Oxford University. His time at Oxford was interrupted by his World War II service in the Coldstream Guards, initially as a second lieutenant. He was deployed to Italy, where his conspicuous gallantry in combat earned him the Military Cross. After the war, he finished his degree in history at Oxford and later joined the faculty at King’s College London, where he helped to establish the Department of War Studies. He returned to Oxford in 1968, and in 1980, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher appointed him Regius Professor of Modern History. In 1986, he was knighted for his academic work.

Howard demonstrated the need to consider the conduct of war against the backdrop of broader social and economic changes.

Because he was a student of war generally, rather than of any specific war, he could allow his interests and influences to range widely. He was much in demand as a pundit on current affairs and as a participant in policy debates, helping to set up the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. His mentor was not a leading professor but an independent commentator, Basil Liddell Hart. Liddell Hart had started a prolific career just after World War I, showing that it was possible to combine military history with contemporary strategy. He and Howard had a close association that was fruitful for both and eventually led to Liddell Hart’s library and papers being deposited at King’s College London. This became the foundation for a major center for military archives, which will now house Howard’s own papers. 

While Howard was attentive to the social sciences, he dismissed the idea that they could formulate either predictive or normative laws that could provide useful policy guidance, at least when it came to issues of war and peace. Social science data were always incomplete and there would always be too many variables. Howard was also wary of the policy value of “lessons of history.” History did not speak; only historians spoke, and historians were products of their time. Moreover, the events they studied were unique, the result of circumstances that were unlikely to be replicated. The main lesson he drew from his own wartime experiences, as well as from his studies, was that things never worked out as intended: chance events and the inherent uncertainties of combat confused and complicated plans. It was this realization that drew him to Clausewitz, who emphasized that even the simplest things soon get very complicated.

What, then, could historians do besides warn of the inevitable chasm between intended and actual outcomes in battle? Howard described the broad social role of historians as ensuring that beliefs about the past, to the extent that they influence policy, are correct and not just a form of convenient mythology. He was very conscious that Western historians were privileged, since they were not obliged to celebrate the greatness of their nations while ignoring any failings. Their ability to research freely and without favor, to challenge and reinterpret, to reveal and expose, could not be taken for granted. As they explored the past, however, historians were obliged not only to examine their own countries honestly but to broaden their perspectives to engage with other countries and cultures, including those with whom they might be locked in conflict. The good historian, Howard advised, must always study in width (because only over time can changes be noted and discontinuities be appreciated), in depth (because a superficial narrative will tend to hide the “confusion and horror of the real experience” as well as the part played by good luck as much as good planning), and, last, in context (because conflicts are between societies and not just between their uniformed champions). Without attending to economic and political factors, it would be hard to explain why armies were constituted as they were and why their leaders made the moves they did.

Howard urged that the dilemmas of the present age be understood in reference to the dilemmas of previous ages.

This historic sensibility informed Howard’s contributions to contemporary debates. Often, he urged that the dilemmas of the present age be understood in reference to the dilemmas of previous ages. This had the advantage of broadening debates that too often fixated on some recent political event or new technological development. In his 1979 Foreign Affairs essay, “The Forgotten Dimensions of Strategy,” for instance, he drew on Clausewitz to identify four dimensions that needed to be addressed: logistical, operational, social, and technological. The strategists of the nineteenth century had sought decisive victories in battle, which led to a focus on the operational and logistical dimensions. But in the twentieth century, the social dimension of strategy had become increasingly important. This was evident in popular revolts and insurgencies, but it was also true of nuclear weapons, despite the presumption that with these the technological dimension was all-important. In any future war, as in those of the past, social factors would be critical, determining whether governments felt “sufficiently confident in the stability and cohesion of their own peoples, and the instability of their adversaries, to initiate a nuclear exchange.” 

Howard made this point with more urgency a few years later, while anti-nuclear movements protested loudly on both sides of the Atlantic. He argued that the public needed to be reassured even while the Soviet Union needed to be deterred. He called for “clear heads, moral courage, human compassion, and, above all, a sense of proportion.”

It was a plea he would echo almost two decades later in a trenchant and, in retrospect, prescient essay on fighting terrorism. He opposed a “war on terror” because it gave the terrorists a status and dignity that they didn’t deserve. A war on terror also encouraged a “war psychosis that may be totally counterproductive for the objective being sought,” arousing public expectations that the problem be solved through “spectacular military action against some easily identifiable adversary.” Such a demand overrode the qualities needed for effectively combating terrorism: “secrecy, intelligence, political sagacity, quiet ruthlessness, covert actions that remain covert, above all infinite patience.”

In that same essay, Howard noted that British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush had been “exhorting their citizens to keep their nerve.” To that, he added, it was “no less important that we should keep our heads.” In a nutshell, that was Howard’s strategic advice for the ages.

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