History Lessons

September 1, 1991 Topics: Society Tags: Soft Power

History Lessons

Mini Teaser: Michael Howard, The Lessons of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).

by Author(s): Daniel Moran

Michael Howard, The Lessons of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).  248 pp., $27.50.

Paul Kennedy, ed., Grand Strategies in War and Peace (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991).  224 pp., $25.00.

It is not easy to learn from the past.  This is a fact that historians, at least when they assume the overt role of educators, are inclined to keep to themselves.  Given two or three hours a week to polish up the historical consciousness of their students, even the most circumspect professionals are unlikely to emphasize the enormous concentration their discipline requires, or to admit that a lifetime of study can yield insights whose instrumental value may seem limited compared to those claimed by the social and natural sciences.

It is one of the many merits of Michael Howard's The Lessons of History that it makes no bones about the difficulty of what it is trying to do.  The volume brings together thirteen characteristically elegant essays written between 1980 and 1989 during the author's tenure as Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford.  The first and last, his inaugural and valedictory addresses, deal with how history should be studied, and why it should be taught.  Those in between focus on problems in the history of war and international relations in the modern era.  Some take specific episodes as their point of departure--the Anglo-German arms race that preceded the First World War, for instance.  Others examine issues of the broadest scope--the consequences of nationalism for international life is a recurrent theme, as is the impact of war on the societies that fight them.  All are animated by Howard's conviction, as he says in a brief introductory note, that historical study is essential "in training not only political but ethical judgment."  In the end, the lessons he would draw from the past are those of the examined life itself: intellectual humility, skepticism of cant and received opinion, sympathy for other points of view, and a firm commitment to the kind of open society that makes these virtues possible.

The pieces assembled in Paul Kennedy's Grand Strategies in War and Peace have a more pragmatic but no less useful purpose: to probe those characteristics of "grand strategy" that exist at all times and places, in order to shed light on present conditions.  The volume, which originated as a series of lectures to complement a course at Yale on the history of war, consists of case studies by eight contributors, each of whom examines the conduct of a particular European power.  All share a common understanding of grand strategy as comprising not just war-making, but all the elements of policy that influence the strength of a state in relation to its neighbors.  This conception binds the essays together, and gives the book cohesiveness despite its chronological range, which extends from Arther Ferrill's "The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire" to "The Evolution of Soviet Grand Strategy" by Condoleezza Rice.  There is also a concluding essay, "American Grand Strategy, Today and Tomorrow," by the editor, in which he considers the lessons of the European experience for contemporary policy-makers.

By the end of the volume, careful readers will begin to feel a few tentative generalizations forming in the backs of their minds.  Perhaps the most compelling is the degree to which alliances matter, even to the greatest of powers.  This is a major theme in two-thirds of the essays, notably John Hattendorf's on British strategy in the War of the Spanish Succession, "Alliance, Encirclement, and Attrition," Eliot Cohen's "Churchill and Coalition Strategy in World War II," and Douglas Porch's "Arms and Alliances: French Grand Strategy and Policy in 1914 and 1940."  All three emphasize the importance not just of having but of "managing" allies, which in these accounts is less a matter of binding them to your own interests than of recognizing the legitimacy of theirs.

Indeed one would be justified in concluding, on the evidence presented here, that the signal characteristic of the successful strategist at all times is empathy.  After that, perhaps, would come patience.  In the formulation of grand strategy, no feeling seems to be more corrosive than the belief that time is not on your side.  This affliction binds statesmen across centuries, even under circumstances that could hardly be more different: it is difficult, for instance, to read Dennis Showalter's discussion of German strategy in the twentieth century ("Total War for Limited Objectives"), with its penchant for taking the bull by the horns at every opportunity, and not recall John Elliott's account of imperial Spanish policy three hundred years before ("Managing Decline") and the sad determination of the Count-Duke of Olivares to "die doing something"--a sentiment worthy of Ludendorff himself, not to mention Hitler.

When all is said and done, however, the natural divergence in the authors' points of view and the diversity of the events they survey make easy analogies impossible.  Professor Kennedy's conclusions are correspondingly modest: America's strategic success will depend on having a broad appreciation of the resources that contribute to national strength, and on carefully reconciling the ends of policy with the means those resources can provide.  That said, however, the "inordinate complexity" of actually doing this remains impressive to Kennedy.  The last word thus goes to Carl von Clausewitz, the man quoted more often than any other in both these books, for whom, as Kennedy notes in his final paragraph, strategy was always an art, never a science.

All the essays in these volumes date from the 1980s.  None is prophetic of recent events in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union, a fact Michael Howard takes rueful notice of in his introductory note.  This lack of prescience, however, is probably just as well, since a few lucky guesses would only distract from the real goal of historical study as represented here, which is not to predict the future but to help us master it when it arrives.  Certainly this sense of mastery has proven difficult to achieve in recent years.  Thoughtful people today, not least those charged with the making of policy, often feel cut off from a "useable" past by the cataclysm of the world wars and the advent of nuclear weapons, which at times mock the ends and means of policy as traditionally understood.  This feeling is not unprecedented, nor necessarily synonymous with intellectual infertility or political failure.  It was shared, for instance, by people in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who created ideas from which the modern world still draws inspiration.  They too looked back on a past dominated by religious war and political upheavals that they felt lucky to have survived and had no wish to repeat.  Still, few individuals nowadays share the faith in progress that came to mark that earlier time.  Hardly any would claim to find freedom in their alienation, and most would be glad to recover a stronger sense of the past if they could.

Nevertheless, we must be careful about envying those to whom history offers its lessons too easily.  This cautionary note pervades Michael Howard's essays, particularly those--a half dozen or so--that deal in one way or another with the advent of World War I.  As Howard demonstrates repeatedly, no generation of European soldiers and statesmen has possessed a livelier historical sense than those of that era.  Educated in the confident empiricism of the late Victorian age, they believed the past, like nature, would yield up its secrets in proportion to the degree of orderly, scientific inquiry to which it was subjected.  They had their assumptions, like everyone else, but they were not slaves to ideology.  They lived, moreover, in societies where matters of war and peace were widely debated beyond the halls of government.  Although pilloried in retrospect for their complacency, they were not insensitive to change.  Many were concerned with how the astonishing social and technological developments of their own time would affect international relations and the conduct of war, and they looked to the past to help solve this problem.  To Howard, indeed to anyone who believes in the value of history for politics, it is no laughing matter that such men should have presided over one of the great geopolitical catastrophes of modern times.

At the end of the nineteenth century, military professionals had reached a broad and dispiriting consensus on the nature of modern war.  The root of the dilemma, as they saw it, was technological.  The range and firepower of modern weapons insured that battles in the future would be fought over wide areas, by bodies of troops that, because of their size and the dispersal necessary to avoid their slaughter, would be difficult to control.  Casualties would nevertheless be high, as would the consumption of ammunition and everything else that war devoured.  These immense armies, moreover, would be made up chiefly of conscripts, whose determination and endurance were open to question.  It was rightly feared that attacks would become bogged down under such conditions, that battles would become mere sieges, and that war would lose its decisiveness, and therefore much of its political value.

Essay Types: Book Review