Making Military History Relevant

Article excerpt

Making Military History Relevant Captain Professor: A Life in War and Peace. Michael Howard. Continuum International Publishing Group. 221 pages; photographs; $39.95.

Military education is in a sad state, and Michael Howard's memoir, Captain Professor: A Life in War and Peace, stands as a reminder of how far it has fallen. No student of the military art should leave this book unread.

Michael Howard is an excellent military historian. In one school or another, every Army officer has encountered his translation of Clausewitz's On War, his contribution on World War I in Peter Paret and Gordon Craig's classic Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (which includes an essay on Soviet strategy by a young scholar named Condoleezza Rice) or his seminal War in European History.

Howard also created the War Studies Department at King's College, London, pioneering research that looked at battle as more than a narrative of bugles and bullets, and examining the economic, social, technological and political forces that shape conflict. At the same time, he was a guiding light in modern strategic studies and one of the founding members of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a leading research center on international security and strategy. Much of what we think of as modern military history was pioneered by Howard, his students and their contemporaries.

Most important, Howard made his work accessible to people who were worried about the real world problems of conflict in the post-modern age. He recognized that military history and strategy are unique intellectual pursuits because they have immediate practical application. Civilians and soldiers use them to develop the critical thinking skills essential to sound decision making and creative and confident leadership. Throughout his career, Howard left the "ivory tower" to engage with generals and policymakers, tackling contemporary issues like nuclear deterrence and the professional training of young officers at Sandhurst. He made history relevant.

Captain Professor also reminds us that history cannot be separated from historians. Howard's artfully written and evocative autobiography illustrates how his life shaped his work. The book falls into three parts: an idyllic uppermiddle class English upbringing; infantry combat in North Africa and Italy; and an academic career that spanned the Cold War and beyond.

Howard's memoirs are worth reading just for the honest and insightful telling of his war experiences. Awarded the Military Cross for valor, Howard describes, with equal vividness, both the harrowing moments of battle and the months of boredom and debilitation spent recovering from malaria and jaundice.

Wartime service made the peacetime scholar. Echoing Clausewitz's famous dictum on war, Howard recalled writing history is simple. "First, find out what happened. Then, establish a chain of causation. Finally, apply critical judgment." But war had taught the captain that finding out what happened was far from simple. "I realized how difficult this was," he writes. "What I remembered, or thought that I remembered, did not fit with other people's memories. Documentation was uneven; voluminous on administration and logistics, it thinned out when it came to operations. People were too busy to keep full and precise records. 'War diaries' were often written up days, sometimes weeks, after the event, when many vital witnesses were no longer available. …