Magazine article The Spectator

When the Fighting Has to Stop

Magazine article The Spectator

When the Fighting Has to Stop

Article excerpt


by Michael Howard

Profile Books, L10.99, pp. 113

Michael Howard is arguably Britain's greatest living historian: `arguably' being a useful weasel word implying that the writer knows that he cannot possibly prove his contention but is not thereby going to be deterred from making it.

Throughout the greater part of his working life - in particular as Professor of War Studies at King's College, London, Chichele Professor of the History of War and Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, and Robert A Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale - Howard has been preoccupied by war: particular wars and war in general; the causes of war and the morality of war; wars global and wars domestic; the absence of war (a condition sometimes described as `peace'); the increasing perils of war as a short cut to the obliteration of mankind. This brief book - an adaptation of the plenary lecture delivered at an Anglo-American Conference of Historians - is therefore the distillation of a lifetime's study and reflection. Lucid, cogent, deceptively simple: it is the work of a man who is as wise as he is learned and whose literary skills are on a level with his other talents.

Howard takes his title from Maine's aphorism: `War appears to be as old as mankind but peace is a modern invention.' War in pre-Enlightenment Europe - for the ruling classes, anyway; nobody asked the peasants for their views - was a `form of litigation . . . an almost automatic activity, part of the natural order of things'. It was the increasing cost of war which led the enlightened despots to view it as a tool to be used only in extremis; this, and the growth of an educated bourgeoisie, created the circumstances in which the feudal warrior culture began to seem silly if not actively immoral.

`If anyone could be said to have invented peace as more than a mere pious aspiration,' suggests Howard, it was the Prussian Immanuel Kant. Kant did not share the Philosopher' belief in the innate goodness of humanity but held that, as the power of the people grew and the absolute monarch lost his grip, so the inconvenience and unpleasantness of war would ensure that it was rarely if ever allowed to happen. In a certain measure he was proved right, but the new order of nation states which grew up in Europe in the 19th century was still a creation of war and considered war a legitimate arm of policy; though preferably used only against lesser breeds and in far-flung comers of the world.

As wars became more popular - in the sense that the people as a whole were more intimately involved - and the means of fighting wars more scientific, so the bloodshed and the destruction became more horrific. …

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