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Critical analysis of Michael Howard, 'The Use and Abuse of Military History'

Critical analysis of Michael Howard, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’
The study of history can help us paint a detailed picture of where we stand today and provide
insights into the world of tomorrow. The past is filled with warning signs and analysing any geopolitical, social, economic, or cultural patterns can help us learn from mistakes made and resist
repeating them. As the philosopher George Santayana pronounced, “Those who cannot remember
the past are condemned to repeat it.”1
Whilst a thorough study of history is valuable, if it is taken out of context any parallels drawn can be
misleading and worthless. In a lecture given to the Royal United Services Institute on the 18th
October 1961, historian Michael Howard effectively explains some of the pitfalls of studying and
applying history and the extent of history’s usefulness.2
Howard expresses scepticism about uses of history and the propensity of historians to use history for
‘propagandist and myth making’ purposes. He goes on to make a distinction between, as he terms,
the ‘regimental historian’ and ‘serious historian’. The regimental historian is consciously or
unconsciously supporting the view that his side has acted flawlessly in battle. The serious historian
rather considers ‘he serves no master but the truth’. Historians will approach arguments with
preconceived ideas and biases so arguments should be scrutinised for validity.3 Howard provides a
salient lesson that historians should be conscious of the uniqueness of each historical event – history
does not repeat itself and the lessons of history are never clear.
Howard is right to caution how the study of history can result in incoherent and misleading
arguments. Therefore, if history is to be useful it must be studied appropriately. For this he posits
studying in-width, in-depth and in-context. Analyses should be done over a long historical period; a
single campaign should be taken and explored thoroughly, utilising many different types of sources;
and this campaign should be placed in its historical context, understanding the nature of society at
the time.4
It should be noted that notwithstanding good intentions of historians to present a strong and well
researched historical case, history is habitually abused by others in national life, particularly by
governments. History has frequently been used by political leaders to justify claims for recognition
or territory, resulting in devastating consequences. Yugoslavia broke apart under the weight of
competing ethnic nationalisms, Saddam Hussein invoked historical arguments to justify his
occupation of Kuwait in 1991 and Vladimir Putin used history to defend Russia’s annexation of
Crimea and invasion of Ukraine.5 Unfortunately there is no antidote to malign actors abusing history
for their own political or military purposes, we can only hope that such actors are held accountable
either internally or internationally for their actions.
The Greek historian Thucydides famously declared in his Peloponnesian Wars that ‘the past was an
aid to the interpretation of the future’ and expressed hope that his work would serve as a guide for
Santayana, George. 1905, Life of Reason, Reason in Common Sense. London: Scribner’s. 284.
Howard, Michael. 1962, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’, Royal United Services Institution. Journal 107
(625): 6. DOI: 10.1080/0307184620942347
Howard, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’, 4-10
Howard, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’, 4-10
MacMillan, Margaret, and Patrick Quinton-Brown. 2019. ‘The Uses of History in International Society: From
the Paris Peace Conference to the Present.’ International Affairs 95 (1): 181-200.
‘all time’.6 The crude application by historians and commentators of the Thucydides Trap to modern
day challenges is an example of Howard’s criticism of history applied out of context.7 The myriad of
factors that made war inevitable between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC cannot be said to make war
inevitable between the United States and China in this century. The Thucydides Trap fails to consider
modern day geo-political complexity in Asia and nuclear weapons. The last great struggle between a
ruling power (the United States) and a rising power (Russia) did not result in war, at least in part
because of the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Howard proceeds in his lecture to argue that historians have preconceived ideas and will approach
their analysis with a degree of bias. This is a valid argument if we consider that all evidence available
to an historian is itself biased. The onus is therefore on the historian to show awareness of this bias
and provide scrutiny of his or her own work. Failing this, other historians should provide the counterarguments. In the debate over the extent to which the British followed a principle of ‘minimum
force’ in counter-insurgency during their wars of decolonisation, Rod Thornton acts as the
regimental historian concluding that the British Army did display its minimum force philosophy and
acted as a brake on the ‘clear brutalities of the local security force units’.8 Huw Bennett provides the
detailed scrutiny and convincing counter-argument that the ‘official doctrinal position on minimum
force allowed great latitude, and during insurrections permitted the use of any degree of force
deemed necessary by the man on the spot’.9
Howard further claims ‘war is a distinct and repetitive form of human behaviour. It is intermittent,
clearly defined, with distinct criteria of success or failure.’10 This sweeping statement about the
outcome of war is highly problematic as historians certainly cannot always attribute victory or
failure. The outcome of war is not always clear cut. If Howard was delivering his speech in this
century he may consider examples of warfare which do not deliver decisive victory. In modern day
counter-insurgency for example, victory may not be final. In fact, permanent containment may be
needed to prevent insurgents transforming into terrorist groups and posing new threats.11 It could
also be argued that the definition of victory or defeat is subjective. The Taliban would claim victory
in the most recent Afghanistan war as their resistance eventually led to the withdrawal of Western
troops from the country. Western governments may claim the key objective of invading in 2001 was
to neutralise the threat of Afghanistan as a breeding ground for international terrorism and by this
measure it was a success and therefore the eventual withdrawal was not a defeat.
The thrust of Howard’s argument is somewhat undermined by his own contradictions. He expresses
scepticism of eyewitness accounts stating 'eyewitnesses are in no psychological condition to give
reliable accounts of their experiences', but goes on to place heavy weight on the experiences of
soldiers during WW2. In the post-lecture discussion session he muses that operations in the field
present similar problems regardless of the age, drawing distinctions between WW2 and Richard I’s
MacMillan, Margaret, and Patrick Quinton-Brown. 2019. ‘The Uses of History in International Society: From
the Paris Peace Conference to the Present.’ International Affairs 95 (1): 181.
“The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic, accessed December 8, 2021.
Thornton, Rod. 2009. ‘“Minimum Force”: A Reply to Huw Bennett’. Small Wars & Insurgencies 20 (1): 215-26.
Bennett, Hew. 2010. ‘Minimum Force in British Counterinsurgency.’ Small Wars & Insurgencies 21 (3): 45975. https://doi.org/10.1080/09592318.2010.505475.
Howard, Michael. 1962, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’, Royal United Services Institution. Journal
107 (625): 6. DOI: 10.1080/03071846209423478
Kilcullen, David. 2006. ‘Counter-Insurgency’. Survival 48 (4): 123.
crusades some 700 years earlier.12 Howard cannot resist the strong temptation to draw historical
comparisons that are themselves taken out of context.
Despite drawing some flawed comparisons of his own, Howard’s message of restraint in considering
the usefulness of history is sensible. That history should be studied in-depth, in-width and in-context
for it to be useful is a wise message for historians. The pure study of history enriches our
understanding of the world as it is, but we should be cautious in attempting to apply this history to
contemporary challenges. A study of the past helps us to understand the nature of our opponents,
their political, ideological, or religious framework, and their goals13 but history 'knows ... that it is
impossible to find two events that are ever exactly alike, because the conditions from which it
springs are never identical’.14
Howard, Michael. 1962, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’, Royal United Services Institution. Journal
107 (625): 8. DOI: 10.1080/03071846209423478
Murray, Williamson. 2006. ‘6. Thoughts on Military History and the Profession of Arms.’ In The Past as
Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession, 92. Cambridge University Press.
Strachan, Hew. 2013. ’13. Strategy: Change and Continuity.’ In The Direction of War, 254. Cambridge
University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107256514.014.