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 1 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 3 Howard, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’, 4-10 4 Howard, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’, 4-10 5 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. https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iiy238. 2 ‘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 6 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. 7 “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic, accessed December 8, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/united-states-china-war-thucydidestrap/406756/ 8 Thornton, Rod. 2009. ‘“Minimum Force”: A Reply to Huw Bennett’. Small Wars & Insurgencies 20 (1): 215-26. https://doi.org/10.1080/09592310802573657. 9 Bennett, Hew. 2010. ‘Minimum Force in British Counterinsurgency.’ Small Wars & Insurgencies 21 (3): 45975. https://doi.org/10.1080/09592318.2010.505475. 10 Howard, Michael. 1962, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’, Royal United Services Institution. Journal 107 (625): 6. DOI: 10.1080/03071846209423478 11 Kilcullen, David. 2006. ‘Counter-Insurgency’. Survival 48 (4): 123. https://doi.org/10.1080/00396330601062790 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 12 Howard, Michael. 1962, ‘The Use and Abuse of Military History’, Royal United Services Institution. Journal 107 (625): 8. DOI: 10.1080/03071846209423478 13 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. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/kcl/detail.action?docID=261127. 14 Strachan, Hew. 2013. ’13. Strategy: Change and Continuity.’ In The Direction of War, 254. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107256514.014.