A peace of the action

June 30, 2000

For an expert on war, Michael Howard is much taken with the bits in between - peace. Harriet Swain talks to him

It is a warm day and Sir Michael Howard suggests we take our tea - the shorter silver teapot contains Indian, the taller one Chinese - in one of the All Souls courtyard gardens, by a trickling fountain.

Sir Michael, former regius professor of history at Oxford and considered Britain's foremost military historian, retains eating rights at the college. Judging by the spread of cake and sandwiches, they are worth having.

For some people, this is the meaning of peace, he says, "the situation in which one finds oneself today, sitting happily in a garden with a fountain plashing and robins bobbing around and the smell of syringa".

For others, a peaceful situation is one "from which you have extirpated everybody who is likely to make trouble, whether they be Jews or whether they be white farmers (in Africa) - the elimination of sources of friction, who are usually human and on the other side".

Peace, he says, is a much "foggier" word than war. But it is peace, or the "establishment of peace" that he will tackle in his lecture to the Anglo-American Conference of Historians next week.

The conference, organised by the Institute of Historical Research in London, takes "war and peace" as its subject and has attracted a record number of papers, ranging from Jonathan Spence on war and peace in China's last dynasty to Sir Jeremy Isaacs on television history.

David Cannadine, director of the institute, says the topic was chosen as a contrast with last year's controversial theme of race. "The history of war has been written about as long as history has been written," he says. "But now it is being opened up in new and promising ways."

What is it about war that holds such fascination for scholars? For some it is undoubtedly the attraction of technical detail such as military strategy and developing and deploying weapons. But Sir Michael says many study war for the same reason they enjoy football as a game "played between teams within certain parameters in which the skill or luck of one decides who wins. That is a matter of constant fascination, not only for historians but for everybody."

In a short book commissioned to coincide with next week's conference, Sir Michael scans the sweep of military history in Europe from AD 800 to the present day, concentrating less on bloody events than on the peaces in between, asking how they were made and, more important, sustained.

It is not an easy way of going about things, he admits, because peace is so hard to pin down. Is it non-war? Treaty making? International relations? The history of peace movements? His interpretation is that it is the history of order: "You cannot think of peace except in the context of a certain kind of international order."

Even using this interpretation, a key difference persists, he says, between the conservatives - those who believe peace is maintenance of the existing international order - and the "liberals", who believe it is something to be achieved. For the liberals, the existing order, the status quo, is actually "structured violence", in which, inevitably, the interests of some minority groups are repressed.

And which is he? "Oh, a conservative. Most people of my age are and increasingly unashamedly so." But if, for example, he had been a young Irishman 30 years ago under British rule, he would probably have classed himself differently. "It is a matter partly of age, partly of temperament and of the political circumstances."

Sir Michael has known war as well as peace. As a teenager in the 1930s he was a peacemaker: "Had I been at Oxford in 1933 I would probably have voted not to fight for 'King and Country'." But soon afterwards he realised he had been "not only a fool but a dangerous fool: some wars are unfortunately necessary".

In 1942 he was called up and fought in the infantry in Italy, seeing about 18 months of almost continuous action. It was this that sparked his interest in military history. When he returned to academic life, he abandoned his plans to specialise in the constitutional history of early modern England and instead wrote a history of his regiment.

What fascinates him are the personalities and psychology behind warfare and the way military events can be transformed so quickly by particular people and circumstances - Hitler's decision to hold back, allowing the British army to escape at Dunkirk, for example, or the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte at a time when it became possible for someone of his background to rise to the command of an army and country. "It is the impact of the fortuitous with the longue duree that makes the history of war, at least for me, particularly interesting."

As for the current state of war and peace, he argues that there are positive signs in the development of a global transnational community with common values and a common language, English. But problems persist. Many societies outside the West are still involved with conflicts around democracy, human rights and unrepresentative elites that the West came to terms with more than a century ago - conflicts that have international repercussions. Also not to be overlooked is the danger of boredom. "There is something about rational order that will always leave some people, especially the energetic young, deeply and perhaps rightly dissatisfied," he writes.

But he is reticent about what is likely to happen next, both in terms of warfare and its study. There is a pause, filled by the steady trickle of the fountain, the chink of tea cup on saucer, before his answer:

"Historians do not predict the future."

War and Peace conference details: www.history.ac.uk/ihr/ conferences/aach00.html. The Invention of Peace: Reflections on War and International Order by Michael Howard is published this month by Profile Books, price Pounds 10.99.

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