Great Thinkers: Hew Strachan FBA on Michael Howard FBA

by Professor Sir Hew Strachan FBA

20 May 2019

He felt that if you were studying war and had something coherent to say about current issues, then you had a moral responsibility to engage.

Sir Hew Strachan FBA

Professor Michael Howard FBA was awarded the Military Cross for his service in the Second World War before turning to academia, becoming one of the country’s most celebrated military historians. In this episode, Sir Hew Strachan FBA traces Howard’s unusual journey from active participant in conflict to the leading expert on its study. 

The young soldier in action for the first time may find it impossible to bridge the gap between war as it has been painted and war as it really is, between the way in which he, his peers, his officers and his subordinates should behave and the way in which they actually do.

Sir Michael Howard FBA

Born in 1922, Michael Howard’s early university career was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. Like many of his generation, he left his studies to join the army. He was commissioned into the Coldstream Guards and served in the Italian campaign, where he was awarded the Military Cross for his courage in battle.

After the war, Howard resumed his studies at the University of Oxford. He graduated with a first-class degree in history and took up a position as assistant lecturer in history at King’s College London, where he later founded what is now the world’s leading department of War Studies. He returned to Oxford and became Chichele Professor of the History of War and then Regius Professor Modern History at the University of Oxford, before completing his career as Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University.

In this episode of the Great Thinkers podcast, Sir Hew Strachan FBA is joined by Sir Lawrence Freedman FBA, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London and a former pupil of Howard’s. They discuss the magnitude of Howard’s influence on both their individual lives and careers and, more generally, on redefining the academic discipline of War Studies.

Strachan and Freedman explore how Howard’s wartime experience and academic capabilities have long been recognised by university professors, military officers and politicians alike. Freedman recounts that, although Howard’s academic focus was originally on the Franco-Prussian war, as his reputation grew, “he kept being asked questions and thought he ought to respond”, leading him into an additional line of work as a political advisor, providing guidance on contemporary issues such as nuclear policy.  

In 1976, Howard and a German-American academic named Peter Paret published their translation of Carl von Clausewitz’s Vom Kriege. Hailed as the most significant attempt in Western history to understand war, Clausewitz’s original was published after the Napoleonic Wars in 1832. Strachan and Freedman note that Howard and Paret’s On War has become the definitive English-language version, still widely read and referenced today.

Howard published his memoir, Captain Professor, in 2006recounting stories from both the battlefields of the Second World War and the universities of King's College London, Stanford, Oxford and Yale. Michael Howard was an Honorary Fellow of Oriel and All Souls Colleges and served as President Emeritus of the International Institute of War Studies. He became first person since Winston Churchill to be awarded the Order of Merit and also appointed a Companion of Honour. 

Sir Hew Strachan FBA is Professor of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews and Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford.

Sir Lawrence Freedman FBA is Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King's College London and Visiting Professor at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.

Sir Michael Howard FBA passed away on 30 November 2019, shortly after his 97th birthday. 

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