On Thursday 9th May, the Forum on Geopolitics welcomed a range of high-profile speakers and a select audience to King’s College Cambridge in order to consider ‘Lessons Past: How have strategists learned from history?’ The event was part of the Engelsberg Applied History Programme sponsored by the Ax:on Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit and was conducted in association with the British Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research (CHACR).
The proceedings were opened by Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, who asked ‘can we learn too much from history?’ He highlighted that at times history can appear to have its own progressive trajectory, but at others decidedly not. He was particularly sceptical of commentators using historical events to justify current policy options, which often tended to reinforce orthodoxy. In this vein, he observed that some historical events have become metonyms for certain policies: Munich for intervention, and 1914 for restraint, etc. In order to avoid getting carried away with inapt analogies to contemporary challenges, he felt it was just as important to ask ‘what has changed?’ This is true especially as the search for ‘macro’ lessons from great events tends to ignore a wealth of ‘mirco’ evidence and lesser events. Ultimately, he warned that history is about understanding the past and that future historians would not praise our attention to misremembered history or national myths in deciding our choices for the future.
There followed a panel of speakers representing military historical institutes that support the British, French and German armed forces. Maj Gen Dr Andrew Sharpe, Director of CHACR, outlined the genesis of the CHACR in the British Army’s desire to reignite the professional engagement of its officer corps with conceptual study, which is its raison d’ être. He explained the remit and structure of the organisation, and its relationship with the Army, and with international equivalents, think tanks and academia in seeking to widen the network of those whose views (strategic or otherwise) are brought to the Army’s attention. He also pointed to his own experience of the uneven military record of strategic understanding and education. He noted that, to many in the military profession, history is more relevant as an effective tool for building the moral component of fighting power, and in generating the mythologies that cement regimental identities, than analysis of the past for instructive purposes. Speaking for the Bundeswehr’s Centre for Military History and Social Studies, Dr Markus Pöhlmann described it as a ‘research centre’ that offers educational, advisory and curatorial functions relating to German military history. The study of this subject remains politically sensitive and, thus, the Centre acts as a shield for the Ministry of Defence from often controversial issues. He noted that advice on policy is a ‘two-way street’: good advice still needs intelligent application, so decision-makers must be historically aware. Lt Col Vincent Arbarétier from the French Defence Historical Service and Lt Col Christophe Gue from the French Army’s War College gave a perspective from France. While the former described the institutional architecture and its roles, the latter offered an overview of the evolution of military historical study in France. He noted that it has been criticised for seeking ‘ready-made solutions’ so that France approached war in 1870, 1914 and 1939 with methods optimised to the previous conflict. However, he pointed out that this was not borne out by what was being studied and taught at the War Colleges and that budgets and other factors were just as critical in shaping military capability.
The second panel offered three additional perspectives. The first, from Lt Gen Sir Barney White-Spunner, covered his own experience of commanding British forces in Iraq and his role as a trustee of the National Army Museum. In retrospect he wished that a case study of the British and Indian armies’ experiences of Partition in 1947 had been available to assist him in Iraq. While accepting that historical events cannot offer templates for action, he pointed out that the common circumstances of insufficient means, lack of clear aims and a contingent approach to decision-making offered general lessons that might have proved instructive. He noted that Britain has been poor at managing the political-military interface and that the resurrection of exercises that rehearsed these dynamics in peacetime would be welcome. As Chief Historian at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Professor Patrick Salmon reflected that as a profession diplomacy is very historically conscious. Hence his department has been kept busy providing detailed historical advice to officials at home and abroad, while informing responses to a range of historical issues resulting from British colonial history, such as Amritsar, EOKA and Mau Mau. Reflecting on Sir Lawrence Freedman’s metonyms he noted that in 1956 Eden’s approach to Suez was guided by the lessons of Munich, but did not recognize that Egypt was not Germany and Nasser was not Hitler. Finally, Colonel Martin Todd, a serving British Army officer and PhD candidate at POLIS, offered a case study of how the lessons of history had been invoked in the controversy over national service before the First World War. He noted that both the War Office and the National Service League each offered historical justifications, respectively, for voluntary and compulsory principles, but more as rhetorical devices than serious policy analysis. However, the former failed to apply some arguably very apt lessons provided by Sir John Fortescue’s study of recruiting during the Napoleonic wars, which might well have enhanced British military readiness in 1914.
The event was concluded by Sir Hew Strachan, Wardlaw Professor of International Relations at St Andrews University, who expertly drew together the many themes raised by the speakers, illustrated by his own experiences of establishing strategic study fora at Cambridge, Glasgow, Oxford and St Andrews universities and in advising governments on the development of strategy. He noted that the idea that history has a role in policy making has long been ‘hard-wired’ into the British institutional instinct, but as the speakers had illustrated, it is quite an assumption. Despite the caveats, he noted a number of basic roles that history could perform in strategic discourse. First, by relating experience in context it can identify generalisable principles that can apply, but equally may not. Second, history plays a role in cementing military identities that are central to military morale and therefore fulfils a vital role in combat. Third, history can offer ‘lessons’; these underpin much of military doctrine, but it requires a self-critical approach that is difficult for military hierarchies to achieve. In approaching these possible roles, he warned that our perspectives on history tends to be dominated by the issues of today not by those of the time in question. Moreover, history is no longer a core academic discipline as once it was, hence, political decision-makers may have come late to historical awareness and it may have been mediated by non-academic channels. However, he reflected that it was also incumbent upon the academic community to remain engaged with policy-making. In this light he was happy to commend the initiative to energise the study of strategy at Cambridge led by the Forum on Geopolitics.