“Professor Sir Michael Howard, who died in November aged 97, was the wisest person I have ever known,” says Sir Max Hastings, the British journalist whose past posts include as foreign correspondent for the BBC, editor in chief of The Daily Telegraph, and editor of the Evening Standard. Here, Hastings, whose new book, Operation Chastise: The RAF’s Most Brilliant Attack of World War II, is out next month from Harper, provides a guide to the late Michael Howard’s greatest works—writings that “will live on,” he says, “for the acuity of their judgments on contemporary as well as past events.”
The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870–1871
This book, published in 1961, remains the standard—as well as, by far, the most readable—account of the struggle that convinced the new Germany’s leaders that war worked well for them.
Captain Professor: A Life in War and Peace
Howard’s 2006 memoir contains a wonderfully honest and thoughtful account of the courage that won him a medal in 1943, as an officer with the Coldstream Guards in Italy, followed by the admission of a later moment of cowardice, which caused him lifelong guilt.
War and the Liberal Conscience; The Causes of Wars: And Other Essays; and The Lessons of History
Arguably the most rewarding books in Howard’s immense body of work are collections of his Oxford and Yale lectures and essays about history and strategy. Throughout the Cold War, Howard fought against the unilateral disarmers, such as British historian E. P. Thompson, as fiercely as he combated the fanatics of the Rand Corporation, who believed that a nuclear conflict might be winnable. In a classic Howard passage, he observed that “the Randsmen seemed to be falling into the error of their predecessors of the Enlightenment era (against which Clausewitz reacted so vigorously) of assuming that everything connected with war could be quantifiable…. They left out friction, the contingent, the unforeseeable, all the things that really mattered…. They reduced the infinite complexities of world affairs.... to ‘bean counts’ of nuclear weapons.”
Howard’s writing represents a rare marriage of the highest intellect to blunt common sense. In one of his last major lectures, at Oxford in 2007, he spoke of his fears of a surge of both Islamic extremism and Western Fascism arising from “discontents with civilization.… Much has been written about the part played by alienation and anomie in modern society; not nearly enough about accidie—boredom.” Howard’s fears for our civilization, above all for the pursuit of truth, to which he had dedicated his own career, intensified in his last decade. Anyone committed to the preservation of Western liberal values should find a visit to Howard’s work as inspirational as I do.