Review by Robert Whitaker, University of Texas at Austin
Captain Professor: A Life in War and Peace,Michael Howard, (New York: Continuum, 2006), 232 pages
Reading the memoirs of someone you admire can be an uncomfortable experience. You approach the book with a set of lofty assumptions that you hope will be substantiated. Too often, however, these assumptions prove unfounded. Even worse, your hero may turn out to be someone who, once you get to know them, you dislike. Thus, it was with a great sense of trepidation that I began to read Captain Professor, the memoirs of historian Sir Michael Howard. And though I found that my assumptions were indeed baseless, I discovered that the reality of Howard’s life was better than I imagined.
Born in London in 1922, Michael Howard was raised by parents Edith and Geoffrey in upper middle class surroundings. Howard developed a love of history while in Upper School at Wellington, a place where he “was able to drop all the useful subjects that [he] found so tedious…and concentrate on the useless ones [he] enjoyed” (33). This love of useless subjects took him to Christ Church at Oxford where he encountered the likes of E. M. Forster, Raymond Mortimer, A. J. P. Taylor, and Hugh Trevor-Roper. Howard’s education was interrupted, however, by the Second World War. Enlisting as an officer in the Coldstream Guards, Howard saw action in Africa and Italy. According to the author, his wartime experience exemplified Clausewitz’s notion of the friction of war or the difference “between war in reality and war on paper” (74). Though he would earn a Military Cross for his bravery at Salerno, Howard spent most of the war on his back battling malaria. “My war,” the author concludes, “had been as protected as my childhood.” He returned home “still immature, unmarked by serious responsibility or suffering” (123).
Howard completed his studies at Oxford in self-described mediocre fashion, failing to win a post-graduate fellowship in Christ Church. While this failure initially left him downtrodden, Howard now considers it “the best thing that could have happened”(127). “Had I remained at Oxford with a fellowship,” the author writes, “I would have led a dull, useful, comfortable life, not written a line, and never been heard of beyond the confines of my college” (127). Instead, Howard became an assistant lecturer at King’s College, London, during which time he co-wrote a regimental history of the Coldstream Guards with John Sparrow. From this first foray in military history, Howard learned of the primary problem facing the subject: an uneven and contradictory body of evidence which led to incomplete and uninspired descriptions of battle. He began to work toward a solution to this problem and others when he accepted the position as professor of war studies at King’s in 1953. Taking a year’s leave to develop a deeper knowledge of the subject, Howard came to realize that military history “was more than the operational history of armed forces. It was the study of entire societies” (145). This concentration on the relationship between war and society allowed Howard to broaden the appeal of military history and led to the publication of his most famous work, The Franco-Prussian War, in 1961.
The success of this book, along with his commentary on nuclear weapons, established Howard as one of Britain’s foremost military experts at the height of the Cold War. He came to play an important role in British defense policy as a member of Chatham House and later as one of the founding members of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Eventually he served as a member of the Ministry of Defence and finally as a close advisor to Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher thought enough of Howard to appoint him Regius Chair of Modern History at Oxford in 1980, replacing Trevor-Roper. Though honored by the selection, Howard felt overwhelmed by the position and gladly left the post in 1989 to become the chair of Military and Naval History at Yale. New Haven presented the Captain Professor with a welcome opportunity to abandon his “outworn life” in Britain, and his time in America seems to have rejuvenated the scholar for continued work (212).
While the details of a life well-lived make Captain Professor a memoir worth reading, the real strength of the book lays in Howard’s commitment to honesty. The author maintains a frank, conversational tone throughout, never attempting to hide from the reader behind a carefully constructed façade. With absolute sincerity, Howard discusses his homosexuality as well as his moments of cowardice during the war. He also provides candid portraits of the people in his life, including a description of his mother’s bouts with depression. Though undoubtedly difficult to write, these sections encourage the reader’s confidence and inspire their interest. Despite his honesty with the reader, however, Howard has difficulty being honest with himself. Howard continually disregards his achievements and portrays himself as an interloper whose modest contributions are the result of luck rather than brilliance. This type of self-critique shows itself most noticeably when Howard discusses his Ford Lectures. The author admits that before receiving the invitation to lecture, he “had genuinely not realized that [British academics] took [him] seriously” (204). He goes on to describe the book that resulted from the lectures, The Continental Commitment, as “of some value to undergraduates, sixthformers, and indeed the general public, until it was replaced by more thorough surveys and was deservedly forgotten” (204). As someone who has read and enjoyed The Continental Commitment within the past year, I would say that modesty does little to hide the excellence of Michael Howard.