The Relevance of Conflict History in 2017


Co-Director of The Research Centre for the History of Conflict, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

Michelle Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention in July 2016 caught my imagination, as it did, I’m sure, many of the readers of Defence-in-depth. ‘When someone is cruel or acts like a bully’, she said, ‘you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is when they go low, we go high’. Hilary Clinton repeated this refrain many times during the campaign, notably during the presidential debates. In spite of taking the moral high ground, Clinton lost the election. The Obama legacy is unlikely to last four years of Donald Trump in the White House.

In the run up to the election, as I reflected too on the outcome of the United Kingdom’s referendum on its membership of the EU, I was reminded of another way to tackle bullies. I was always encouraged by my parents to use violence as a last resort, but my father used to say, ‘if you do get in a fight, throw the first punch and make sure it’s the last’. The architects of the ‘new order’ in which we live, the Trumps, Putins and Farages of this world, certainly adhere to this mantra. They throw the first punch and they try to make sure it’s the last. ‘The Queen Backs Brexit’ story broke all the rules regarding the political impartiality of the British monarch. The re-ignition of the Clinton email controversy by FBI Director, James Comey, eleven days before election day in the US, equally challenged norms of behaviour. But, once these stories were in the public domain, the genie could not be put back in the bottle. It was ‘leavers’ in the UK and Republicans in the US that were first to compare their political opponents to the Nazis in Germany. The Brexiteers and the Republicans played ‘hardball’ to win, and, indeed, they succeeded.

We are all sometimes faced with complexities of this kind, to what extent should we compromise our values in the pursuit of success? Might Clinton have won the election if she had played a little more ‘hardball’? This type of question is particularly relevant to politicians, political scientists, philosophers and ethicists. It is also relevant to those responsible for the nation’s security. In the Second World War, for example, British and American airmen were employed in operations specifically designed to target German civilians. In a ‘supreme emergency’, so the argument went, there was every justification to ‘take the gloves off’, to figuratively throw the rulebook out the window. Others argue that we lost something of ourselves in resorting to such barbarity. Moreover, it could be said that we have provided our enemies today with ready-made justifications for attacking civilians? When it mattered to us, we targeted civilians; well, it matters to them now. Was our ‘supreme emergency’ different to their ‘supreme emergency’? Who decides?

There is, in short, something politicians, political scientists, philosophers and ethicists might learn from studying the history of conflict. Military history shines a light on many of the issues of our time. Thus, it is to questions such as these that the Research Centre for the History of Conflict (RCHC), at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London, will turn its attention in 2017. As we explore the past, not least to better understand the present, the RCHC will organise at least three major workshops and conferences:

  • January 2017: The First World War Research Group, ‘Commemorating the Centenary of the First World War’.
  • May/June 2017: The RCHC, ‘Military History: A Critical Investigation’.
  • June 2017: The Second World War Research Group, ‘East Meets West: the Second World War in Global Perspective’.

This term’s seminar series, run by the First and Second World War Research Groups, will see Louis Halewood, Ashley Garber, Andrew Stewart and Kent Fedorowich visit the Defence Academy.

As well as organizing seminars, workshops and conferences, RCHC historians will bring new research to light to help us better understand critical societal issues. In April, Geraint Hughes will oversee a special issue of the Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs on ‘the Commonwealth and Peacekeeping’. Following on the 60th anniversary of the deployment of the United Nations Emergency Force to Egypt after the Suez Crisis, this special edition will examine the engagement of Commonwealth states in both UN and other multinational peacekeeping operations. The contributions will include articles on Britain’s role in peacekeeping, Bangladesh’s participation in UN ‘blue helmet’ missions, gender and peacekeeping, and the involvement of one of the Commonwealth’s newest members, Rwanda, in international peacekeeping.

For those interested in strategic history, David Morgan-Owen’s first book, The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 (Oxford University Press), will be out in July. David’s work will present a new interpretation of how strategy was formed in Britain prior to and during the First World War. The papers from last year’s First World War Research Group workshop on ‘Jutland, History and the First World War’ will also be published, in February. This unique free to access publication, from the Corbett Centre, includes contributions from five of the most prominent scholars working in the area. It also speaks to the broader issue of how historians can engage with the centenary of the First World War.

Nick Lloyd’s fourth book, Passchendaele: A New History (Penguin) will be out in May. Passchendaele is typically employed as an example of the futility of war, of suffering, pain and high casualties, and of criminally stupid commanders. Nick will fundamentally challenge this narrative and argue that this was a battle the British could have won. He shows just how difficult and exhausting the confrontation was for the German Army, how close the British Army came to defeating it – and how continued fighting in Flanders might have meant an early end to the war, saving perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives.

A ‘troop’ of historians from the RCHC will visit Florida in late March for the Society for Military History Conference. Huw Davies, Mike Finch and Aimée Fox-Godden will participate in a panel on ‘The Soldier and the Civilian in Military History and Theory: 250 Years of Global Influences on Military Thinking, 1740-1990’, while David Morgan-Owen and Jonathan Fennell will present as part of a panel on ‘Informing Global Warfare: Knowledge Transfer Between Allies, Services and Armies’.

Aimée Fox-Godden’s first book, Learning to Fight: Military Innovation and Change in the British Army of the First World War (Cambridge University Press) will be published towards the end of the year. Aimée will explore the transformation of the British Army during the war through the lens of military innovation. The book will show that, underpinned by its pre-war ethos and cultural flexibility, the army demonstrated imagination and inventiveness, acting on the experience of its allies, as well as promoting the ideas of soldier-innovators and civilian experts in order to enhance its operational effectiveness.

Lastly, but hopefully not least, the first outputs from this author’s project on the British Commonwealth Armies in the Second World War will be out in February. ‘The Forces Vote in the Second World War and New Zealand’s Great Experiment in Social Citizenship’ will be published in English Historical Review. The paper will examine why soldiers, airmen and sailors voted overwhelmingly for Labour in 1943 and show that a spirit of social cohesion emerged from the exigencies of combat cohesion with profound implications for the future of New Zealand. There is every chance that the book underpinning the article, The Peoples’ Armies?: The British Commonwealth Armies in the Second World War (Cambridge University Press), will be out towards the end of the year.

From the perspective of the RCHC, there is much to look forward to in 2017.

Image: Assault on Passchendaele 12 October – 6 November 1917: A soldier running along a corduroy track through Chateau Wood. Originally captioned ‘The Way to the Front’, (probably posed), via the Imperial War Museum

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