War in Historical and Contemporary Perspective Conference Report

DR JONATHAN FENNELL & DR DAVID MORGAN-OWEN

—You can access a full list of audio and video recordings of the event via soundcloud or youtube

On 5 June, the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War and the School of Security Studies King’s College London hosted a conference on War in Historical and Contemporary Perspective. The genesis of the conference, which was generously funded by a Faculty of Social Science and Public Policy seed grant, dated back to the setting up of the Research Centre for the History of Conflict (RCHC) at the Defence Studies Department (DSD), King’s College London in 2015. The aim of the Centre was to develop the research output and reputation of DSD in the fields of military, diplomatic, colonial and other related history. With about 30 scholars working on the history of war, historians in the department wanted to organize events aimed at engaging with the big questions regarding our sub-discipline (military history).

In the past year, the RCHC has made considerable strides along the path to achieving this goal. It has held conferences on topics such as the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War, Air Power History, and others. In the last few months, the RCHC has become associated with the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War on the Strand.  The newly merged Centre, which keeps the Sir Michael Howard name, brings together what we believe to be the largest community of historians of war in the world. Across the departments of Defence Studies, War Studies, History and English, there are about 50 scholars working on this topic.

The conference, therefore, was partly the next step in DSD’s original ambition to play a greater role in the future of military history, and, also an opportunity to celebrate the cooperation and potential of the new merged Sir Michael Howard Centre. It was hoped that by being exposed to multiple perspectives and approaches, those attending would be opened up to new ideas; new groups and collaborations might develop; and new research projects might emerge.

The conference was structured around three key themes, each of which was the subject of a distinct panel, although the discussions surrounding each (all of which are available online) ranged widely. In order to frame the event, we began with a keynote address from Dr. Michael Finch, who examined the role military history has played within the American and British academies in the twentieth century. He examined the belief, prevalent amongst certain members of the military history community, that the discipline is under-valued in the modern academy, showing the long antecedence of such concerns, and challenging aspects of their veracity. He also brought out what would emerge as a key theme of the day: the distinction between ‘military history’, understood as the history of military operations, and the history of war. Mike’s keynote is available to listen to or watch here.

In the first panel, ‘War in History’, Dr Erica Charters, Dr Selena Daly, and Prof Alex Watson discussed the study of war within the broader discipline of history. Drawing on diverse themes from medicine to migration and from art history to total war, the panel illuminated the difficulties stemming from the increasingly rigid specialisation of history into distinct fields – both thematically and chronologically. Whilst the history of war may be in comparatively good methodological and conceptual health, challenges remain in bridging the gaps between the social, cultural, economic and operational history of conflict. Moreover, the consensus was that much more could also be done to reach out to cultural, social, and economic historians in order to share ideas, methodologies, and best practice.

After lunch, we progressed to a consideration of the role of history within the discipline of War Studies, where the trend in recent years appears to have been toward a greater emphasis upon political science. Dr Tarak Barkawi and Dr Jonathan Fennell shared an interesting conversation on the relationship between historical knowledge and theory, and how an understanding of the past can usefully be transferred to thinking both about other historical cases and the nature of war more generally. Here they explored the long-running debate about the ‘application’ of history, the challenges inherent in instrumentalising historical knowledge, and the necessity of persisting in attempts to do so in order to inform our understanding of the present. The panel was rounded out by a wide-ranging paper from Professor Simon Wessely on the relationship between History and Psychiatry, which provided a fascinating example of interdisciplinary research, its potential, and its pitfalls.

The final panel examined how the people who study history shape the conduct and outcomes of historical research: both in terms of the demography of the academe and the profiles of those who engage with historical research in its various forms. Dr Anna Brinkman led off with a thought-provoking discussion on the challenges of gender equality within military history. We then passed to the issue of consumption, with papers from Michael Watson of Cambridge University Press, and Dr Peter Johnson of the National Army Museum, who outlined the challenges and opportunities involved in bringing academic research to broader audiences.

The event was closed by a fascinating keynote from one of the foremost thinkers on the role of history in understanding war: Professor Sir Hew Strachan. Drawing on his prolific writings on military history, the history of war, and strategy, Professor Strachan provided a series of thought-provoking insights in a paper which will repay a visit to the recording on the Department’s soundcloud and YouTube pages.

‘War in Contemporary and Historical Perspective’ illustrated the vibrancy and diversity of the discipline, which appears to be in rude health. Yet challenges certainly remain; not least in terms of reach within the broader historical community and of refreshing the vital role of history within the field of war studies. We hope that you’ll enjoy the audio and video recordings of the event, and that you’ll join us in progressing the discussions in the near future.

The conference funded the travel for a number of PhD students & for a further summary of the day by one such attendee – Roel van Der Velde – see here.

Image: Sir Michael Howard, via the Sir Michael Howard Centre.

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