Michael Howard’s The Causes of Wars and Other Essays is a collection of essays on war, conflict and the reason why human beings and societies end up in violent turmoil. It was published by Howard in the early 1980s, though revised and enlarged editions have since appeared, so depending on which edition of the book which you find yourself reading it might well have different content to other copies of it.
Howard, who was born in 1922 and passed away in 2019, was one of the leading military historians of the twentieth century, having published scores of books and academic articles. He also taught at numerous leading colleges including Yale University, the University of Oxford and King’s College London. His work focused on military conflicts, but also the theory which underlies military strategy and why nation states end up in conflict with each other to begin with. The essays in The Causes of Wars and Other Essays sought to explore these issues in an accessible distilled fashion.
The first essay in The Causes of Wars and Other Essays is aptly enough entitled ‘The Causes of Wars’. Here Howard argues against the notion that wars are pointless acts of lunacy on the part of nation states is inaccurate. Rather he contends that warfare is a rational recourse which countries and nations have resort to when other methods of pursuing their goals have been exhausted. For instance, it was Britain and France who declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939 when it became evident that they could not stop Nazi aggression through diplomatic means. As such their actions were inherently logical in that they needed to stop fascism from spreading across all of continental Europe. Much of Howard’s writings throughout the book are influenced by the Prussian general and military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz, whose text Vom Kriege, or On War, written in the decade or so after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte from power in France in 1815 is recognized as a classic in the study of warfare and the psychological landscape of human conflict.
However, much of The Causes of Wars and Other Essays was written in the firmament of the 1970s and 1980s when the Cold War was still very much underway and the threat of nuclear war loomed over the world. As such, several of the essays in Howard’s book deal with the threat of nuclear war and how the dangers posed by this had fundamentally reshaped the nature of warfare and interstate conflicts in the second half of the twentieth century. Thus, several of Howard’s essays had titles like ‘On Fighting a Nuclear War’ and ‘Reassurance and Deterrence: Western Defense in the 1980s’.
Other essays in The Causes of Wars and Other Essays dealt more explicitly with matters of military history. For instance, Howard wrote one of his essays on how Britain as a country has engaged throughout its history in a fundamentally different method of waging wars based primarily on its position as an island state. This allowed Britain to rise to become the world’s pre-eminent superpower in the nineteenth century through its navy controlling the world’s seas, rather than a large land army such as the French relied on to dominate Europe in Napoleon’s day or the Nazis employed to conquer much of Europe between 1939 and 1941.
Finally, other pieces in Howard’s collection provided his commentary on some leading modern statesmen who have impacted on the nature of warfare in the twentieth century and how certain major conflicts played out. These included a piece on Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart, a British army commander and military historian who in the interwar period speculated that any major war which might erupt in Europe in years to come would rely on rapid army movements led by armored vehicles and tanks rather than infantry divisions. He was proved correct in this assessment when the Second World War broke out and Germany managed to conquer much of the continent in two years using huge numbers of tanks and armored vehicles in what was known as Blitzkrieg or ‘Lightning War’.
Other pieces of this kind looked at the role of the US Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, a figure who was central to the formation of US foreign policy at the height of the Vietnam War. Thus, Michael Howard’s The Causes of Wars and Other Essays is an eclectic collection of writings on warfare, the nature of conflict and the individuals who end up leading nations into conflict, written by one of the leading military historians of the twentieth century.