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Liberation or Catastrophe? Reflections on the History of the 20th Century

by Michael Howard, Continuum, New York, 2007, $37.71.

Michael Howard writes about what history suggests with regard to the present and the future—perhaps a reflection of time spent in combat in Italy against the Germans, where he earned a Military Cross. In the 1950s Howard headed the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. He later cofounded the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

This collection of Howard’s lectures, delivered between 1992 and 2003, will probably be his last book. In it he examines the larger framework of the 20th century, the German wars, the Cold War, Europe after the Cold War, and the War on Terrorism. Howard’s wry sense of humor is apparent in his essay on the Cold War, as he recalls an incident in Italy:

The first snapshot is of a young officer…in January 1945, lecturing his platoon with a large map of Europe provided weekly by the information service to show the progress in the war. The map showed deadlock on our own front and in France, but huge arrows indicated the continuing advances of the Red Army…. We all cheered when we saw those arrows. First, they meant that there would be less fighting for us to do, with a consequently increased prospect of our personal survival; a prospect that at times had seemed unpleasantly remote. Secondly, it meant that the Russians would take a larger slice of Germany off our hands.

In the introduction Howard calls the past century “a record of vast, of terrifying mistakes, which I hope we know better than to repeat. We have to use the knowledge that we have to deal with the problems which that knowledge has itself created, accepting that every solution will only create further problems. We must steer between the Scylla and Charybdis that caused so many catastrophes during the past century—hubris and despair.”

Not all of his comments regarding the aftermath of 9/11 will be music to American ears, particularly where he criticizes the Bush administration for categorizing its efforts against Osama bin Laden as a war:

It is quite astonishing how little we [understand] the huge crisis that has faced that vast and populous section of the world stretching from the Maghreb through the Middle East and central Asia into South and Southeast Asia and beyond to the Philippines: overpopulated, underdeveloped, being dragged headlong by the West into the postmodern world before they have come to terms with modernity. This is [a] confrontation between a theistic, land-based and traditional culture, in places little different from the Europe of the Middle Ages, and the secular material values of the Enlightenment.


Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here