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The Best Military History Books

recommended by Hew Strachan

The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War by Hew Strachan

The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War
by Hew Strachan


It’s no longer enough for military history to be just about battles told from the winning side. One of the great military historians of our time, Sir Hew Strachan, talks us through what makes a great military history.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War by Hew Strachan

The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War
by Hew Strachan

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As well as writing about war yourself, you edit the wonderful Great Battles series. What makes a good military history, do you think?

Self-evidently, the traditional version of military history is that it’s about battles, wars and armies, or navies. What I would say military history has to do now is two things. It needs to relate the military to what others would call ‘total’ history. It needs to be part of a wider narrative. I hope the days of telling stories simply as soldiers fighting are over—well, they’re not over—but that should not be adequate and isn’t adequate, in my view. The best military history does that, it links to a wider context. That might be political, it might be social, it might be economic, or it might be all those things.

The second thing is, if we’re talking about war, that it’s about reciprocity. You can’t tell it as a national story, or a single-nation story—which is, of course, what military history has so often been used to do, maybe for patriotic or propaganda reasons. The enemy matters and your allies matter.

When you put those two things together, it makes it pretty hard to do. If you’re relating a number of sub-disciplines within history, that’s a challenge. And you actually, in my view, probably need several languages as well, to do it really well. You mentioned the Great Battles series. The big challenge there is to get people who can tell the story of the battle also to tell the cultural history of the battle’s aftermath, because the person who does one might not necessarily find it easy to do the other.

You also have to get them to tell it from both sides, especially when you’re looking at big cultural divisions. To have English and French, or French and German, may be one set of skills, but to have English and Chinese, that’s another set, and pretty rare.

How did you get interested in the genre, if I can call it a genre?

The formative experience for my father was to go off, as a young Cambridge undergraduate, to fight in World War II and to come back. That was his generation. It was all around me. I was brought up in Edinburgh in the fifties. All our fathers had served in the army, or one in the air force. We didn’t play cowboys and Indians very much, we played soldiers. My grandfather had served in World War I, and although he had a pretty dim view of war’s effects, he used to give me boxes of toy soldiers every Christmas.

From those infantile beginnings, I stayed interested longer than was normal. It was the geeky side of me. There was a military museum in Edinburgh Castle—and still is—with a good library. A friend of my parents was on the curatorial staff, and he said, ‘Well, if you’re really interested, there’s a more serious approach.’ He was a chap called Nick Norman, who became Master of the Armouries at the Tower of London, and he took me under his wing. By the time I finished school and was going to Cambridge myself, I had to decide, was this a career or was it something I was just interested in? I never imagined, quite frankly, it would be a career. I didn’t think the jobs were there. They might be there in military museums, but the academic world, in Britain then, barely had military history.

You’ve basically ended up doing what you loved when you were little.

It’s unbelievable. My father was in shipping and I spent a year working in shipping after I graduated and realised very quickly that it wasn’t for me. It’s probably just as well I did, because otherwise I might have wondered, ‘Should I have tried something else?’

But having made the decision to go in a geeky direction I was pretty determined that it had to be bigger, if it was going to be my life. I said, ‘I’ve got to be able to think outwardly about military history, rather than inwardly about military history.’

What specifically do you remember being most fascinated by at the beginning?

I was really interested in military uniforms, equipment, all that sort of stuff. When I thought I might work in military museums, it was uniforms and things like that I wanted to work on. I’ve actually written a book on military uniforms. I don’t speak much about it now, but my teenage years, that was what was going on—when I should have been listening to The Rolling Stones…

So let’s go through the books you’ve chosen. The first one is by the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, On War (1832), which is obviously a very important book. He’s very much a soldier’s soldier, isn’t he? He joined the army at the age of twelve, he was a prisoner of war—he really seems to have experienced it all. Tell me why people should read his book.

What Clausewitz is trying to do in On War is to help you understand war as a phenomenon. Most military writing, not least by his contemporaries, was trying to establish principles for the conduct of war. It had an instructional purpose. It might use military history—and Clausewitz wrote a lot of military history—but its intention was, essentially, to provide a set of principles.

Clausewitz, in a way, wanted to write that sort of book. He wanted to establish a theory of war. But he was both too good a historian and, in some ways, too good a political philosopher—although he was self-taught in both respects—to succumb to that pressure. Every time he found an exception to a general proposition or a general rule, instead of disregarding it he would say, ‘Well, this has to be part of the discussion. If we’re going to understand war as a general phenomenon, we need to embrace both sides, or several sides.’

One of the challenges is that people read Clausewitz selectively and quote him selectively—because in the end you can probably find something that will support any proposition in relation to war within what he’s writing. (That’s not exactly true, he doesn’t talk about war at sea, for example, and he doesn’t really talk about the economic dimensions of war). But he is absolutely engaged in an internal dialogue.

So it’s a book about how to understand war more than a book about how to make war. There’s a famous book on Clausewitz by Raymond Aron, called Penser la Guerre. (In English it’s called Clausewitz, Philosopher of War). The point is that it’s about thinking about war, not about how to make war. Clausewitz’s contemporary, a man called Jomini, is the subject of a biography by a Swiss historian called Jean-Jacques Langendorf. It’s a good book, which he calls Faire la Guerre, to make the distinction between thinking about war and actually doing it.

“How On War has been received has varied from generation to generation”

Clausewitz was a practitioner and his practice and his experience matter. But he is also historically conscious. He was told by the father figure in his life, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, to think historically. Because he was a Prussian, he also had to think about how his experience of war, fighting Napoleon, related to the experience of his father, who’d been an officer in the Seven Years’ War fighting for Fredrick the Great. Even that level of historical comparison led to differences and debate in his thinking. And, as he wanted to write a theory which he hoped would be valued across generations, he had to be open to the realisation that his own experience wasn’t the only experience, that there are other ways and forms of war.

The fact that he is not technologically determined—he’s not really concerned with things that we might now see as central to understanding war, a ‘post-industrial’ view of war—and much more politically and socially determined, makes him more flexible. If you think of wars today in Iraq and Afghanistan, Clausewitz has really gone through a pretty good revival—having been denigrated very often in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War—because of the rise in non-state actors. It’s precisely because he sees war in a social and political context that, in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan—where technology has been less important than the historical background, the cultural background, the social conditions—he has things to say to us. He’s a way of asking questions about war.

It’s not a military history as such is it? I mean, you can see that he’s calling on his experiences in Prussia…


And he has a lot of experiences, perhaps more than the average soldier would have today. But while I saw a couple of references to Frederick’s time, mostly he’s trying to abstract what he knows. There are not many anecdotes.

No, he assumes you know the history of his times. The references don’t really go back before 1742, but we should not neglect what he wrote at one time about war in the 17th century. He noticed states were not as developed as in his own day, that war too was not in the same condition. This was itself instructive. So he absolutely saw the value of wider historical study. But for him, and for most of his generation, and indeed for most people who wrote about war theoretically, right up probably until 1945, military history was the core discipline. They weren’t trained academic historians, self-evidently, but military history was the underpinning of their theory.

So alongside On War, which is the famous work, there’s much, much more that is straight military history that he wrote and used as the anvil on which he could hammer out what his theory was.

So basically you put On War at the top of the list because it was the first or still the most significant study of what war is?

Most military historians and most students of war will say there’s never been a book as important as Clausewitz’s On War. Some will say it’s an indication of the poverty of the subject, that it still remains the most important theoretical book on war. I think it’s partly because of Clausewitz’s own approach. As we would put it today, he’s multidisciplinary. He may use history particularly, but he was self-taught as a political philosopher, and he clearly read quite a lot of mathematics and science as a post-Enlightenment figure in Berlin. It’s not that this is directly applied, but he provides it as a way of thinking about some of the problems.

And of course he’s not facing a publisher’s deadline. On War was never published in his lifetime. It was an ongoing work. He didn’t have his editor ringing him up saying, ‘Where the hell is this book?’ the whole time. And while I’m being flippant about this, I think if he were still alive he’d still be writing it, actually.

For the record, I should point out that you’ve written a biography of On War, looking at how it has been received down the years.

Yes, it’s an attempt to deal with his arguments, to give a bit of context to them. How On War has been received has varied from generation to generation. People tend to hijack it for their own purposes and stress different aspects of the book as though their version, the version as of 2018, is the version. Actually, the whole point about the book is its subtlety and variety. Those who work on war will say they go back and look again, and something strikes them afresh. Sometimes my students will quote something from Clausewitz at me and I think, ‘Gosh, I had never read it that way’ or ‘I missed that!’ It has that textual variety and depth which does provide an endless source of inspiration.

Let’s talk about the next book on your list, which is Yorck and the Era of Prussian Reform (1966). This is about another Prussian general, Hans David Ludwig Yorck von Wartenburg.

The author of this book is Peter Paret who, with Michael Howard, is the translator of the current most widely read English translation of On War, and indeed a translation that really put On War firmly on the map. This book, Yorck and the Era of Prussian Reform, is Peter Paret’s doctoral thesis, supervised as it happens partly by Michael Howard, and completed at King’s College, London.

Why it particularly appeals to me is that it unites the detailed inward-looking side of military history with a broader context. I think for many military historians of my generation, it was one of the first books of military history that showed that you could write something that was really focused on tactics—the business of fighting and very specific to professional armies and what they do—and yet put it in a broader political and social context.

Paret takes an argument about how far, in the 18th century, armies were moving to looser infantry formations, away from close-order drill, how they were using, possibly, rifles (which were still in a relatively early stage of development) as opposed to smooth-bore muskets, so that they could fire more accurately, and the context within which that happened on the battlefield. And what Paret says is, ‘It’s not just about that. This is about whether Prussia will reform itself.’

Because Prussia was still a society that had serfdom. It was still a society which, in many respects, was dominated by an aristocracy. What this new form of fighting suggested was an army made up of citizens, of free people, soldiers better able to take their own decisions. Because if they were in open-order, they would not be under direct command and supervision. They would be shooting at longer ranges and more independently and not having some sergeant standing at the back, beating them and telling them what they should do. And so to change your drill, to change your tactics, you actually had to change the social composition, the political basis on which your army was formed.

“To change your drill, to change your tactics, you actually had to change the social composition”

I was a young lecturer (well, age 30) at Sandhurst in the late seventies when I read it. I remember speaking to other people in the war studies department and we all said, ‘We wish we could write a book like that!’ A book where if we’re talking about armies and what they’re doing, we’re not just talking to ourselves. We’re setting it within a much wider framework.

And the question in our minds was, was this applicable across other armies? Other armies, at that same time, were going through a comparable tactical debate. Can we see that as a debate about politics? Well, in some ways, in the French Revolution—and that is of course the context against which this is all set—you can. There you have a society that is transforming itself through revolution.

But when you look to the British army in the same period it’s pretty hard. There are clearly social implications, soldiers are being dealt with in a more benign way, discipline becomes rather more based on expression rather than repression. But actually, I think it just happened to work very well for Prussia. And this, of course, is Clausewitz’s army. There is a connection between this book and On War.

Yorck von Wartenburg was a conservative officer who resisted change. He commanded the Prussian contingent, which formed part of Napoleon’s army, for the invasion of Russia in 1812. And Clausewitz was so cross, as a potential German nationalist, by the subordination of Prussia to this terrible man Napoleon that he resigned from the Prussian army and fought with the Russians against Prussia.

And then, at the end of the 1812 campaign, Yorck took the Prussian contingent, changed sides, and joined the Russians. Clausewitz was there at that moment, at Tauroggen, and they met. It’s a wonderful story of the interaction of personalities within this wider context of the broad occurrence of revolutionary arguments.

It’s quite good for a book to have a central figure as well. You’re following Yorck von Warternburg who is often viewed as a reactionary, and getting into this debate about how to interpret him.

Yes, absolutely. And of course, after the defeat of the Prussian army at Jena in 1806, these were real issues. You could hold the lid on these arguments until 1806, but once the army—which was so closely identified with the Fredrickian state—was broken, even those who might be reactionary had to be progressive, if they were going to enable Prussia to recover and re-establish its army.

I think most people have heard of Clausewitz and know he wrote an important book about war. Speaking for myself, though, I always imagined him as some victorious Prussian writing about his excellent experiences. It was only when I started looking at him in detail that I realised, no, he’s writing this in the face of these disasters at the hands of Napoleon.

I remember the guy who was later in the Bannon team under Trump, Sebastian Gorka. He organised a conference on irregular warfare in Washington at the tail end of the surge in Iraq. I was the only Brit there, but the endeavour was to bring together some of the lessons of insurgency and counter-insurgency and to encourage Obama not to lose sight of the fact that this might be the dominant pattern of contemporary conflict. And I talked about Clausewitz’s role in understanding insurgency.

Of course for Americans, brought up to see Clausewitz as the embodiment of the soldier and the state, of war as a political instrument, the idea of the Clausewitz of 1806 to 1812 or 1813 as a putative insurgent, overthrowing the authority of the state and not subordinate to political authority, was entirely fresh. Very little of that is evident in On War, unless you know enough German to read the other things that Clausewitz was writing. But once you realise just how much he was, essentially, a fifth column within the monarchical view of Prussia, then you begin to read On War differently too.

One thing I loved about On War is the really sweet introduction by his wife. They obviously loved each other very much.

It’s a great romantic affair. It was a prolonged courtship. There’s a book out on her. There she is, an aristocratic woman. He is not an aristocratic man. It’s a marriage that her parents disapproved of, but they sustained this courtship for nearly a decade. And thank goodness they did because we know a great deal more about Clausewitz as a consequence of his correspondence with her.

Okay, so, the next book on your list is by the French historian Georges-Henri Soutou. It’s called L’Or et le Sang (1969) and it’s subtitled: ‘The economic aims of World War I.’ Like many French history books, it’s a bit of a doorstopper.

I saw Georges-Henri recently and introduced him at a panel in France. I said, ‘This is one of the best books on World War I published in the last 50 years.’ And he promptly said, ‘It’s not exactly an accessible read.’ Which is true. It is 1000 pages, near enough. It’s the equivalent of his ‘habilitation’ in German terms, his ‘doctorat d’état.’ So it represents a very long period of sustained research.

But it’s brilliant?

I think it is, yes. It does so many things to what was then the prevailing orthodoxy on World War I, that I find it extraordinary that there hasn’t been a translation into English. It is hard work, undoubtedly. Not hard work because it’s badly written but just because it is scholarly and detailed and full. It’s dealing with the relationships across all the major allied belligerents. That, in itself, produces a very complex story.

There are two big things that matter that come out of it. First of all, the notion of German war guilt, particularly as propagated by Fritz Fischer in the 1960s, seems to be absolutely unsustainable. What Soutou is doing in the book is saying, ‘Look at Germany in 1914. It is the most successful, economically, of any European power, second only to the United States in terms of its productive capacity. Its goods are successfully penetrating world markets. It does not need war to establish German domination of Europe, or indeed of a wider set of markets.’

So the notion that Fritz Fischer built up in his account of German war aims in World War I, which was published in 1967—that Germany goes to war to establish a central European economic bloc—is simply crazy because it can have a European economic bloc without going to war. And who would want to be confined, if you were Germany as it was before 1914, simply to central Europe, when you have the capacity to conquer a great many of the world’s markets simply by the power of free trade?

I was already persuaded that the idea of ‘Mitteleuropa’—a central European, German-dominated, bloc—was a consequence of the war’s outbreak, not a cause of it. Soutou really provides chapter and verse to show that. It’s only once Germany has been squeezed out of wider markets that it has to think, as it does during the war, about how best to make use of the resources of what it does have.

“The notion of German war guilt, as propagated by Fritz Fischer in the 1960s, seems to be absolutely unsustainable”

And here you come to the other side of the story, which is of two countries, specifically Britain and France, who are not competing well with Germany before 1914, and know it. In Britain, there are growing arguments for tariff reform. It’s very hard, of course, for Britain to move away from the principles of free trade when the split over the Corn Laws had redefined party politics in 1846. It produced a Brexit-like split in the Conservative party. As a result, those Conservatives who had ended up in the Liberal party belonged to a group that had been founded on the principles of free trade and the benefit of free trade for international relations.

Which made perfectly good sense in the 19th century, when Britain was the leading economic power in the world—and rather less sense in 1914, when Britain was no longer the leading economic power in the world. So in 1914, not only have you therefore got an opportunity for the tariff reformers to get some sort of leverage, but they’re in alliance with France, which has spent the whole 40 years since 1871 thinking about how to deal with this increasingly mighty power to the east. And so the British and French—particularly at a conference in 1916, convened by Étienne Clémentel in Paris—think how they’re going to keep Germany down after the war, at least to the point where they can get a head start in their own economic recovery over Germany.

For me, it is not only an important argument about why the war breaks out, but also an important argument about how the war is sustained and the role of economic factors—which have been extraordinarily neglected in terms of alliance relations and how the war is conducted—as well as its profound implications for the settlement afterwards and the way that’s handled.

So when I talked earlier about the need to think comparatively across countries, L’Or et le Sang does that. It uses this really sustained and original and important scholarship to make points that really affect almost every stage of World War I.

So when we learn about the causes of World War I at school—which seems to be a part of curriculum here in the UK—is that all outdated now?

The problem with the curriculum is that it’s very hard to change. In 2003, I did a 10-part television series on World War I for Channel 4. In Scotland, one of the funders behind Wark Clements, the production company that made it, said he would distribute free copies to every school in Scotland. They had a launch for this free distribution in Glasgow City Chambers, which I went to. The teachers there said, ‘We loved your series, but it’s very hard for us to teach because you’re not saying what we’re told to say in the curriculum. There’s too much challenging of the orthodoxy.’

It’s a pretty desperate situation when that’s the case. You find that you’re not using history as a medium for debate, but as a medium for delivering received wisdom. That may reflect, a bit, the level at which you’re teaching it. If we’re talking about GCSE level, of course there’s an element of content you have to deliver. But you would hope, by the time you get to A-level or higher, that you’d be able to have a discussion.

But if you speak to any history teacher they will say that it’s very difficult. My son—who was at a Scottish independent school—came back one day and said, ‘I’ve got to write an essay on the Schlieffen Plan.’ The presumption was that the Schlieffen Plan was the plan that Germany put into operation in 1914.

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I said, ‘Well, the big problem is that Schlieffen was dead by then. Was there such a thing as the Schlieffen Plan? Why was what we now call the Schlieffen Plan found in his family’s archive and not in the Prussian military archives? And if there was a Schlieffen Plan, it was, in any case, very much revised.’ And this sort of thing. And of course all I did was confuse him. He had an excellent history teacher. He wrote his essay and the history teacher said to him, ‘It’s a pity he’s been talking to his father. The examiners will not have had the same privilege. There are certain things he’s got to get in to tick the box.’

Of course if people come from that grounding and then you say things that are different, you have to say them again and again and again. It takes a long time before it penetrates, but eventually the penny can begin to drop. And of course it does mean that for the student who’s been through that process of, essentially, learning by rote, when they do realise, ‘Ah! The question’s more open and less shut than I thought,’ then of course it becomes exciting.

It becomes very exciting. Okay, so let’s move on to the next book, which is about World War II. This is a book by William Woodruff, The Vessel of Sadness (1969), which I believe is written as a novel but based on his own experiences at Anzio.

I work on World War I so, predictably, I read a lot of accounts of soldiers fighting in World War I and rather less of soldiers who have experienced World War II. I didn’t know this book until about a year ago. I picked it up at Oxfam. I just happened to be in the Oxfam bookshop in Edinburgh and saw it there. I was amazed I didn’t know it already. It’s beautifully written. Here is a man of a comparatively humble background who comes to Oxford, and, I think I’m right in saying, has his university career disrupted by the war. He then returns to Oxford after the war.

What I find striking about it is that the descriptions of combat itself are much more explicit than you would find in the English literature of World War I. If you think of the classic canon of Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, even Robert Graves, who’s more explicit, they assume that you know what’s going on. The nature of combat is implicit rather than explicit. Blunden himself said that, if you hadn’t gone the same journey as he’d gone, you wouldn’t understand what he was talking about. He is perhaps more allusive even than Sassoon and certainly more allusive than Graves, who invented quite a lot of what he was writing. I’m sure Woodruff did a bit of invention too. But Woodruff is much more visceral in his descriptions of what’s happening.

He is also evoking a form of combat which is still not very different from World War I, in that Anzio got bogged down. The fighting was located in close-quarter combat, close proximity to the enemy army, and with a lot of Italian civilians caught up in the middle of it. There is as much empathy for the Italians, who after all had only just changed sides in this war, and even quite a lot of empathy for the Germans.

“There are those practitioners who are absolutely convinced of the importance of military history. There are others who are good soldiers but they never read”

One of the things that strikes me, when I look at some of the writing that’s come out on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that there’s a real effort by the best of the writers—I’m thinking of Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier or Michael Pitre, an American who wrote a wonderful book about Iraq called Fives and Twenty-Fives—to show that war is something that happens to everybody involved in it. Both of those books have characters who are Iraqis or Afghanis. And in Harry Parker’s case, the Afghan happens to be the Afghan who will place the bomb that inflicts these most awful wounds on the hero of the book—who is, of course, Harry himself.

So I think Woodruff’s book acts as a sort of bridge between World War I literature, which has had an enormous influence on how people have written about war, and what’s being written today—which still, in some ways, comes off the back of World War I literature. That was the point that Paul Fussell was making in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). As Fussell himself made clear, his book was only nominally about World War I; it was also about his war, which was World War II.

What has changed since World War I is that the writing on war by those who have experienced it is much more openly concerned with how soldiers reintegrate both during war and after it is over. How do they reintegrate after war? That was the theme of All Quiet on the Western Front too, in some ways: Erich Maria Remarque wanted to find the way back, to paraphrase the title of the book he wrote after All Quiet. The enemy is also there in World War I literature, but the civilians are much more absent, not obvious as they are in the Woodruff book.

And it’s interesting that the Italian campaign also produces Raleigh Trevelyan’s book. There are good accounts of the Italian war written by British authors. I went down the Salerno coast from Naples this year. I visited the cemeteries en route to the classical site of Paestum, which I’d never been to. And, of course, Paestum is right in the middle of the Salerno battlefield. It’s not that Anzio is Salerno but I was already thinking of those Italian landings. And, I suppose, my father was in the Italian campaign, this was his war…

I drove up to the monastery at Monte Cassino with my Dad once—the fighting was really awful there as well.

Yes, that’s the next stage on, beyond Anzio. Anzio was designed, in part, to release the pressure on Monte Cassino.

So this book is a mini-classic that is neglected. It gives a very good feel about what it was like to be on the Italian campaign, but it also gives a good feel about war. It is specific to Anzio, absolutely. There is a moment when they’re back in Capri and recovering before going off again. It has a sense of place. But, at the same time—and this is really the point about much war literature—it’s about what it reflects of war more generally. And this book does that.

So, last book: The Accidental Guerrilla (2009) by David Kilcullen

I chose this book because the last 10 to 15 years of my life, particularly my time when I was here in Oxford, was shaped by the Iraq and Afghan wars. I came here to finish writing my history of the First World War and I got not a word of it written. There were many reasons for that, but probably the most important was that the chair here has a responsibility for strategic studies as well. And while Britain was facing considerable challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a desire on the part of the UK armed forces in particular to engage, intellectually, with what was going on. I tried to think which was the book that best captured some of that engagement.

There are a number. A former student of mine, Emile Simpson, wrote a book called War from the Ground Up. He read history here at Oxford, and became a Gurkha officer. That book has achieved something of a cult following. Another Oxford graduate, Carter Malkasian, wrote an excellent book called War Comes to Garmser, about an Afghan village that is caught up in war over a 30-year period. These books all capture something of the flavour of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the significance of David Kilcullen’s book is that, first of all, he came at it from a different disciplinary approach. His own account of what happened is that, as an Australian army officer, he’d been in East Timor and elsewhere and realised how little armies understand about the societies in which they are trying to operate—when they’re dealing with insurgencies, small wars and so on. Anthropology became his way into understanding war, rather than strategic studies or history. It’s not that those other disciplines don’t matter, but anthropology was the way in to understand the cultural context within which we’re operating and the differences between the army that’s doing the intervening and the society with which it is engaging. He brought a different approach.

Secondly David—and I first met him before this book came out and last saw him about six months ago—is constantly asking himself fresh questions. He’s written a very successful book in The Accidental Guerrilla, but he isn’t going around selling it. He has moved on: his interest remains vital and immediate and engaged with what’s happening now.

When I first heard him speak here in Oxford, before The Accidental Guerrilla came out, he was beginning to formulate the ideas. It was at a point in the wars after 9/11 where we were all grappling with what was going on. How do you understand it? What’s the framework? And he stood up and spoke in ways that immediately engaged you because he was involving in the questions and the search for answers. You were part of his quest as he was looking for solutions. I think that comes through in the book, too.

Thirdly, it’s important that practitioners read books like this. Army friends of mine will often say, ‘There are those practitioners who are absolutely convinced of the importance of military history, who love reading and will therefore read military history. There are others who are good soldiers but they never read. They do it practically and sensibly and they don’t need to read.’

The challenge is, how do you bridge that divide? David Kilcullen’s book tells stories. The book begins, and many of its chapters begin, with an incident from his own experience. Now, these may be embellished. One or two people, who were there on the same day, have said, ‘That’s not quite how I remember it.’ But, in a way, that doesn’t matter because he’s using the story to illustrate a more profound point about what he thinks is going on in relation to warfare. And the story takes his readers along with him and it makes his points very clear.

I remember when Emile Simpson was writing War from the Ground Up. The Accidental Guerrilla was already out by then, and he, Emile, was thinking about how to find a way to frame that book. I said, ‘You’ve been on two Afghan operational tours. You’ve got stories you can tell. You can do the same thing [as David].” And it works. It does. Because his own experience—as it was for Dave Kilcullen and for many people—was central to what they were seeing about war and what they were commenting on within war.

The normal reaction of an academic would be to suppress the individual in the story. But it’s about the interaction. It brings us back full-circle to Clausewitz, where the discussion between personal experience on the one hand and theory and history on the other is central to the mix. It’s the experience that helps enliven and illuminate understanding, and, equally, that understanding depends on context, which you get from reading and going beyond your own experience.

So what The Accidental Guerrilla is doing, in a very different way from Clausewitz—and people might mock me for making a comparison between David Kilcullen and Carl von Clausewitz, though I’m sure Dave himself would be delighted by it—is showing the value of using that interaction, in a 21st century form.

And what was the conclusion of the book about the nature of war now? You were saying it was confusing…

Some of the things that The Accidental Guerrilla is arguing are now old hat because he’s reflecting on experiences that are now more than ten years ago. That’s why Dave has moved on. In some respects it is very specific to time and place.

But what he’s saying, and why it still has appeal, is that to do this well you need to understand the context in which you’re fighting. Understanding it in narrowly military terms won’t get you very far, because it can be quite hard to identify who your opponent is, when your opponent draws on the wider society of which he or she is a member. And the capacity to change and adapt may be greater on the side of the insurgent than it is on the side of the disciplined and organised army, which has certain ways of operating.

Much of this is war in microcosm. That’s partly Emile Simpson’s point too. We’ve come to see war in state terms, run by unified societies with clearly defined governments. In societies with low levels of literacy and low governmental reach, the local is far more important than the national.

If you’re in Afghanistan—and this reflects personal observation more than, necessarily, the book—there is a story that people tell themselves which has an antiquity and longevity which is almost beyond our comprehension, because it’s an oral tradition. I remember having a conversation in Afghanistan—when I first went there in 1971—with a guy close to Kandahar. He started talking about the first and second Afghan wars of the 19th century as though he’d taken part in them personally. And then I’ve had a subsequent conversation where exactly the same has been applied to the invasion by Alexander the Great. In an oral tradition, time is collapsed and history has an immediacy.

Whereas, for us, all that belongs in the past. It’s nothing to do with the present. We don’t think of Britain’s record in Iraq or Britain’s record in Afghanistan when British forces go to Iraq and Afghanistan because it’s so long ago. It doesn’t matter, we’ve obliterated it.

It is, if you like, a longitudinal issue. The latitude is that you think you’re going to Iraq and Afghanistan—but for many members of these impoverished societies, although both Afghanistan or Iraq may have an identity, their world is actually bound, particularly in Afghanistan, by their valley and their community. Most of them will never go beyond it. And the politics are local politics, deeply local politics; not least because of the question of survival or not. I don’t mean survival because the other side has got weapons, although that might be the case, but simply economic survival.

Your economy is a subsistence economy. How are you keeping going? Who owns land? That is the theme of Carter Malkasian’s War Comes to Garmser. The real issue is there still isn’t a proper land registry in Afghanistan. And yet, if agriculture is the basis for the economy, who exactly is the proprietor of this and what can you grow on it? There’s plenty of scope for war just within that.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

August 25, 2018

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Hew Strachan

Hew Strachan

Sir Hew Strachan was Chichele Professor of the History of War at the University of Oxford until 31 March 2015 and is now Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. He is an Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and a Life Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

Hew Strachan

Hew Strachan

Sir Hew Strachan was Chichele Professor of the History of War at the University of Oxford until 31 March 2015 and is now Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. He is an Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and a Life Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.