A reader of my books asked recently: “What is war like?” The answer, of course, is that like life it is infinitely diverse, though it took me decades to realise how much so. It has been a long journey between the thrill at the notion of battle, which I nurtured as a schoolboy in the aftermath of the second world war, and the profound discomfort I feel 60-odd years later at the prospect of cruise missiles being lobbed into Syria.
The men of my family were compulsive adventurers who greatly enjoyed their experiences between 1939 and 1945. My father was war correspondent of the legendary magazine Picture Post. My great-uncle, who had won a Military Cross in 1917, was the BBC’s military correspondent during the second world war. His son, my cousin, served with the SAS and also won an MC. All three colluded to make me perceive the struggle as an exhilarating romp, which it was a misfortune to have missed.
In my teens I devoured the vast heroic literature of that war, reading at the rate of two or three a week such books as The Dambusters, The Twenty Thousand Thieves, Dawn of D-day. I revelled in the late Victorian novels of GA Henty, in which teenage warriors soldiered and spied for England abroad, usually returning to marry their sweethearts with fortunes garnered by looting an Indian temple or capturing a Spanish galleon.
At 17 I completed the army parachute course and abandoned ideas of becoming a career soldier only after a notably undistinguished stint with an airborne battalion in Cyprus. Instead, I became a war correspondent, reporting for newspapers and BBC TV from 11 theatres. The 1973 Yom Kippur war, 1982 Falklands campaign and even Vietnam were, by comparison with the world wars, tiny in scale and casualties. But witnessing them served to dispel my grotesque delusions about the joys of combat for any but psychopaths.
Knut Lier-Hansen, a second world war Norwegian resistance veteran, once reflected on lessons he had learnt: “Though wars can bring adventures which stir the heart, the true nature of war is composed of innumerable personal tragedies, of grief, waste and sacrifice, wholly evil and not redeemed by glory.” This is a truth that every mature human being should acknowledge.
On the battlefield I discovered that heroism was not, as I had supposed, the default posture of mankind. It is difficult, under fire, to get one’s limbs to obey the command of one’s brain, to abandon the relative safety of cover and run across a field or road, especially when others have fallen making the same attempt.
Air Marshal Lord Tedder, Eisenhower’s 1944-1945 deputy in northwest Europe, observed that “war is organised confusion”. Many of the crass judgments made on today’s campaigns by politicians, the media and civilian coroners reflect an inability to understand that chaos and uncertainty are battlefield norms; that if young men bear lethal weapons in conditions of chronic stress, they will make lethal mistakes for which they should seldom be held blameworthy.
I learnt how difficult it was to report conflict. The First Casualty (1975), Phillip Knightley’s scornful history of war correspondence, has achieved a wide readership but the book is fundamentally flawed because it lacks understanding of the real issues. All journalism represents an attempt to assemble a jigsaw with many pieces missing, some wilfully hidden by those in positions of power. In war, such problems become far greater because it is impossible to know what is happening in the enemy’s camp on the other side of the hill. The usual choice for war correspondents is not between peddling truth or falsehood but between conveying to the public such fragments of information as they have been able to garner, or nothing at all.
When I began to write books about the second world war, I discovered most heroes were disliked by their comrades, who knew themselves made of softer clay. Nobody who wins a Victoria Cross or Medal of Honor should be promoted, because the suicidal courage needed to secure such awards identifies most of their recipients as too mad or too stupid for higher command.
In 1977, while researching a book, I spent many months interviewing survivors of the RAF’s Bomber Command. Those encounters made a profound impression, especially one with a navigator whose pilot had won a posthumous VC for staying with his aircraft after it was mortally damaged, enabling the rest of the crew to bale out. The survivor reflected in middle age: “I’ll always remember the night before that last trip. We were in the pub in Lincoln, teasing Jimmy [the pilot] because he was 19 and admitted that he had never kissed a girl in his life.”
Those words stabbed me to the heart. I thought: what use was a VC to that young man, if he was dead at 19 without ever having embraced a woman? My father’s jolly anecdotage about the 1944 fun he had in Normandy seemed increasingly remote from my changing perception of that or, indeed, any conflict.
Through the decades that followed, I learnt and unlearnt many unexpected things. I recognised that, while the British Army had always been near the top of any world rankings, the Wehrmacht stood higher. I sparked a controversy by asserting in Overlord (1984), that the Germans were far more skilful than General Dwight Eisenhower’s armies. Some leathery old British and American veterans publicly denounced me. But two field marshals, Lords Carver and Bramall, publicly took up cudgels on my side; their authoritative words sufficed to save my professional bacon.
I have learnt immensely from Professor Sir Michael Howard, who at 90 possesses the double distinction of being both Britain’s greatest living historian and the 1943 winner of an MC at Salerno. He wrote about the Germans: “It cannot too often be stated: they were better than we were. We battered our way across Europe with a minimum of finesse and a maximum use of high explosives.”
It is Sir Michael, also, who often recalls a vital dictum: “There was a time when events now in the past were still in the future.” As historians, we must strive to see things not as they appear in the 21st century but as they looked to contemporary protagonists. Among the commonest errors of modern writers, especially when judging such contentious issues as strategic bombing, is to impose the values of 2013 upon the decision-making of, say, 1943.
One of the things I learnt from Sir Michael is that wars are about much more than fighting. In my younger days, I focused chiefly upon battles. Of course, these are important because, until matters changed recently, those who prevailed in them won wars. But today I can see, and reflect in my books, that great struggles also engage millions of people who never hear a gun fired.
In 2011, Lizzie Collingham wrote a groundbreaking book, The Taste of War. This explored the influence of food upon every aspect of the 1939-1945 struggle, and emphasised the relativity of suffering. British housewives complained about the monotony of rations but their privations paled into insignificance alongside those of, for example, the citizens of besieged Leningrad, of whom some 800,000 starved to death.
The struggles of our own times are, thank heaven, light years removed in scale from the global conflicts of the 20th century. But, for professional warriors, war has become much more complicated because success can no longer be measured by the mere conquest of territory or defeat of armies.
Emile Simpson, a former Gurkha officer, explained in his 2012 book War from the Ground Up, that in “wars among the people” there can no longer be an absolute definition of victory. Everything is about perceptions, which vary widely among different audiences. It is possible, as in Afghanistan, for the allies to have won countless battles yet still fail in their ultimate purpose because no remotely satisfactory political outcome is achievable.
Whatever the shortcomings of occupation policy in Germany and Japan after 1945, the western allies were then empowered to impose liberal democracy. Today, by contrast, military success in limited interventions overseas is often meaningless without a sustained neocolonialist follow-up, which is politically and morally unacceptable.
It is sometimes suggested that modern ministers bungle defence policy and the conduct of wars because they lack the personal military experience that their 20th-century predecessors had acquired. I reject this notion. Many politicians who once wore battledress made a ghastly mess of military operations they initiated, Anthony Eden and his 1956 Suez adventure foremost among them.
Probably the most successful army reform minister of modern times was the lawyer and philosopher Richard Haldane. Between 1905 and 1914 he created a general staff and expeditionary force, made the Territorial Army an effective reserve and made the regular army the best armed, trained and equipped in British history, while cutting overall expenditure. Second to Haldane ranks Denis Healey, Britain’s best defence secretary since 1945, who found his experience as a wartime officer relevant only in that it caused him to disbelieve much of what he was told by his professional advisers. Too many of his successors have been relatively stupid people, mandated only to save money.
As the historian Sir Hew Strachan has written, modern British governments have abandoned any pretence of pursuing a coherent strategy. In the quarter-century since the cold war ended, successive cabinets have rejected a re-evaluation of Britain’s real security needs, and the resources needed to meet them, in favour of crude budgetary axe-blows, complemented by such acts of madness as building two giant aircraft carriers to provide work for shipyards in Scottish Labour constituencies.
I recently lectured to a Nato commander-in-chiefs’ conference about a perennially difficult question for chiefs of staff: how far does duty require them to fulfil the wishes of the government of the day, even when they think this mistaken? And how far are they obligated merely to shut up and get on with it?
In 1940, Field Marshal Sir John Dill saw, as head of the army, little rational prospect of defying Hitler. Defeatism thus suffused his conduct until Churchill sacked him. We can now see that the prime minister was right; that the soldier allowed himself to be excessively oppressed by logic. But often matters turn out otherwise.
In 2006, Britain’s soldiers privately thought Tony Blair’s decision to commit a brigade to Afghanistan’s Helmand province represented “gesture strategy” and would end in tears but they chose not to say so; the rest is history.
However General Sir David Richards, who has just retired as Chief of the Defence Staff, made plain his scepticism about a military intervention in Syria, because his political masters were, as they remain, incapable of sensibly answering the questions that every decent soldier asks before launching an operation: “What are our objectives? And are they attainable?”
The most fundamental change that has overtaken warfare since the 20th century’s great clashes of arms is that it is no longer morally or politically feasible for nations to use their most powerful weapons. For centuries, commanders were taught that victory would become the portion of whichever side was most successful in generating violence. Admiral Lord Fisher, the great Edwardian First Sea Lord, liked to quote the dictum “moderation in war is imbecility”.
In the nuclear age, however, when the US, Russia, China and even Britain and several other states own the capability to inflict terminal devastation at will, moderation is the only sane course. Today’s commanders are expected to fulfil missions with the lowest possible quota of violence, and with minimal casualties in a risk-averse age.
It is unacceptable in a “war of choice” to level whole towns to secure a tactical advantage, as the 1939-1945 belligerents did routinely, during a war of national survival. But it is hard for modern commanders to control the rheostat of force so delicately as to achieve an outcome with minimal fatalities even among the enemy.
This week I published my 15th book about warfare. If I have learnt anything since my first, it is to recognise the limits of what one can aspire to. Historians can offer only our personal takes. As Tom Stoppard memorably observes, indisputable truth can be found in fiction alone.
The other consequence of a lengthening life is to emphasise a sense of privilege about what past generations have endured and sacrificed, and we have been mercifully spared. Though my father might think me today somewhat wet about war, I am neither a pacifist nor an isolationist. I remain convinced that we must retain the means and will to use force on rare occasions when it can be justified, either in support of a national interest, or to achieve a virtuous and attainable objective abroad. I can discern neither, however, in Syria.
Max Hastings’s new book ‘Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914’ is published this week by William Collins
Get alerts on England when a new story is published