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Alchemist of War: The Life of Basil Liddell Hart

by Alex Danchev Weidenfeld pounds 25

I n The Charge of the Light Brigade, John Gielgud's Lord Raglan intones: "I do not like to see an officer who knows too well what he is doing - It smacks of murder." To Basil Liddell Hart, arguably the greatest military strategist of the century, murder was to be undertaken in the very coldest of blood. A veteran of the Western Front, he was resolved to make war akin to a science, and, like certain other scientists, he had cause to lament the uses to which his inventions were put.

This tall, thin, pipe-smoking Englishman was the nemesis-in-chief to the Blimp tendency in the British army. The positions from which he exerted his influence were, however, more lowly than he would have desired. Too much the non-conformist and far too well-informed and far-sighted to succeed in the establishment of the day, his vantage points at various times were a mere captaincy, the military column of the Daily Telegraph and an unofficial advisorship to the War Minister, Hore-Belisha.

Alex Danchev decently plays down the myth of hordes of horse-fanatics standing in the way of progress in the mechanisation of the army. The opposition is given careful consideration and in correspondence sometimes seems more reasonable than Liddell Hart himself. But the articulacy of the opposition, along with the more familiar resistance from vested interests, only goes to underline his achievements. These opponents have largely dropped through the net of history, while Liddell Hart's friends and admirers, including T E Lawrence and Montgomery, have joined the hall of fame.

Danchev himself never misses a chance to describe his subject in the words of idiosyncratically chosen contemporaries. Why Picasso is continually brought in for comparisons is puzzling, to say the least. A surfeit of French expressions and an imaginative vocabulary also compete to become tiresome. These devices of formulaic biography drag more than they might, because it takes a long time (roughly 100 pages) for it to become clear that here is someone whose life is worth writing. Until then, Liddell Hart's influence and prestige rises without a trace as far as the reader can discern, given that his thoughts on ladies' fashion (interesting and important to understanding the man though they may be) receive an airing before his views on tactics.

Until we learn his ideas in depth, Liddell Hart is given a character that can scarcely stand up without them. A sickly child, he spent his time off school gorging on Boys' Own adventure stories and, at 14, was writing his own fictional military histories. The First World War broke out when he was 19 and busy compiling such lists as "Classic Rugger Players" and "Really Great Generals". We read the usual bad adolescent poetry, and we learn of the petty indignities he suffered and the victories he exaggerated. His dispatches from the front, as far as they go, are no less than one would expect from any intelligent human being in the circumstances, but no more.

When the tactics come they are something of an anticlimax. As related, they are sometimes vacuous, often platitudinous and always difficult to pin down in the details. Liddell Hart can seem less the alchemist than the management consultant of war. As he himself admitted, his cardinal achievement was to see the obvious before most others did. But the obvious is still no less obvious for that.

In spite of this, the account has its moments. To Liddell Hart, the proper place for a war of attrition was in the mind, with a swift-moving, mechanised force demoralising its enemy by its ability to disengage and attack elsewhere rather than hold positions. By piercing the enemy line and attacking the rear, he thought, one would be taking the fight to the enemy commander himself and might defeat him without defeating his forces. In large part, Liddell Hart's approach was to bring the tactics of the sea to the land, with the army as a navy, tanks its cruisers and destroyers. He succeeded in propounding the myth of "the British Way in Warfare" - the method of waging war at arms' length, and wanted to replicate on land the Empire's use of the sea to hit and run. His strategy was a moral one, if moral considerations were not strictly part of its formation. To win without engagement was the ideal, the "indirect" strategy its realisation. War must be efficient. Destruction is only one, and not the most efficient, means to victory. As for how far this feeling has permeated, at least in the British army, every private will now repeat to civilians the orthodoxy that the object of a war is to kill as few people as possible. By the same paradox, Liddell Hart had the nerve to ask Sir Michael Howard to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

As a historian he was aware of the failures of force and of the instability of the solutions it achieves. "Let he who would make peace prepare for war," said the Roman Vegetius, to which Liddell Hart might answer "Let those who would make war prepare for peace." But he was not a pacifist. Deploring both the civilian bombing campaign of the Second World War and the atomic bombing of Japan, he was not anti-war so much as anti-massacre. The modern contempt for Haig often proceeds as if no men would have died at all under any other strategy. The employment of Liddell Hart's principles on the real life battlefield has sometimes only seemed like a more efficient means of massacre - witness the "turkey shoot" by American helicopter gunships in the Gulf War. What would he say to the devastation of the Iraqi retreat on the road to Basra as an example of a "lightning strike to the enemy's communications in the rear"? History has misused his ideas in posterity as it misused them in his lifetime. If he was the captain who taught generals, it was unfortunate that most of these generals were German. Rommel, Guderian and Manstein among others attributed their early victories to the man who invented the Blitzkrieg.

After the war he liked to host tea parties for de-clawed Nazi generals in their prison camps, taking his greatest admirers on excursions to Bridgend as a special treat. To Liddell Hart these men were the "best finished product of their profession - anywhere", and that they had been beaten doubtless made them more loveable. They long played Myra Hindley to his Lord Longford, and their "poor" families in the Fatherland could always expect generous hampers at Christmas from the Liddell Harts. He was a gentleman among other gentlemen, and he would not be so ill-mannered as to ask them any uncomfortable questions during their discussions of tactics. In his defence, he was merely naive as to the nature of these particular beasts, having established his anti-Nazi credentials in the years before the war.

Predicting the automatisation of warfare in the computer age, he argued that the revolution would blow away once and for all the so-called heroic virtues of war. This was a sign of hope. Ambitious leaders could no longer stand on the bluster of valour to promote aggression. However, one has to look no further than Bill Clinton's recent "strong and unflinching action" in Sudan or recall the helicopter gunships of the Gulf and the victory parade on their return to know what to think of that.

In 1927 the Army Quarterly asked "When will Captain Liddell Hart give us a comprehensive and systematic statement of his proposals?" He never did, and Danchev does not provide one here either. But as an extrication of a man who has been absorbed into the common sense of his profession, this work is, for its faults, admirable. In a perceptive aside on Sun Tzu, Danchev makes the point that the first translation of a work may often be the most credible, for just as theorists are loath to acknowledge their influences, so are translators. The same virtue may be attached to this first biography of Liddell Hart.