In the fall of 2008 I was on my way home from Germany, a bit tired after spending several weeks in the field at the U.S. Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels. I had been there with a large operational research team to study various aspects of the ABCA (America Britain Canada Australia and New Zealand) armies, but despite the great success of our fieldwork, there remained many questions unanswered about how armies change. These were questions beyond tactics and operations and concerning the very nature and characteristics of war itself. They were problems that, frankly, gnawed at me for a time afterwards until I finally decided to do something about it.
In the spring of 2009 I put forward a plan at work to apply for a visiting research fellowship in the Changing Character of War (CCW) Program at the University of Oxford. I figured if there was a place in the western world that probably knew a thing or two about the history of warfare, it was Oxford. I knew gaining entry wasn’t going to be easy, but I felt my chances of being selected for the program were good as I had both the academic and the practitioner experience that was demanded. Thankfully news back from the applications officer was good, and a short while later I was en route to spend the next year as a research fellow in a place I had dreamed of going to since I was a kid.
It seems obvious, perhaps, but Oxford is truly a unique and perhaps magical place. Created towards the end of the eleventh century, every aspect of the city and the university has been shaped by nearly nine centuries of conflict. Certainly the university’s archival, bibliographical, and artifact holdings on the subject are beyond words. Whether it’s in the 8 million volumes housed in just over a hundred libraries, or the millions of artifacts and records held across the university’s collections, one is never left wanting for primary resources. I was like a kid in a candy store and admittedly it took me a few days just to figure out where to begin.
The CCW Program is a unique ongoing collaborative research effort under the direction of Dr. Hew Strachan, a noted First World War scholar and fellow of All Souls College, who currently holds the Chichele Professorship of the History of War. His aim was to bring together 6 to 10 prominent research fellows from around the world each year to pursue major study projects, as well as examine war both as history and as a contemporary phenomenon. Several lines of investigation were regularly pursued, and included diverse subjects such as preemption, morality and war, war and democracy, armed forces and the state, detention and torture, law and war, non-state actors, and war and international institutions. My own research was concerned with the armed forces and the state, specifically looking at why and how armies change as a result of the catalysts brought on by war.
Only in Oxford could I truly start investigating such a question from the beginning so to speak. For example, trips to the Ashmolean museum, the oldest university museum in the world, revealed precious Egyptian and Roman military artifacts showing army innovation over several centuries. On another foray to the Christchurch library a few blocks away, I was able to hold in hand and examine an illuminated manuscript gifted to King Edward I (1239-1307) that included the first known western world drawing of a cannon. The book itself was never completely finished, and the last pages containing illustrations of how to conduct a successful siege were inked in but not coloured. Still, one could discern advances in military engineering brought on by the advent of new weapons in these pictures. Later, after citing my declaration (in Latin) and gaining entrance to the Coddrington Library, where during the nineteenth century several cricket games were played inside the library’s long hall when the weather turned bad, I was able to examine other original classical works by Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and Jomini. But the best refuge for research was the Duke Humphrey’s Library in the Bodleian. There are simply no words to describe the beauty of this room and its centuries old collection of tomes.
Always avoiding the daily rains and never without an umbrella, I would then often retreat back to my office at the old Boys School on George Street and write or exchange ideas with my fellows on whatever latest thing we were all working on. Though it had long ago become the History Department Faculty offices, even here I was surrounded by military history – for example, just down the hall from me sat the desk used by Thomas Edward Lawrence (of Arabia) when he was a young student here. And nearly every day I walked past his stoic portrait, always being reminded that unorthodox army majors sometimes get the best assignments.
During term the CCW program ran a series of weekly seminars. The campaigning and generalship seminar, held at All Souls College, consisted of special presentations given by British serving generals, air marshals, and admirals. The CCW title seminar at the Social Sciences Building included international guest speakers across a wide range of academic and professional fields. The military history seminar series in the Wharton Room likewise hosted a number of leading British and American scholars. In addition to these deliberate events, as a research fellow I could attend just about any other seminar going on anywhere across the university. Every week one could attend presentations on postwar Iraq, intelligence history, the Cold War, Eurasian security, conflict in the Middle East, defence economics, energy security, military innovation, strategic studies, and military history. In between all the symposia, some days were spent researching and writing in wonderful settings like the uniquely round tower known as the Radcliffe Camera.
One thing that makes Oxford so marvelous is not just what one takes from it, but also what one might give. Research fellows were expected to present regularly, and among other talks and research groups I was involved with, I had the opportunity to address both the military history seminar series as well as the Oxford University Strategic Studies Group, the latter organization founded by Sir Michael Howard. It was a bit intimidating at first as Oxford routinely sports very tough audiences, but I found myself in my element and on the whole lecturing was immensely rewarding. It is in fact an experience I will remember always.
This short blog barely scratches the surface of experiences I enjoyed over the course of an academic year spent at Oxford. I know I will be forever grateful for having had the opportunity to live and learn there, and for the wonderful new friendships gained while being a fellow among great peers. Though my friends jokingly said one time, “Andrew has gone off to Hogwarts for a bit”, and in a way they were right. For one who had dreamt for a long time about learning and lecturing at one of the world’s great and ancient universities, I was happy to see the magic come true.