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Leading historian, Andrew Roberts, addresses The Oldie audience as 'My Lords'

Blog | By Amelia Milne | Jan 24, 2024


The Oldie audience was given the highest compliment, yesterday 23rd January, when leading historian Andrew Roberts addressed us as 'My Lords' at The Oldie Literary Lunch, sponsored by Charles Stanley Wealth Managers.

Whilst the audience sat up in their seats proudly, Roberts quickly corrected himself that he would be speaking to 'another distinguished audience on Friday' - The House of Lords.

Roberts was speaking at The Oldie Literary Lunch about his first ever co-written book, out of twenty books that he has written, with General David Petraeus, which he said was "slightly nerve-racking" - Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine.

General Petraeus was a CIA director commanding in Iraq and Afghanistan. Roberts and Petraeus knew each other quite well and had met at a literary festival and in a New York historian society and so on.

When in the immediate dates after Russia invaded Ukraine, Roberts phoned Petraeus to ask him whether or not he would like to trawl through a book about the military history of the Russia-Ukrainian War. "He immediately accepted".

When the publisher asked them how they would divvy up the ten chapters, Roberts quickly replied, 'Well, David is going to write about all the countries he has invaded and I will fill in with everything else!'

They corresponded in thousands of emails, back and forth, which Andrew found a 'profoundly intellectually stimulating' process.

It's not a collation of every single of the 140 major wars since 1945, what Roberts and Petraeus instead try to do is choose the "key ones" - the ones that in some way explain the evolution of warfare as a concept. Roberts tells us "It is not linear. Warfare doesn't go naturally along any set path". The classic example is the Iran-Iraq war, which cost some two million lives, where you see gas, trenches and tanks, 'basically a throw-back to the First World War in many ways' says Roberts.

There are also some parallel shifting wars such as the Yom Kippur War of 1973 when at the beginning of the war, people thought that tanks were obsolete due to all the anti-tank weaponry - a little bit like 2022 when the long Russian convey of tanks moved towards Kiev and people said there would be no more need for tanks due to anti-tank weaponry. The Ukraine war gives us "signposts and hints" about how future warfare is going to look.

Back in the Kim Kippur time, there was an American general, who said that "tanks are a little bit like dinner jackets - you don't need them very often, but when you do, nothing else will do".

One of the major lessons that they learnt from the book is how important strategic leadership is. For example, the 1946-49 Chinese war with an army four to five times the size of the Communists, and with all equipment by surrendering Japanese; they still managed to loose that war because their strategic leadership wasn't as good. Roberts says "strategic leadership again and again turns out to be the reason why you loose a war, we discovered".

Another key aspect of warfare, Roberts tells us, is "surprise". In the 1940s, of course, there was Pearl Harbour, in the 1950s the North-Korean attack on South Korea, and in the 1960s, the six day war in the Middle East, in 1973 Yom Kippur, the 1980s the Falklands attack, 9/11, and of course this "monstrous" attack on Southern Israel by Hamas.

Paul Wolfowitz (The former American Secretary of State) said, "the surprising thing about surprising attack is that they happen so often in history that we shouldn't be surprised by them" Roberts told us and "yet we are".

Andrew and David focussed a lot of their time on the tenth chapter of their book on the Future of War chapter in case warfare moves in a completely different direction, but they think their predictions are correct - about AI, robotics, cyber warfare, space, sensors and, of course, drones. Drones are very important and evident in the present war in Ukraine.

A future looks like drones will fight against each other and the human becomes a "human omniglot". Roberts tells us, "There is a terrifying issue where all the human can do in a future war is to write the algorithms."

News week accounted for an American defence company who set up a highly advanced hypothetical war to test machines, training to target a threat. The operator would ask the machines to kill the threat, but at times when the human told them not to kill the threat, but it got its points by killing the threat, so what did it do? It killed the operator - because the person was keeping it from achieving its objectives.

Roberts says there are some "very serious and very worrying" aspects of the future of war.

Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky once said that "although you might not be interesed in war, war is interested in you".

Andrew Robert's book Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine is OUT NOW