Book Cover – Between Peace and War

Book Cover – Between Peace and War

Between Peace and War: British Defence and the Royal United Services Institute, 1831–2010

by Damian P. O’Connor

London: Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, 2011
333 pages, £19.50
ISBN: 0-85516-173-6

Reviewed by Gabriel Sauvé

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After writing his thesis on imperial defence in the second half of the 19th Century, Damian O’Connor is now examining an institution that was highly influential in the debate on that issue. The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), through its conferences and the prestigious RUSI Journal, provides an ideal forum for debates affecting all aspects of the military world. Access to the institute’s archives has enabled O’Connor to convincingly establish a link between RUSI’s history and intellectual output, and the overarching political and military history of the past two centuries. The author also shows the influence and relevance of the institute, from its founding to the present day. O’Connor has taken the story of RUSI’s institutional, financial, and realty-related ‘ups and downs,’ and painted a vivid and captivating picture of the organization’s existence over many years. The reader comes to see RUSI as an abiding and vital organization with an unwavering objective: to show that defence must be taken very seriously. In this account, O’Connor argues that complacency among politicians, idealist illusions, and paltry funding are the most powerful and enduring enemies to security in Great Britain.

RUSI was founded in 1831 by the victor of the Battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, to help officers avoid idleness and to encourage them to take an interest in their profession. Those objectives were attained in part because the institute earned the reputation of being the only place where a young officer could question a superior. RUSI quickly became a point of contact for military personnel, scientists, and politicians. O’Connor notes that the ability to foster exchanges, while also giving direction to those exchanges, is precisely how the institute has always made its influence felt. RUSI members also discovered that public opinion can be used to influence decisions. In a rather original venture, staff members of the institute, in addition to expressing themselves publicly in the newspapers and in Parliament, more-or-less overtly backed the publication of fictional works. Those works, written by informed and credible authors, were intended to raise awareness among the public, politicians, and civil servants by exposing the real threats to the nation—threats for which the armed forces were not adequately funded, equipped, or prepared. The Battle of Dorking (1871) and Third World War: August 1985 (1978) are examples of this unusual literary genre.

For O’Connor, the fight for adequate funding for the armed forces is what best defines the institute’s mission over its 180 years of existence. The British/liberal tendency to want to enjoy the fruits of peace, coupled with a false sense of security tied to the insular nature of the country, are what have regularly kept military budgets below minimum levels. O’Connor shows that RUSI, far from seeking ever-increasing sums of money, has consistently focused upon analyzing whether the means are sufficient for the ends. Consequently, the utter inadequacy of Great Britain’s military resources in relation to the political objectives set by its leaders, and the role that Britain has wished to play in the world, has been denounced by RUSI for the better part of the past two centuries. The institute has been as realistic as possible in its analysis of the use of the British armed forces, taking into account the decline of the British Empire and decolonization.

The institute, ever pragmatic in its military thinking, is also depicted by O’Connor as being unswayed by ideologies. Imperialism as the be-all and end-all, and the praetorianism of the 19th Century found no more apologists within the institute than did fascism, communism, or the idealism surrounding the League of Nations in the 1920s and 1930s; the organization’s sole objective has always been to ensure the defence of Great Britain and its democratic values. Despite the defensive stance, reflecting upon the use of weapons in a liberal regime, from the era of Open Diplomacy to the present, requires that we, with our fallible collective memories, be constantly reminded of the armed forces’ essential role as bastion of democracy. O’Connor makes good on that requirement by quoting—more than once—Colonel John Ward from 1921: “We shall never be such a society of Angels that we can do without the hangman and the prison… because there are always a certain number of lunatics who think they are sane.” This assertion was certainly not disproven by the Second World War, and is just as relevant as ever today. For RUSI, in contrast to the spirit of the times, the motto has been—and shall remain—si vis pacem, para bellum.

It is abundantly clear that this book, published by RUSI, was written by an ardent supporter of the institute. O’Connor’s admiration for those who have poured their energies into the institute, and his tendency to emphasize RUSI’s successes while citing external factors to explain away each of its shortcomings can sometimes be grating. For example, on the topic of the institute’s inability to develop a doctrine for mechanized warfare in the 1920s and 1930s, O’Connor places the blame upon the poor quality of the armoured vehicles available in England and the underfunding of research. That does not come anywhere near to explaining the lack of a doctrine that could very well have compensated in part for those deficiencies.

All-in-all, Between Peace and War: British Defence and the Royal United Services Institute, 1831–2010 showcases the exceptional RUSI Journal, and is essential reading for any researcher who wishes to seriously study British or Western military thought of the past two centuries. More generally, O’Connor’s work demonstrates the importance of independent research on security issues, and it provides a better understanding of the influence of a ‘think tank’ of this scope.

Gabriel Sauvé is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Ottawa. He specializes in the history of naval thought in the late 19th century.