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15 December 2021

Sir Michael Howard Annual Lecture explored the the history of counting in early modern and modern warfare

Dr Erica Charters delivered a fascinating insight into the political and social implications of metrics of counting morality in war in early modern and modern warfare

SMHC 2021 lecture

The political and social implications of counting morality in early modern and modern warfare was explored in this year's annual lecture in honour of the founder of the Department of War Studies, Sir Michael Howard.

Delivered by Dr Erica Charters, Associate Professor of Global History and the History of Medicine at the University of Oxford, the talk took place last week to a large online audience of people from all over the world, including members of the King’s community, military personnel, and notable historians.

The talk was introduced by Dr Mark Condos, Co-Director of the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War and chaired by fellow Co-Director Dr Jonathan Fennell.

Dr Charters explored how modern wars have been evaluated numerically, through the toll of those killed or through financial costs, and how these body counts have been used publicly since the US Vietnam War. She described how this accountancy of war has driven a statistical turn in modern societies for spreading numeracy and developing statistical practices and technologies in all areas, using the current example of the data around the Covid-19 pandemic.

Examining the history of counting in warfare across the early modern and modern period, Dr Charters revealed how this led to new concepts on what constituted acceptable and excess mortality. She also highlighted how the quantitative approach of counting and recording casualties had critical political implications, in addition to the obvious military concerns.

Beginning by providing visual examples of archival documentation from the 1700 onwards including census, musters and returns, Dr Charters explained the financial motivations and the issue of occasional fraudulent actions surrounding these documents, and the stark differences between the comprehensive literal nature of musters, and the purely numerical data contained within returns.

We are a numerate society that takes for granted the usefulness of numbers

She continued by exploring how the analysis of data became a means for measuring success or failure when compared with other countries and conflicts, and how the risks of data misinterpretation within propaganda had potentially damaging affects to society.

The lecture was concluded with an extensive Q&A discussion between Dr Charters and audience members from around the world.


In this story

Mark Condos

Senior Lecturer in Imperial and Global History

Jonathan Fennell

Professor of the History of War and Society