A History of Warfare by John Keegan

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A History of Warfare by John Keegan

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Informative, erudite and personal, this book presents a history of warfare and the role of war in history from the ancient times to the most modern. It shows how the Clausevitzian notion of "war as continuation of politics" came into being and how disastrously it has been applied. It requires a bit of previous knowledge of history but nothing major, and its personal perspective will stimulate even if you disagree with it or are offended.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: October 2004
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 978-1844137497

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A History of Warfare presents a look at the whole European/Western history (with substantial incursions into other cultures, notably China and Japan) from the perspective of warmaking. The book varies in how detailed its account of actual events, dates and battles is in relation to a more general discussion of developments in warfare. I had a strong feeling that Keegan sometimes almost couldn't help himself and included unnecessary detailed data (notably about Roman and Greek campaigns), compelled probably by his classical education rather than the needs of the discourse.

It is almost necessary to have at least an idea of the outline of the Western history to read A History of Warfare . Theoretically it would be possible to embark on the task for a reader without even a basic knowledge, but such a reader would probably find themselves overwhelmed by a barrage of names of peoples, places and cultures and generally the frame of shared reference assumed by the author.

The whole book is based - to some extent at least - on a polemical premise, directed at the Clausewitzian concept of war as a continuation of politics by any other means. Keegan uses the Clausewitz's distinction between real war and true war throughout the book as well as employing other concepts similar but not identical to that distinction: primitive versus modern war, below and above military horizon. This differentiation is a rather useful one and it was one of the most memorable aspects I was left with after reading History of Warfare.

Apart from the introduction and the epilogue, devoted to the extensive attempts at answering "what is war?" and "what should war be?" questions, the rest of the book is divided into six sections, three main ones and three interludes. The interludes examine warfare from the point of view of external circumstances (geography and climate), fortifications and logistics. The main sections, entitled Stone, Flesh and Fire present the actual, roughly chronological account.

Stone deals with warfare of the primitive peoples and the early civilisations and concludes with the invention of the chariot. Flesh concentrates, perhaps surprisingly, on the equine rather than the human variety and was to me the most fascinating but ideologically the most controversial section as it deals with both the use of horses in the cavalry formations of the "civilised" world and with the role of the periodic invasions of the nomadic horse people from the steppes in defining the European civilisation. Fire charts the history of warfare from the first use of the gunpowder to the present and includes the strongest polemic with the Clausewitz's ideas.

Moving to modern times, the totality and relentless cruelty of the wars of the 20th century is, in Keegan's analysis, a result of the militarization of the society (every man a soldier); technological developments (we bomb because we can) and - in the political plane - the application of the Clausewitzian principle. For Hitler war was politics (and politics was war). The greatest lesson of the last 200 years of warfare seems to be to stop using war as means of achieving political ends: in the current situation warfare is indeed a particularly bad choice of a political tool. Or is it? The book was, after all, written before the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were waged in a clear pursuit of political ends.

Doesn't war pay anymore in the modern world? Is the Clausewitzian principle refuted? Can we return to the ritualistic conflicts of the "primitive war" but played out with modern armies consisting of the select few who are temperamentally unsuited to civilian life?

Keegan seems to think so, but despite his vision of the end of war he is very reluctant to let go of the armies. He still maintains a tacit (and a rather pathetic) admiration for those without which the world would become uninhabitable and who are in his opinion a civilising force. It is not very clear why he thinks so: it seems so obvious that the explanation is not provided. Perhaps he believes that the violent instinct of the human have to be channelled into some form of warfare. Perhaps he confuses the role of an army and one of a police force. He suggests revisiting and learning from the primitive cultures with their stylised, arms-length (or further) combat but at the same time he still believes in staying "above the military horizon" and thus maintaining within the society an organisation of human beings devoted ultimately to the pursuit of killing or maiming others.

Many of the more general propositions in Keegan's book seem to me to be unlikely to be true: I don't share his admiration for even very civilised armies and I don't necessarily identify with the "civilised" world, especially the Roman one, as much as he does. The Marxist approach that was prevalent in my formative years of education makes me doubt the actual role of the great names in history and my background in scientific psychology makes me frown at the importance he seems to place on temperaments suited and not suited to warrior life.

But these do not need to detract from the main narrative: however much I doubted the "whys" provided by Keegan, reading about the "hows" and "whats" was enjoyable and enlightening.

A History of Warfare is an impressive work, accomplished with flair and personal passion; erudite but accessible. I learned a lot from it: particularly the specific military perspective and concepts, but also many aspects of war culture I have never considered before (from the essence of the Greek phalanx to how notions of citizenship rights and military duty got intimately entangled in the 19th century).

Recommended for anybody with interest and basic knowledge of history.

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