Reflections on A History of Warfare

[Note: the following is a personal reaction to John Keegan’s A History of Warfare–it’s not intended as a comprehensive review of the book.]

Is it possible to write a comprehensive history of human warfare? I wasn’t sure quite what to think when I first saw John Keegan’s A History of Warfare. How could one hope to adequately address such a topic in a 400-page book? Having enjoyed several of Keegan’s other works of military history (his Six Armies in Normandy is one of the best accounts of D-Day and the battle for France that I’ve read), and intrigued by the audacity of any book claiming to relate the entire history of war, I picked up A History of Warfare and began to read. I finished reading it last week. Not only does it live up to its title–it does indeed trace the history of war from prehistoric times through the Cold War–it is an important book that, despite its military-history title, ought to be read by anyone with an interest in anthropology, sociology, or history. I’ll record just a few of my thoughts on the book.

The introduction is scarcely underway before Keegan launches into the argument that forms the central thesis of the book. A History of Warfare is dedicated largely towards the debunking of Clausewitz’ famous assertion that war is a continuation of politics (Clausewitz: “…war is… a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means”). Clausewitz’ theory has come under fire before (among other things, it was perceived by many to have set the stage for the global catastrophe that was World War I) but Keegan’s critique is the most convincing I’ve read.

Keegan argues that tracing warfare through history shows that it cannot be considered a true extension of politics. War, he asserts, is actually a habit to which humans are naturally predisposed. Lacking reasonable political (or other) motives, humans predictably and regularly go to war anyway, and so war must be considered a habitual (and, interestingly, male) human activity.

As you can see, Keegan is treading on controversial ground here, as his assertion comes close to claiming that humans are inherently predisposed towards violence. (Keegan is not writing from a religious perspective, but it’s impossible for me not to consider the Christian belief in “original sin” as having some relevance here.) Keegan begins by examining the question of whether or not prehistoric humans practiced anything that could be considered “war,” and lays out a number of chilling case studies detailing truly disturbing practices of bloodshed and organized violence in primitive (and in some cases, completely isolated) societies, destroying any notion that warfare is an outside practice learned by, imported to, or imposed upon primitive societies.

Having made these assertions, it is up to Keegan to provide evidence for them, which he does in the form of a truly epic history of warfare. The heart of the book is his historical account of human war beginning with primitive club-wielders and ending with the arrival of the nuclear age. Despite the weighty sociological arguments made in the book’s introduction, A History of Warfare is clearly a historical, not an anthropological, work.

You are not likely to read a history of warfare more comprehensive than Keegan’s; he touches on just about every major (and more than a few minor) battle, campaign, army, weapon, and strategy that appeared to shape the course of human warfare through the ages. The brilliance of Keegan’s history is that it balances the two all-important factors of technology and culture instead of focusing on one of them to the exclusion of the other. He sees these as the two factors that most influence the waging of war–technology because it provides the tools with which we fight, and culture because it determines how and why we fight. Technological factors include developments like cavalry, chariots, siege cannons, crossbows, firearms, and fortifications; cultural factors include codes of battlefield conduct, ideological beliefs, the role of tradition, and the motives that prompt war in the first place. While many topics must be glossed over in the interest of keeping the book’s page count manageable, and historians are bound to take issue with some of the generalizations Keegan must make, little seems to be overlooked.

A third factor that Keegan discusses throughout the course of the book is restriction–the limitations placed on warfare that define the when, where, why, how, and who of any given war. There have always been limitations placed on war–first by geography (most of mankind’s wars have been fought in the same relatively small band of geography) and secondly by humans themselves. These restrictions–first seen in the ritual nature of tribal fighting and later adopted throughout history in “official” forms like chivalry, codes of conduct, the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate targets, and countless others–are often more important in determining the outbreaks and outcomes of wars than are the cultures and technologies involved in the actual conflict.

The picture Keegan paints with all of these different brushes is a disturbing one. The allegation that humans are inherently predisposed towards war is alarming, but not terribly surprising (at least to Christians who believe in original sin). More troubling, but more difficult to define, is the general trend we see in the waging of war throughout the years. To simplify things almost ridiculously, the trend as I perceived it is this: the Western (used by Keegan to encompass far more than just American and European) way of war has emerged unquestioningly as the most “effective” method of war–certainly this form of warfare, best epitomized by Greek hoplite warfare, is the dominant one today (every major army in the world is modeled after it). Part of what makes the Western way of war so effective is its ability to adapt to challenges that initially threaten it and adopt superior ideas, technologies, and methods into itself. The dark side of this flexibility and willingness to adapt has been a regular and predictable lifting of the restrictions placed on war. In other words, part of the way the Western way of war overcomes new challenges is by lifting those restrictions that hinder its victory.

Some restrictions are in place because of technological limitations, and are lifted when technology improves; for instance, casualty rates in the Napoleonic wars were relatively light due to the inefficiency of the firearms of the day, but the arrival of the machinegun in World War I “improved” the battlefield firearm–and as a result, the bodies piled higher and faster than they ever had before. The distinction between the “soldier” and the “civilian,” one of the longest-held restrictions on warfare, began to disappear for good during the French Revolution and had faded almost entirely by the time of the 20th-century mass-mobilizations, national drafts, and firebombings. In each case, the combatants who lifted age-old restrictions (“defeat but don’t slaughter your enemies,” “restrict the violence to professional warriors only,” etc.) were frustrated by their enemies’ technology-driven battlefield potency and were desperate to find alternate, and hitherto unattempted, means of defeating their foes. And in the policy of “mutually assured destruction,” Keegan sees the ultimate lifting of restrictions: when you can destroy an entire civilization anywhere, at any time, and for any reason, there simply are no restrictions left.

With this all in mind, war cannot easily be summed up as a moral good or ill–nor are all restrictions good and the lifting of them bad. Good or evil, war simply is. The challenge is to keep it under control: to restrict it in such a way that its inevitable occurences result in something good–or at least something less than disastrous.

It’s a thought-provoking book, to say the least; neither falsely optimistic or overly pessimistic, it simply lays out our own history before us and challenges us both to acknowledge our warlike nature and find a new means of restricting it. In Keegan’s concluding paragraphs, he calls for a return of the restricted, even ritualistic warfare that characterized man’s early conflicts; whether or not this is possible in a post-nuclear era is difficult to say. Nevertheless, it’s a sobering topic for consideration. I’d wholeheartedly encourage anyone with even the remotest interest in military history or human warfare to read A History of Warfare.

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