A History of Warfare, (1993) by John Keegan is a substantial and interesting book, not for those who want to know the ten or one hundred most decisive battles in human history –about which many, repeatedly, have opined.  It is rather, a substantial reading of anthropological, political and military texts, with brief excursions into archaeology and neurology with which he joins the ongoing investigation into the deepest roots of war.1 Have they grown with our 2 million year-long evolution as primates, or are they a recent growth,  given soil and fertilizer along with the development of agriculture in only the past 10,000 years?  Are they “an extension of politics by other means,” as the West’s most cited philosopher of war had it, or something destructive of politics –unreason swamping the reason of any policy ends?

I began reading Keegan after seeing him referenced by other writers, all smarter folks than I, investigating the question of Why War?  Why do men turn to it, with such alacrity and lethality, after so many demonstrations of its awful consequences?  Why has such a smart species not evolved smarter behaviors to solve disagreement and conflict over needs and desires?    Why is courage to kill celebrated in the species and not courage to flee, like birds, which has led to even wider evolutionary success?

This question of Why War? is not a question military historians usually concern themselves with, being interested in tactics and strategy, lessons learned and ways to win. If why is asked it is meant to be about proximate triggers: cultural, diplomatic, resources, power.  Why men turn so easily to such a lethal exercise, if asked at all, is answered: They just do.  And furthermore, many will assert, Thank God.

Philosophers have asked the question.  Social scientists.  Anthropologists, ethnologist, all have. And Keegan,  author of some 26 books on military matters, a lecturer at Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy of the United Kingdom, and though never a soldier himself, proud of his long association with them, is interested.

His earlier (1976)  The Face of Battle looked in detail at three major western battles as a military historian might, but also paid attention to the motives and emotions of soldiers. In this, A History of Warfare (1993) he turns more fully towards the question.  In fact Keegan asks it exactly, opening chapter Two with:

“Why do men fight”… “is man violent by nature or is his potentiality for violence translated into use by the operation of material factors?”

The Anthropology 

The range of fact — from embedded arrows in the pelvis of 100,000 year old man, to Assyrian “regular” armies, to Islam vs Christian armies to, finally, the advent of nuclear warfare –is astounding.

Most fascinating to me is the trail of evidence that begins with pre-historic man.   As the last ice-sheets pulled back from the temperate zones, about 10,000 years ago, the bow, the sling the dagger and the mace found their way from human brains to human hands.  [I also discovered that the dates of their appearance, though not the sequence, are not strongly agreed upon.  Three texts declare three dates for the appearance of the bow:  71,000 years ago,  Upper Paleolithic (50,000-10,000,) and  20,000 years ago.]

There is nothing casual about his research.  Indeed, he seems to consume studies and monographs  for breakfast.  His division of history begins with a chapter titled Stone, (Paleolithic man) and is followed by Flesh which would be better called, “Horse Flesh;” an even bigger jump in weapons than that of sling and mace occurred with the advent of horse-drawn war chariots along with the powerful composite bow about 1,700 BCE. Keegan cites others to show that this probably developed among nomadic pastoralists who “learn to kill, and to select for killing … to dispatch a living creature with the minimum of damage to the carcass and its valuable contents.”

“Flock management, as much as slaughter and butcher, made the pastoralists so cold-bloodedly adept at confronting sedentary agriculturalists…” 161

Counter intuitively, to me at least, the war chariot preceded the ridden horse by thousands of years.  Additional centuries were needed to breed the horse from a small meat animal, to a pulling animal to something big enough to bear the weight of a man.  Massed horse armies didn’t become formidable until the Huns from the high plains in the 4th century CE

From outlines of prehistoric man, Keegan moves on to deal with peoples of more recent times.  It was the Spartans, and others of Greece, he shows, who gave the west its first example of war-to-the-death instead of battles more circumscribed by ritual bluster and show, small tests of strength followed by negotiation.  In fact, it seems that Alexander’s phenomenal victories were in part because the larger Persian armies were operating on an older set of understandings, unprepared for no-quarter battle.

He has made himself familiar with the emergence of Arab armies and the binding of disparate peoples under the flag of Islam.  It was the first time, he says, that an ‘Ideology’ provided the motive force and social glue to field large armies.  Prior to that, vengeance, territory, chattel (including women and slaves) and goods had been motive enough.  Since then ideology has been part of the make-up of almost all wars, whether religion, nation or political.  Plunder and booty were still reason for men to fight in the Thirty Years Wars (1618-1648) but Viva Espana! was also heard on the battlefield.

As he sets the stage for his argument with Clausewitz he introduces four cultures which conducted war, in one case to complete extermination, which “defied the rationality of politics.”  Each is a fascinating small read: Easter Island, the Zulu Kingdom of the 1880s, Mameluke Egypt from the 9th to the 16th centuries,  and Samurai Japan from 1600 to 1854.

This is fascinating stuff to me, anchoring man’s practice of violent group encounters (whether called war or not) in the barely imaginable past.


The Problem

The problem for the average, educated reader in taking on the book, is separating out and seeing clearly the several lines of argument. The details of man’s early combat, how it developed in different cultures and ages, how it is related to which sex is exogamous, how it is related to hunting, are interesting and informative. Keegan, however,  puts this in the service of a larger concern – that Clausewitz’s dicta on war being an extension of politics is a danger to our understanding of war, and politics, and to existence itself.

Clausewitz’s concepts underlie the most authoritative discussions of America’s “lessons learned” from the Vietnam debacle (Harry Summers’s On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War and the Weinberger Doctrine).  Indeed, Clausewitz has come to dominate the official American military doctrinal debate.  [See Bassford.]

 By giving a rational cast to man’s waging of war (by calling it an extension of policy) the search for the actual causes –not always reasons –for warfare are detoured and disrupted.  His arguments are important, to readers in general and especially military thinkers and policy makers.  They are not, however, uncontested, and the accusations that he misreads the great man are brandished ferociously. [see Bassford for example].  For those readers who have repeated the Clausewitz aphorism about war and politics, itself rooted in Aristotle,  entering into Keegan’s argument will provide the means to self correct, and for that I recommend it.  I suspect, however, that the readership for anthropology, history  and neurology is not the same as that for Clausewitzian smack-down, even were the two lines of argument more clearly articulated and structured.

Even in his exposition of the biological base and cultural edifice of war-making, his connective prose is not always straightforward. He touches on the amygdala and testosterone and their relation to aggression, but they soon disappear. He takes pains to explain expert opinions and positions, but he also assumes much. Experts disagree and the evidence brought by ethologists, ethnologists,  anthropologists, Cultural Determinists, Structural Functionalists and their detractors, is not always brightly demarcated. Interesting case studies of types of primitive warfare and the conclusions to be drawn from them get muddled in unclear separation of his antagonists.  Though he falls squarely in the Margaret Mead camp that “war is culture” it is never made so explicit.

Finally, though he walks us through why war is not “policy by other means,” nor is it neurologically and inescapably embedded in us, his argument that it comes with cultures, and not all of them, that we can move back from the brink of cataclysmic war by de-habituating and re-inventing primordial notions of bluster, display and compromise, lacks an anchor.  Having finished the book not all will able to summarize how it is that Keegan thinks war has cultural roots, or why he thinks cultures can be changed.

Turning to comparative data as to frequency and lethality of wars, he joins Stephen Pinker and John Mueller, among others, in claiming that wars and deaths from war have diminished substantially over time. Despite what the news tells us, these are not the worst of times.  Mueller is cited as showing that human slavery, infanticide, human sacrifice and dueling, once all part of human society, have been substantially diminished if not eliminated.

When he writes that, “War, it seems to me, after a lifetime of reading about the subject, mingling with men of war, visiting the sites of war and observing its effects, may well be ceasing to commend itself to human beings as a desirable, or productive, let alone rational, means of reconciling their discontents. ” we read hope rather than being convinced by the evidence offered.

When he says that television sets around the world show  “a spectacle that gives an awful warning … It teaches us to what afflictions war may subject us when we refuse to deny the Clauswitzian idea that was is a continuation of politics, and refuse to recognize that politics leading to war are a poisonous intoxication,” I think that other warnings are seen: not that war injures all, but “that bad stuff will happen to us, unless we are armed.”

Even his just fear of nuclear weapons as the logical proof of his anti-Clauswitzian argument is small solace.

“Nuclear weapons exposed the hollowness of the Clauswitzean analysis once and for all.  How could war be the extension of politics, when the ultimate end of rational politics is to further the well-being of political entities?”

While the hopeful self in me would like to nod in agreement, the skeptical self is stronger.

What, in any case, is to be done?

[What] we need to accept  is that, over the course of 4,000 years of experiment and repetition,  war-making has become a habit. “

“In the primitive world, this habit was circumscribed by ritual and ceremony.  In the post-primitive world, human ingenuity ripped ritual and ceremony, and the restraints they imposed on on war-making ,… empowering men of violence to press its limits of tolerability to, and eventually beyond, the extreme.

The hope that not just one culture or two can change — say American, or Russian– with such a goal in mind seems as unlikely as hoping for self levitation; to hope that Human Culture, writ large, might so change is even more so. And, as if to smother such a hoped-for change in the cradle, he writes that the future will, necessarily, include armies:

 “a world without armies — disciplined, obedient and law abiding– would be uninhabitable. … without them mankind would have to reconcile itself ..to a lawless chaos of masses warring, Hobbesian fashion, “all against all.”

For a very interesting history of how man, when given the choice, invariably chooses the more lethal weapons, for many quick looks at exotic cultures and means of fighting, this is a good book. For an argument that Clausewitz’s theory is not a trustworthy theory for today A History of Warfare is a beginning, a good one perhaps, but not unassailable. For ideas of how to slip the nuclear knot, or the nets of the new world of technology-armed, we will have to look elsewhere.


For those not up to reading the 432 page history, a much shorter volume of his views, coming from lectures in 1998 for the BBC, can be found under the title War and Our World (1998.)

My review of Russell Jacoby’s Blood Lust, mentioned above, see here.  For Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites, stand by: all but finished!


1 See War in Human Civilization, Azar Gat;  Blood Rites: On the Origins and History of the Passions of War, Barbara Ehrenreich; Blood Lust: On the Roots of Violence from Cain and Able to the Present, Russel Jacoby; Behave: The Biology of Human Beings at our Best and WorstRobert Sapolsky, just for starters.

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