A History of Warfare

In This Review

A History of Warfare

By John Keegan
Alfred A. Knopf, 1993
432 pp. $27.50
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John Keegan, a renowned military historian known for The Face of Battle, a superb study of combat in the Western world, and more recently his excellent overview of World War II, has a taste for large topics. Alas, here his reach has far exceeded his grasp. Despite some graceful writing and pointed observations, A History of Warfare fails to live up to the title's promise or the author's reputation.

The historian who departs from chronology takes risks. Keegan's chapters have enigmatic titles Stone, Flesh, Iron, Fire interspersed with interludes on such matters as fortications and logistics. The narrative, punctuated with arcane jargon (furusiyya, klephts and sphagia, for example) springs to and fro in time in a way disconcerting to any reader, no matter how knowledgeable. Strong themes could redeem such confusing leaps, but Keegan professes himself the enemy of abstraction: Without a theory the facts are silent, the economist F. A. Hayek has written. That may be true of the cold facts of economics, but the facts of war are not cold. They burn with the heat of the fires of hell.

Such odd emotional outbursts make the reader aware that Keegan the historian suffers from a kind of possession by another Keegan -- Keegan the prophet who periodically erupts to pronounce the imperative and inevitability of a pacific transformation of mankind. The latter Keegan has long wrestled for the soul of Keegan the historian and occasionally won, as, for example, in the conclusion to The Face of Battle, which proclaimed the obsolescence of battle a passage written a few years before the Falklands, Lebanon, Persian Gulf and Afghanistan wars, the Yugoslav civil war, and scores of insurgencies, insurrections and covert struggles.

Keegan the prophet, alas, seized control of this book, and uses it as a high place from which to hurl invective against his personal demon, who goes by the unlikely name of Carl von Clausewitz. How does a history of human conflict become a vendetta against a liberal German soldier-theorist of the early nineteenth century? Keegan the prophet views as pernicious, if not blasphemous, Clausewitz's best-known teaching, that war is about politics. The author believes that a warrior culture, embodied in the military men whom he regards with a complicated and intense mixture of admiration and loathing, explains war. This belief occasionally leads Keegan to make preposterous assertions (Politics played no part in the conduct of the First World War worth mentioning), but more often to an attempt to define away historical facts that he cannot avoid.

Thus, Keegan the prophet praises the gentle (because symbolic) aspects of primitive warfare, hoping that modern man will adopt its characteristics. Keegan the historian, however, must explain the systematic and breathtaking cruelty of aboriginal tribes from Borneo to the Great Plains. Keegan the author tries to reconcile his warring souls by defining all exceptionally savage but non-European warriors as Clausewitzians. Thus, when Shaka welded the Zulu nation into the most formidable fighting force in Africa, he did so, according to Keegan, as a Clausewitzian in revolt against the benign traditions of primitive warfare. When Easter Islanders exterminated one another before contact with European civilization, it also reflected their metamorphosis into Clausewitzians. With that epithet Keegan the prophet anathematizes a large and nefarious tribe that includes, inter alia, some Aztecs, a heterodox anthropologist, many clever American social scientists, most European military leaders and the Yanomamo Indians.

Such distortions and the obsessive rage that give them birth do little credit to such a talented historian, and no service to readers who look to him for instruction. Perhaps such a chaplain as caters to military historians will exorcise Keegan the prophet, and return a less troubled Keegan the historian to the ranks of his colleagues. We need the latter's gifts of narrative and insight, not least because the former looks to be so terribly wrong about the imminent demise of war.

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