John Keegan treks through history probing the meaning of war

November 14, 1993|By William Roberts

Title: "A History of Warfare"

Editor: John Keegan

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 432 pages (245 illustrations); $27.50 This is a grand, rousing story told in the inimitable way that only John Keegan could tell it. The battles, wars, weapons and great warriors are all here, but they are part of a larger purpose that Mr. Keegan has in mind when he begins by asking the reader to consider the question: "What is war?"

In the argument that follows, Mr. Keegan contends that war is not, as Carl von Clausewitz maintained, an extension of politics. Instead, it is an extension of culture -- "that great cargo of shared beliefs, values, associations, myths, taboos, imperatives, customs, traditions, manners and ways of thought, speech and artistic expression which ballast every society." As the reader travels through distant times and regions with Mr. Keegan as his guide, it becomes clear that there is no simple answer to the question posed at the beginning.

War, Mr. Keegan convincingly demonstrates, has taken many forms in the past, some bloodier than others. Despite the frequency and importance of warfare over the centuries, however, he does not think that man is forever doomed to kill or be killed on the battlefield. "Over the course of 4,000 years of experiment and repetition," he concedes, "warmaking has become a habit." Nevertheless, it is a habit that he believes has been restrained by certain societies in the past and thus can be restrained, if not abolished, in the future.

This book will appeal not only to military historians and buffs, but to a larger audience as well. Mr. Keegan omits little as he traces the development of warfare from its prehistoric beginnings to the Cold War. He avoids the trap of technological determinism to which military historians are sometimes prone without slighting the importance of new technologies and weapons, along with new means of transportation and communication.

But his primary interest is the interplay between war and culture at different times in the past; and to facilitate his exploration of this relationship, "A History of Warfare" is arranged both topically and chronologically. Adding to the richness of the narrative and the subtlety of Mr. Keegan's argument, these topics are deliberately interwoven such that the reader sometimes encounters familiar events that were previously explored from a very different perspective. Another strength of this approach is that it enables the author to pay more attention than other general military histories to non-Western societies and forms of war.

In a manner strongly reminiscent of his classic 1976 study "The Face of Battle," Mr. Keegan begins with a preliminary, wide-ranging inquiry into the nature of war. He takes issue with the assertion by Clausewitz "that war is the continuation 'of political intercourse . . . with the intermixing of other means' " -- not, as it is usually translated, "the continuation of policy by other means." Mr. Keegan rejects Clausewitz's treatment of warfare as a rational, desirable or even inevitable form of behavior, accusing the Prussian theoretician of "struggling to advance a universal theory of what war ought to be, rather than what it actually was and had been."

Here Mr. Keegan is at odds with the recent scholarship of such historians as Peter Paret and Michael Howard, who argue that when Clausewitz spoke of "ideal" or "true" war, he did not have in mind a goal toward which he wanted statesmen or soldiers to strive. For Clausewitz, the "ideal war" was simply a theoretical concept of unrestrained warfare that actual conflicts from time to time approximated, but never duplicated.

Mr. Keegan is on firmer ground when he argues that Clausewitz, bound by the values of his own culture, failed to offer a comprehensive analysis of warfare as practiced by non-Western peoples such as the Cossacks, whose cruel treatment of the weak and whose apparent cowardice when confronted with strength and bravery so revolted Clausewitz. From here, Mr. Keegan proceeds with a remarkable examination of warfare from prehistoric times to the present, using anthropological as well as more traditional historical sources.

But it gradually becomes obvious that Mr. Keegan is doing more than telling a story that other historians before him have told, although rarely in as fascinating or elegant a style. Throughout, Mr. Keegan marshals his evidence so as to persuade the reader of the existence of two "military horizons" of far-reaching significance in world history.

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