His first horizon derives from the controversial 1949 study by the American anthropologist Harry Turney-High, "Primitive War: Its Practice and Concepts." This "military horizon" is the point at which the raiding and ritualistic warfare practiced by "primitive" peoples give way to more sophisticated forms of conquest and fighting. Cautioning the reader against idealizing "primitive" warfare, Mr. Keegan examines anthropological studies of the Yanomamo in Brazil and Venezuela, the Maring in New Guinea, and the Maoris in New Zealand.
He concludes that primitive warriors are more restrained than their modern Western counterparts. The former fight in ways that are overlaid with ritual and "marked by . . . tentativeness, preference for fights at a distance, reliance on missiles and reluctance to close to arm's length until victory looked assured." The latter, at least since the fifth century B.C., have shown a great preference for decisive, close encounters of the sort originally practiced by the hoplites or phalanx warriors of ancient Greece.
The second "military horizon" follows from the first and is geographical as well as cultural. It is "the outer edge of civilization," separating China, India, the Middle East and Europe from the charioteers and horse peoples of the steppe who for 2,000 years raided, conquered and reconquered those civilizations. These peoples excelled at a long-range, tentative form of fighting that, after many centuries of contact with the Chinese, gave rise to what Mr. Keegan terms an Oriental way of making war.
It is, he argues, a welcome alternative to the slaughter of the Western front in World War I or such battles as Iwo Jima and Okinawa in World War II. Moreover, when coupled with the Chinese tradition "of subordinating the warrior impulse to the restraints of law and custom," the Oriental way of war offers hope for the future. Mr. Keegan is aware of the irony of seeing in the people who followed Attila the Hun, Genghis Kahn and Tamerlane a reason to be hopeful about the future, but he regards those ruthless conquerors as the exception and not the rule during the millenniums when the horse peoples posed a "constant . . . but . . . normally containable" threat to the civilizations they bordered.
I wish that I could share Mr. Keegan's optimistic conclusion based on his reading of past events, or his confidence that the use of U.N. troops overseas today marks the beginning of a new type of military culture in which military forces will pursue humanitarian, rather than destructive, goals in the future. I am more pessimistic, yet cannot help but admire the sheer audacity of what Mr. Keegan has done in this book. "A History of Warfare" is a marvelous achievement by a master historian. It is also a stunning and impassioned, if sometimes wrongheaded, argument that keeps the reader spellbound to the end.
Mr. Roberts, a military historian, lives in Annapolis.