Keegan – A History of Warfare – a much needed historical- philosophical outlook

Dan Byrnes in review of John Keegan, A History of Warfare. London, Hutchinson/ Random House, 1993.

I mostly read social, political and maritime history, and rarely read military history unless I absolutely have to, so why did I bother anyway with Keegan here? Well, for one thing, he has a well-considered, philosophical outlook on the history of warfare that I have never encountered before. He also has useful dates in Ancient History I’d enjoy surveying. And once you get into Keegan’s view of Ancient History, he is a lecturer at Sandhurst military academy in the UK, you are gone as a reader, captured in more ways than one by Keegan’s views on the ugly business of war, about which he makes no bones, violently ugly it is.

Although, Keegan rather sidesteps questions about why humanity conducts war, and has done so for so many thousands of years. What Keegan has done is go into the anthropology of warfare, which he does partly as he thinks that the face-to-face combat we are used to in European theatres of war, came from Ancient Greece. Ancient Greek ways of warfare, best represented by the Spartans, became pathways for humanity’s trajectory out of more primitive ways of warfare, which used more ritual and ceremony than westerners are now used to.

The Greeks influenced the Persians and more so the Romans. The Romans transmitted their views on warfare to the edges of their empire, especially to the Germanic peoples. Earlier on, how and why did humanity adopt the habit of building defensive walls for cities? The development of horse-based warfare also was a factor, and horse-using fighters learned detachment for their fighting methods, perhaps more so than any other kind of fighter.

But how are all these competing views organized by Keegan as he proceeds? His book is less than chronological, and is more devoted to themes, but I found his use of statistics about war scenarios quite riveting.

Keegan begins his book by flatly contradicting the well-known view of Clausewitz that war is the continuation of policy by other means. Keegan sees this view of Clausewitz as arising from specific times and places in European history – where Napoleon’s star shines rather brightly – a Europe of polities, states, state interests,while war in fact long predates strategy, diplomacy, more modern political realities.

Yet today we are still strung between the pacifist and the lawful bearer of arms; we know both will prefer to die rather than give up their creed of life. Primitive man long ago felt and saw things differently, yet finally, the lawful bearer of arms had to heed orders that might mean the end of his life , even in “primitive societies”. Society – and/or civilisation – has always had to live with such dilemmas, but the many different ways humanity has found for dealing with these issues is why Clausewitz is not so much wrong, as severely limited in his outlook.

Keegan buffs his often philosophical prose with clear references to the uglinesses of war (kidnap, looting, pillage, rape, extortion,systematic vandalism) and he tells us (for example) that if there are many kinds of war, there are no simple answers, either. That in western culture there are three major elements to the conduct of war, the moral, the intellectual and the technological. (Keegan seems to want to leave it to his reader to decide if the advent of atomic warfare was highly meaningful for mankind, or otherwise.)

This is a very zoom-in/zoom-out sort of book. Keegan gives us close-ups of theatres of war, or he gives us long historical perspectives to ponder, as with the use of gunpowder, the development of cannon. And he also says things such as: a world without organised armies would be uninhabitable. He is also against “cultural rigidity” in the conduct of warfare. He mentions “military restraint” approvingly, and thinks that military practitioners and/or peacekeepers in the future will still have much to learn (or relearn) from The Orient, or from more primitive cultures. This is why an approach to the anthropology of warfare is to be recommended; it helps to promote cultural adaptiveness where military challenges are involved, or are imposed on us.

And, Clausewitz was wrong. Keegan says, politics must continue, war cannot continue. The two things are separable, they are not necessarily in harness to each other or for each other. (Ends)

Author: Dan Byrnes

Dan Byrnes is an Australian poet, writer, historian, a one-time journalist in Tamworth NSW Australia (or, Country Music Capital, Australia). Born in Sydney in 1948, meaning in late 2018 he is aged 70! He is deeply interested in modern Australian history (since 1788), literature, poetry and music. He had a normal high school education plus several stints at university, ending with a double major in History/Psychology, then with an Honours degree in History. Of late, and as he gets older - in 2019 he will be 71 - he spends time compiling and recompiling old work, adding to this blog, and wondering deeply with the history of Australia since 1788, a relatively new country, which received up to 162,000 convicts from Britain, why there is such apathy to maritime history in general and in particular, such apathy to the question: who owned/insured the convict ships?

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