Book Review: A History of Warfare
Curtis Szmania cracks open John Keegan's look into warfare, its technology, events it changed, and of course the history of warfare itself.
Author: John Keegan
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1993. 432 pages
Finding a book on the history of warfare can be a very challenging task. The aspect itself is so broad and all-encompassing that it’s nearly impossible to find a source that contains everything about the subject. But don’t let this obstacle prevent you from finding a book that attempts to overcome this challenge. Usually, in such circumstances, authors will try to cover the subject by using their own system. Of course not everything can be covered, so they’ll include in their history what they feel is most important and unique, and what fits into their thesis. The structure of such works is most commonly in chronological order, starting with the beginning of history and finishing with the present; and can be organized in categories that define each period of history uniquely. However John Keegan did not take this approach with his A History of Warfare.
Keegan has divided warfare up into categories, organizing it to fit his understanding of the subject. He also lets it be known to his readers what he thinks were the “game changing” technologies and revolutionary events that shaped warfare over the ages. He’s attempted to organize war’s history within his own evolutionary linear structure, to make sense of it all. Arguing what he thinks were the causes and effects of the evolutionary process which war has taken—in an effort to better understand why the history of warfare is the way it is.
When I picked up A History of Warfare I was aware that it wasn’t going to deliver an in-depth study of all civilizations and conflicts throughout history. But nor did I expect an in-depth study of a particular civilization or conflict. I was under the impression that it would breeze through the important events in military history, while trying to prove the author’s thesis. Though, as I continued through its pages I began to wonder if this were true about Keegan’s book. The thesis is clarified in the beginning of the book. He begins by attacking the Carl von Clausewitz’s statement that war is a continuation of politics by other means. Keegan denounces this conviction outright. To support this attack he makes the bold statement that, “Politics played no part in the conduct of the First World War worth mentioning.” But Keegan does not make a convincing argument to support this bold conclusion. I, personally, can think of several examples of how politics played into World War I, but this wouldn’t be necessary for this review.
A History of Warfare is not laid out chronologically but rather into five chapters, not including the introduction. Keegan has split the work into: “War in Human History”, “Stone”, “Flesh”, “Iron”, and “Fire”. In the first he dissected Clausewitz’s theories and Clausewitz the man quite thoroughly. Although, I do think his definition of politics is very restricted, and perhaps even incorrect. Before the second chapter Keegan goes into what he labeled “Limitations on Warmaking.” I believe this section was an attempt to rationalize warfare, which itself is a very irrational thing. I applaud the attempt to analyze war and make some sense of it, but I don’t think Keegan agrees that not all things can be rationalized in such a black-n-white manner.
The “Stone” chapter delves into the beginnings of civilization—the “pre-Iron Age”. Then, after an interlude titled “Fortification” Keegan goes into chapter 3, “Flesh.” In this chapter he gathered all the examples of civilizations and eras that the horse was the primary part of armies. “Armies”, the following chapter, contains real life examples of nations who had large armies that were usually supported by conscription to sustain themselves. Then “Iron” makes apparent the effect heavy infantry have had on the course of history—from phalanxes to Roman legions. Following this is an interlude about logistics and supply, and following that is the fifth chapter “Fire”. “Fire” represents the gunpowder age and all the way to the present.
The author’s ability to categorize the military history of the world into four categories—“Stone”, “Flesh”, “Iron”, and “Fire”—is bold and even envious. But I think it’s a bit naive. Thinking the military events of the past can be simplified that easily, and be able to cover all notable aspects of warfare history, makes me question how much effort Keegan has put into studying the complexities of war. By compiling the book within four categories, the civilizations and technologies talked about seem to be all over the place. For example, the chapter “Flesh” (the horse chapter) includes civilizations chronologically before the civilizations in the “Iron” chapter, and chronologically after. This makes the book a bit all over the place.
Though, one thing about it all that upset me was Keegan’s unwillingness to go into any sort of detail about medieval warfare. The knights that dominated the battlefields of western civilization during the Middle Ages were barely represented in the book. These warriors could have either been mentioned in either “Flesh” or “Iron”. Although, the book is accompanied by many helpful graphics (maps, black-n-white pictures, and drawings) which helps express what the author is describing.
On the whole, the book is a good read. Although I wouldn’t recommend it for those who know little about military history, Keegan has compiled a unique way at looking at it. The work may be confusing to those who haven’t spent much time reading history. It does get into detail about certain topics, which I found to be quite a surprise, though also a bit inappropriate as this diverged from the thesis. By the end of the book the author came to the conclusion—staying with his previous notion that war is not a continuation of politics—that war will not last forever and politics will. And, although I do agree with the latter conclusion, I do not agree with the former statement—which he had made in the beginning of the book. I think war and politics are related like Clausewitz’s had said, but the two are not exclusive to each other. Politics can still exist without warfare, which itself (I believe) is a continuation of politics.
The Good: The book gives a unique look at military history, many interesting facts about warfare are presented, the author has attempted to make military history easier to understand in four unique categories, the book is accompanied by very helpful graphics, Carl von Clausewitz’s notion of war has been strongly challenged, Keegan’s fearless attempt to dissect the subject should be applauded.
The Bad: It may be a confusing read to those unfamiliar with military history, the book is not organized in chronological order and seems to be all over the place at times, medieval warfare is barely touched on, the way the author has organized the book seems to be the wrong system because it leaves out notable events that should have been mentioned while eclipsing the spheres of other categories.
Review Written By: Curtis Szmania, Staff Writer