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John Keegan: A History of Warfare
(Hutchinson: 1993)


“Soldiers are not as other men....War undoubtedly connects, as the theorists demonstrate, with economics and diplomacy and politics. [But] connection does not amount to identity, or even to similarity. War is wholly unlike diplomacy or politics, because it must be fought by men whose values and skills are...of a world apart, a very ancient world, which exists in parallel with the everyday world but does not belong to it.... The distance can never be closed, for the culture of the warrior can never be that of civilization itself.”
(Keegan, p.xvi)

Military historians, in general, tend to be an insular lot. As well, most tend to be uninterested in pre-modern warfare - let alone what anthropology can teach us about the earliest forms. Not only that, but most anthropologists prefer to gloss over the negative aspects of the societies they study...so, a reliable syncretic understanding of the varied role(s) which mass organized violence has played in our history is difficult of access.

Except, thankfully, via John Keegan’s A History of Warfare. Because, as the opening quotation here strongly suggests, Keegan combines an anthropologist’s concern with the ethos underlying the activity - and for how the whole society fits together - with the military historian’s focus upon organized violence itself. As well, he has clearly read widely, across the entire range of historical disciplines, and has integrated his findings into what is the only history of warfare - so far - to genuinely address all of the issues concerned.

And, unlike most, this military history is also not militaristic... In fact, it provides the essential counterbalance for those of us who prefer to concentrate upon the positives of human history, by clearly showing the complex interweaving of institutions of violence and growth throughout - and how these have (repeatedly) changed over time. But, the beginning itself was quite different:


“In a still largely empty world, homo sapiens was devoting his energies to colonisation rather than conflict.... Land was effectively free, to anyone willing to shift a few miles and burn some forest - as poor peasants were still doing in nineteenth-century Finland. Yields, on the other hand, must have been so low as to produce little worth robbing, except immediately after the harvest, and then difficulties of transporting the loot - lack of pack or draught animals, lack of roads, lack perhaps even of containers - would have robbed the excercise of its point. Robbery, particularly robbery with violence, justifies the risks involved only if the reward comes in a compact form of high intrinsic value.”
(Keegan, pp.125-6)

Which is why mobile hunter/gatherers tend not to organize their violence against one another. Conversely, it also helps explain why richer societies tend to move towards de-legitimizing violence. Once affluence is relatively widespread, and sustained by an enormously complex social/technological infrastructure, the very notion of “loot” looses its broad appeal - especially at the top of the pyramid - as the costs vastly outweigh any possible gain. This is yet another way in which culture shapes organized violence but, again, the history of this inter-relationship is a complex one:


“Pre-metallurgic wars were...fought at close range, with weapons of little penatrating power and therefore without the dense bodily protection needed to stop puncture wounds to the head and trunk. They accorded a high degree of ceremony and ritual to combat, the spur to and ends of which bore scant relation to the causes and results which modern man perceives in the wars he fights.  Revenge and expiation of insult were commonly the spur, satisfaction of mythic necessity or divine demands equally commonly the end. Such causes and results can subsist only below what Turney-High called the ‘military horizon’.”
(Keegan, pp.114-5)

“’We may speculate’, thinks J.M. Roberts, ‘that the dim roots of the notion of aristocracy are to be sought in the successes (which must have been frequent) of hunter-gatherers, representatives of an older social order, in exploiting the vulnerability of settlers, tied to their areas of cultivation.’ Certainly it is a universal phenomenonon that rights of hunting are always arrogated by those who have authority over tillers of the soil.”
(Keegan, pp.122-3)

Keegan, however, does not neglect the familiar ingredients of military history - such as the importance of weather & terrain. In fact, his analysis of same provides further evidence for the overwhelming economic imperatives underlying warfare, as he demonstrates how limited the conditions are which can support it:


“The congruence of ‘permanently operating’ and contingent factors - climate, vegetation, topography, and the alterations that man has made to the natural landscape - imposes on Mercator’s projection of the world map a sharp division between military and non-military zones, the latter vastly exceeding the former in extent. Organised and intensive warfare has been carried on over extended periods of time along an irregular but continuous band of the world’s surface, lying between the tenth and fifty-fifth degrees of lattitude in the northern hemisphere, and stretching from the Mississippi valley in North America to the Philippines and their outliers in the western Pacific.... The Times Atlas of the World classifies vegetation into sixteen categories, including (before land-clearing for agriculture) Mixed Forest, Broadleaf Forest, Mediterranean Scrub and Dry Tropical Forest. If a line is drawn to enclose those four vegetation zones in the northern hemisphere, and the land and sea routes between them, one may quickly see that almost all of history’s battles have been fought within the space the line encloses, and very few outside. [And] if the battle locations are dated by month, a seasonal concentration will superimpose itself.”
(Keegan, p.73)

“Does warfare [then], in short, appear cartographically as nothing more than a quarrel between farmers? In the sense that serious warmaking requires wealth, and intensive agriculture has always yielded the largest and most consistent return on any of man’s activities until very recent times, there is something to that view. On the other hand...the farmer is indeed rooted to his plot, his village and his grumbles, and naturally resists the summons to march to some distant border between the lands of first choice and the unploughed region that lies beyond, however good the reason that he should. We should note that plough people of the same language and religion rarely fight each other on a major scale. On the other hand borders between ploughed and unploughed land, throughout the temperate zone, are very frequently defined by long and expensive works of fortification...[which] suggest a fundamental tension between the haves of ploughed land, and the have-nots of soils too thin, cold or dry to be broken for cultivation.”
(Keegan, pp.73-4)

Once the military horizon had been exceeded, the pessimists amongst us may be forgiven for thinking that the genuine bloodbaths would have started immediately. Trouble is: they’d be wrong. The first cities - the so-called Uruk cultures of ancient Iraq - grew for approximately six hundred years before seeing any need to construct walls. And, even after this, early warfare under leaders such as the infamous Sargon was highly “inefficient” by our jaundiced standards. No, the real breakthrough into mass slaughter - and massive social inequality - had to wait until the advent of fully-blown pastoral societies...and the chariots which gave them real mobility in warfare:


"The banks of the Oxus are to warfare what Westminster is to parliamentary democracy, or the Bastille to revolutions. On or near the banks of the Oxus - the river that separates Central Asia from Persia and the Middle East - man learned to tame the horse, to harness it for driving, and eventually to ride it under a saddle. It was from the Oxus that conquerors rode forth to found ‘chariot empires’ in China, India and Europe. It was on the Oxus that the cavalry revolution, one of the two indisputable revolutions in warmaking, took place.”
(Keegan, p.47)

“Why should charioteers, or the pastoralists from whom they directly or indirectly sprung, have been more warlike than than their hunting ancestors or agricultural neighbors? The answer requires a consideration of factors not for the squeamish, all having to do with how man has killed - or not killed - fellow mammals.... The farmer lacks skills both as a butcher of slaughtered meat and as a killer of young, nimble animals likely to evade his lethal intentions. Primitive hunters’...preoccupations were rather with tracking and cornering their prey than with the precise method by which they struck the fatal blow. Pastoralists, on the other hand, learn to kill, and to select for killing, as a matter of course....with the minimum of disturbance to others in the flock.... They [also] knew how to break up a flock into manageable sections, how to cut off a line of retreat by circling to a flank, how to compress scattered beasts into a compact mass,...how to dominate superior numbers by threat and menace, how to kill the chosen few while leaving the mass inert and subject to control. All pastoralists’ methods of battle...disclose just such a pattern.”
(Keegan, p.160-1)

And, whilst the chariot empires invented the techniques of totalitarianism - mass terror, deportation &/or extinction of entire populations, etc. - the next military revolution was, on the contrary, the precursor to egalitarianism, democracy, and much else besides. But it was at a terrible cost...


“The Greeks of the phalanx age were the first warriors of whom we have detailed knowledge who cast aside the evasiveness of primitive warfare, and confronted their like-minded enemies face-to-face....The Romans of the early republic accepted the logic of Greek methods also, indeed probably learned them from the Greek colonists of southern Italy.... And it also appears that the Germans...were also doing so before they met the Romans on the Rhine in the first century AD. If we recall that it was only after the arrival of the Dorians in Greece that phalanx warfare developed, and accept that the Dorians probably made their way thither from the Danube, then it may be that we can locate there both a common point of origin for this ‘Western way of war’, as Victor Hanson calls it, and a line of division between that battle tradition and the indirect, evasive and stand-off style of combat characteristic of the steppe and the Near and Middle East.”
(Keegan, p. 332)

Phalanx warfare was like massed, armoured wrestling w/edged weapons. Strength in solidarity was all - skill counted for little - and such tactics, evolved to settle border disputes amongst independent farmers, fatally weakened aristocratic dominance, just as citizen armies helped kill the separation of social orders in modern Europe. On the other hand,  it was also possible for a military revolution to be driven by ideology, instead of dragging ideology in its wake:


“The Arabs...stood out among military peoples because they demonstrated an ability to transform not merely themselves, but warfare itself. There had been military revolutions before, notably those brought by the chariot and the cavalry horse. The Assyrians had established the principles of military bureaucracy, on which the Romans had built. The Greeks...had evolved the technique of the pitched battle, fought to the death on foot. The Arabs transfused warfare with a new force altogether, the force of an idea.”
(Keegan, p. 192)

Throughout this panorama, Keegan continually ties all of these elements closely to other aspects of these societies. Because, as he argues throughout, the way(s) in which a society defends itself - and, more broadly, organizes violence - strongly affects, and is affected by the other ways it is organized, as well as the values it espouses. And this, if anything, only becomes stronger as the story progresses for, as W.H. McNeill has demonstrated, much that is distinctive about western Europe was first evident in the unique confluence of military and commercial cultures to be found there...a factor too often ignored when an exclusively economic perspective is taken. And, while the result took several centuries to “mature”, it proved devastating even in earlier periods, once exported and unleashed upon unprepared societies.


“Drill, discipline, mechanical tactics, scientific gunnery all worked to make eighteenth-century warmaking quite different from the chaotically experimental style of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.... The infantry was armed with a musket which...could be used in mass volley-firing to create a deadly killing-zone immediately to the front of the battle line. Increasingly mobile and quick-firing field artillery offered the only certain means of shaking the solidity of drilled infantry formations; its safe deployment, however, could be threatened by the timely unleashing of cavalry.... The ‘great’ battles...were notable rather for the number of casualties suffered among the docile ranks of the participants than for any permanency of outcome achieved. It was an exhaustion of reserves of money and manpower that brought eighteenth century wars to an end.”
(Keegan, pp.344-5)

“In the century that began with the French revolution, military logic and cultural ethos took divergent and contradictory courses. In the developing industrial world, conditions of growing wealth and the rise of liberal values encouraged the expectation that the historic hardship under which mankind had laboured was on the wane. That optimism proved insufficient, however, to alter the means by which states settled disputes between themselves. Much of the riches that industrialism generated went, indeed, to militarise the populations that it benefited, so that when war came in the twentieth century its ‘recalcitrant indecisiveness’, as Weighley observes, reasserted itself with even greater force. The reaction of the rich states was to embark on an even more intense militarisation of their populations from above, in an attempt to break the deadlock. As the tide of war spilled over into the poor world, militarisation began from below, as the leaders of movements dedicated to winning freedom from European empires, and an equivalent to Western economic well-being, compelled peasants to become warriors. Both developments were fated to end in frustration.”
(Keegan, p.57)

In The Face of Battle,  John Keegan revolutionized military history - and military studies in general - by re-focusing scholars’ attention upon the experience of front-line troops, rather than the tactics and mystique of generalship. In A History of Warfare, he built upon that achievement - and upon the insights of a wide variety of innovative scholars - to provide the first genuine history of warfare mankind has been offered. Gracefully written, and embracing all of the complexity involved in these issues, it is - simply - essential reading for anyone who genuinely wants to understand our history.

Personally, I tend to recommend this book to anyone who has been impressed by Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel. Because, despite its title - which more properly should have signalled the biogeography of domestication - Diamond’s work offers only scanty coverage of guns and steel...and no real understanding of the way in which those innovations restructured violence - and hence order - in the societies which embraced them. And, whilst the final perspective offered by Keegan below has been - partially - overtaken by events...it would perhaps be truer to say that this hopeful prospect is still possible in the longer term, albeit in a more egalitarian world than any we have seen since domestication...


“As we contemplate this end-of-the-century world, in which the rich states that imposed remilitarisation from above have made peace their watchword, and the poor states that suffered remilitarisation from below spurn or traduce the gift, may war at last be recognised as having lost its usefulness and deep attractiveness? War in our time has been not merely a means of resolving inter-state disputes, but also a vehicle through which the embittered, the dispossessed, the naked of the earth, the hungry masses yearning to breathe free, express their anger, jealousies, and pent-up urge to violence. There are grounds for believing that at last, after five thousand years years of recorded warmaking, cultural and material changes may be working to inhibit man’s proclivity to take up arms.”
(Keegan, p.56)




John Henry Calvinist