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A History of Warfare

4.02  ·  Rating Details ·  2,413 Ratings  ·  123 Reviews
The acclaimed author of The Face of Battle examines centures of conflict in a variety of diverse societies and cultures. "Keegan is at once the most readable and the most original of living military historians . . . A History of Warfare is perhaps the most remarkable study of warfare that has yet been written."--The New York Times Book Review.
Paperback, 496 pages
Published November 1st 1994 by Vintage (first published 1993)
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Aug 31, 2009 Jason rated it really liked it
Wow. Do not go head-to-head with this erudite military historian.

Sweeping in its range--from 6000 BC fertile crescent to Cold War mutually assured destruction; inclusive in its coverage--from the Manchu in North Korea to the Mamelukes in Egypt to the Yanomamo in Brazil; comprehensive in its topics--from stone to flesh to iron to fire. This is truly a history of warfare.

As a member of the military, I was introduced, taught to memorize, encouraged to stress, and told to believe the tenants of the
Mike Edwards
Nov 23, 2011 Mike Edwards rated it did not like it
Shelves: history, philosophy, war
A horrid book for two reasons. First, Keegen willfully misrepresents Clausewitz. Clausewitz argues that warfare takes place within a political context, and is, in fact completely defined by that political context: hence "war is a continuation of politics by another means". Keegan attacks Clausewitz for advocating warfare as a rational way for countries to settle their differences; a position that Clausewitz never takes, because Clausewitz is very clearly describing what is, no what should be. Fo ...more
Anthony Ryan
Oct 12, 2014 Anthony Ryan rated it it was amazing
Renowned military historian John Keegan succeeds admirably in the difficult task of providing a coherent narrative for humanity's age-old proclivity for armed conflict. From Assyrian charioteers to the advent of the machine gun and the world destroying potential of the nuclear age, this is something of a must-read for anyone baffled as to why, in the 21st century, we seem to be fighting just as many wars as we always did.
Gary Foss
Feb 11, 2016 Gary Foss rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, re-read, war
I read this book back when it came out and picked it up again just to see if I'd find it as enlightening now, 20 years on, as I did when I first read it.

As an overview of the world history of war and conflict, Keegan does an admirable job. By necessity in a book in which large swaths of history are being described, any number of details and conflicts will be ignored or given short shrift. The particulars of African warfare are dealt with by describing the Zulu under Shaka, which makes as much se
Jan 13, 2013 Mike rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: warriors, couch potato generals
Though ostensibly a refutation of Clausewitz's theory of war (policy by other means and all that) A History of Warfare does not get mired in theory, and treats the reader to an overview of war as it was practiced by various peoples at various times. In Clausewitz's view war is a practical violence, like a game of chess played with meat. Perhaps sometimes it is, but it is also otherwise — a practice at odds with the goals of those who would be its master, an anachronism preserved against innovati ...more
Chris Chester
Dec 29, 2014 Chris Chester rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
It all starts with the great Clausewitzian statement that war is the continuation of politics by other means.

Keegan spends 500 exhaustive pages thoroughly and methodically demolishing that supposition. By exploring every form of warfare from ceremonial tribal forms of battle all the way through modern Mutually Assured Destruction, he argues that for most of human history, warfare is characterized by ritual, caution, aversion, and brevity.

It is only the specifically modern, western forms of warfa
Upon re-reading. This book still confounds me. One one hand, culture! Yes! On the other hand, the willful(?) misreading of Clausewitz and the insistence on going 12 rounds with the Prussian is problematic. There's room for both, you know. Clausewitz certainly must be contextualize - to quote John Lynn, "Clausewitz is culture!" Further, Keegan's conclusion that humans are moving from an “undoubtedly warlike past towards [a] potentially peaceful future” strikes me as ludicrous on the face of it. T ...more
Nicholas Jasper
Nov 09, 2014 Nicholas Jasper rated it it was amazing
This is a book to studied and to be read more than once. Keegan makes the case that we will eventually just plain, damn outgrow war much as children outgrow diapers. Keegan equates war with other infantile behavior like slavery and human sacrifice. Keegan takes his time coming to his conclusion. He first has to sail round the world and across the centuries to document the different types of warfare (it is likely that people from all societies are taken aback by the word "types") ; I believe that ...more
Jaroslav Tuček
Sep 23, 2015 Jaroslav Tuček rated it really liked it
Well-researched and skillfully delivered, A History of Warfare follows humanity's warmaking tendencies from the tribal times up to the nuclear-weapons realities of the Cold War. Keegan picks representative civilizations in each era and shows how their culture/environment shaped their concept of war and the way it was carried out (eg. the mobile cavalry of ancient steppe-nomads or the tight formations and the pitched battle to death of the classical Greeks).

The approach has the downside of not of
Aug 06, 2016 David rated it liked it
Shelves: read-history
Aldous Huxley said an intellectual was a person who had discovered something more interesting than sex. A civilised man, it might be said, is someone who has discovered something more satisfying than combat. – p. 227

I read about things I think I should know about, for example, quantum computing, the globalized market for fresh-cut flowers, and the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Warfare also seems to be something worth paying attention to, since it sadly isn't going away. So this book seeme
May 23, 2013 Jeff rated it really liked it
A History of Warfare is probably one of the most interesting (and dense) nonfiction books I've read, even considering all the ones I read during my years in college. John Keegan is able to paint a fairly good picture of where aggression--warfare, as we call it now--came from by analyzing the findings of anthropologists studying tribal people. He is then able to move us forward by logically filling in the gaps between that stage and the point where recorded history begins. All of this is done in ...more
Sep 11, 2010 Jake rated it really liked it
I decided to read this one after listening to a course on Military History from the Teaching Company. I've always had a fondness for military history, and figured that this would expand my knowledge and baseline.

This book turned out to be a bit more than I expected, though not in a bad way. More than just a military history, Keegan's History of Warfare is an attack against the Clausewitzian notion that "war is a continuation of politics by other means". Instead, Keegan argues that war is a cultu
J.  Michael Dolan
Sep 05, 2016 J. Michael Dolan rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
The title of this book is no exaggeration. Mr. Keegan, once senior military lecturer at Sandhurst, the British West Point, begins the work during the Stone Age and winds it up at the Atomic. Far from just a treatise on the evolution of weaponry and tactics, he makes the claim that our bloody species was born of war, how the impulse to do battle "resides in the most secret places of the human heart.... where emotion is paramount, instinct is king."
He goes so far as to claim that all civilization
Jul 19, 2016 MT rated it it was amazing
Well like everyone else I began reading A History of Warfare so I could point out the grievous errors of arms and tactics made in fantasy ("that's not how you swing a halberd!" etc.) but I came away with so much more.

The base that Keegan works off is one of old warhorse Clauzwitz's sayings, and it's one he continually refers back to. Then we're taken on a grand adventure, back to the dawn of time and then ever forward, finding out the hows and whys of so many civilisations and how they settled
May 26, 2011 bkwurm rated it did not like it
This should have properly been titled "The History of Western Warfare". Hardly any space is given to the wars fought in China and India, especially during the period of China's Warring States.

I was also very disappointed by the author's attempt to attribute the "brave", "in your face" method of warfare as being uniquely Western while characterising the methods of war practised by non Westerners as being hit and run or ritualisitc or in some way, not daring to meet the enemy head on, unlike the
Jan 28, 2008 Bill rated it it was amazing
A small collection of essays on the history of warfare, starting with the beginning of recorded history and ending with Gulf War I (at which time this book was written). John Keegan brings an encyclopedic knowledge to bear, but this is not an encyclopedia of warfare. Rather, it is a handful of detailed but crisp and concise essays, taking as their central thesis the explosion of the famous quotation from Clausewitz that war is the continuation of politics by other means.

This is a terrific book
May 10, 2016 RJ rated it it was amazing
A very interesting book. Such an indepth look into the history of warfare, the ceremony, symbolism, the technological advances and what that meant for modern warfare. It's a shame John Keegan passed away, I would have loved a revised version that included gang warefare. The idea that small societies live in a warlike state, I think would have been an interesting study. In the end, I believe in his premise that war is not the continuation of policy by other means, like Clausewitz proposed, but as ...more
Huw Evans
Oct 27, 2011 Huw Evans rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, warfare
Keegan's writing style is very dry, almost dusty. However he writes with an eye for detail that has been well researched. He charts the way warfare has developed over the centuries with the advent of each technological leap from close quarters stabbing to the high tech video missile. He also outlines the way that armies have changed in their structure and complexity. In terms of its relevence to modern political and military history I would rate it alongside Sun Tsu and von Clausewitz. I don't t ...more
Octavia Cade
Mar 22, 2016 Octavia Cade rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This is really not my field - not even remotely - so this book has essentially been acting as an introductory text on warfare for me. As such, I think it's a successful one. Keegan covers a range of times and cultures, but more importantly he does so accessibly. His is a very readable account, when very often academics tend to write more for their colleagues (and posterity) than the general public. It did take me a while to wade through it, but I feel as if I've understood what I've read, and fo ...more
Dec 25, 2013 Eric rated it it was amazing
Keegan is a great writer, and I'd read him on almost any subject; but the subject of warfare is the one he has made his own, and I'm interested in it anyway. Fascinating account of the purposes and evolution of warfare. There isn't any hint of a reductive analysis (he doesn't reduce all of warfare to one or even several single purposes), but it's reassuring to read someone who simply assumes as a given that as often as not war has been about access to resources--land to grow food, the stored wea ...more
Jan 02, 2013 Lisa rated it it was ok
I'm starting to think audio books aren't for me. It's easy to get side tracked without something in your hands in front of you. It's also hard to listen to history books with little change of tone. It's like a boring old history prof or something. I also found this book repetitive and also repeated a lot of stuff I've read in other history books. I'm not familiar with Clausewitz at all which Keegan spends the majority of the book refuting which makes it even less exciting. A book about war for t ...more
Brian Moroz
Jun 04, 2007 Brian Moroz rated it really liked it
This is one of my favorite books on war not because it is the best possible history or because everything that Keegan states can be taken as completely true. Its pleasure comes from the story he tells about war and man and civilization. Broken into chapters around key weapon types like Stone, Flesh, Iron, and Fire, he creates a history and group psychology for homo sapiens through the lens of war. Others have done this through the lens of rum, or salt, or medicine. This happens to use war, and i ...more
Jud Barry
Jun 12, 2015 Jud Barry rated it really liked it
As much a corrective to Clausewitz as a history, this study examines the phenomenon of group combat from prehistory to the Gulf War of 1990. With its global scope and its emphasis on the interplay of geography, culture, and technology (including the breeding of animals, most notably horses and oxen), it lays out a convincing argument in the manner of such big-picture/long-view thinkers as William McNeill and Jared Diamond.

Keegan's account of the development of the Western, frontal fight-to-the-
Arjun Ravichandran
Sep 23, 2014 Arjun Ravichandran rated it liked it
A condensed survey of one of humanity's enduring passions, written by a military historian. The writing is surprisingly supple and readable, and the book's organization (divided into stone, wood, iron and fire ; the divisions refer to the quality of the weapons throughout mankind's history) is a curious gamble that pays off. The author does tend to slip into a dry exegesis of 'this battle at so and so' followed by 'that battle at so and so' and there are are many references to obscure commanders ...more
Feb 19, 2016 Dave rated it liked it
The late John Keegan attempts to piece together the story of conflict in "A History of Warfare," and for the most part succeeds. Keegan takes a broad look at humanity's long timeline of fighting, starting from the earliest recorded times to the present day. He breaks the book down in to four eras -- stone, flesh, metal and fire -- and recalls how mankind has perfected the technique of waging war against himself. While he does a superb job of relating military history from ancient times up throug ...more
Jan 02, 2016 Paige rated it it was amazing
This is a strange book for me to be reading. I am not a student of military history. My understanding of war consisted of "War is evil". But history does seem to show us that "only the dead have seen the end of war", making war something that we all need to understand.

If you want to understand war. This book is one you need to read. It's not a hard read, its not a dull read. A History of Warfare is an extremely educational read

Paul Advincula
May 23, 2016 Paul Advincula rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2016
Truly an amazingly comprehensive overview of the warfare and the way that it reflects not only the policies and interests of the state, but the society from which it springs. It examines a wide range of differing military cultures, from the military elites of the Mamluk Sultanate to the the armies of conscripts that arose from the universal duty of citizens to bear arms for the twentiety century states. Highly recommend!
Nov 06, 2015 Kåre rated it really liked it
Shelves: historie
Clausewitch om krig som fortsættelse af politik kritiseres for ikke at se krig som en del af kulturen. Krig er således ikke kun politik, men også vaner,sjov, osv., altså mindre rationelle end det politiske antyder.

Fin gennemgang af antropologisk viden om krig, som fint opsummerer hvad jeg ved. Her er fokus på en forestilling om, at primitive ikke er krigeriske, hvilket sættes op mod studier af Yanomamøerne, som vi jo fik 1. år. -Så selvom moralen nok var med dem, der ikke så mennesker som krige
Jul 06, 2014 Doc rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Some years ago, I read Gen. Bernard Montgomery's book of the same name, A History Of Warfare. Montgomery, as I remember, concentrated on the tactical, diagramming and describing individual battles.

Keegan looks far more at trends and at the large picture: the nature and effect on war of the various horse peoples, such as the Mongols, or the development and effect of artillery. Keegan also refers more than once to Carl von Clausewitz, the Napoleonic Era Prussian officer whose book on war had a lar
Rodrigo Ferrao
Nov 12, 2015 Rodrigo Ferrao rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Uma História da Guerra de John Keegan (edição Tinta da China)

«São coisas diferentes, os rituais da Idade da Pedra e a bomba de Hiroxima, as legiões romanas e os regimentos prussianos, a arte da cavalaria e o poder da pólvora, o cavalo e o foguete V-2, a guerra de secessão americana e a guerra do Vietname. De tudo isso, a erudição de Keegan faz um "patchwork" notável.»

Eduardo Pitta, Público, ípsilon

É fabuloso verificar que um povo escondido de África adoptou tácticas militares dos habitantes da i
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Sir John Desmond Patrick Keegan OBE was a British military historian, lecturer and journalist. He published many works on the nature of combat between the 14th and 21st centuries concerning land, air, maritime and intelligence warfare as well as the psychology of battle.

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“History lessons remind us that the states in which we live, their institutions, even their laws, have come to us through conflict, often of the most bloodthirsty sort. Our daily diet of news brings us reports of the shedding of blood, often in regions quite close to our homelands, in circumstances that deny our conception of cultural normality altogether. We succeed, all the same, in consigning the lessons both of history and of reportage to a special and separate category of "otherness" which invalidate our expectations of how our own world will be tomorrow and the day after not at all. Our institutions and our laws, we tell ourselves, have set the human potentiality for violence about with such restraints that violence in everyday life will be punished as criminal by our laws, while its use by our institutions of state will take the particular form of "civilised warfare.” 0 likes
“Constantine, moreover, was not yet a Christian when he uttered the appeal to conquer in the sign of the cross; and while the warrior kings of Israel may have drawn strength from the old Covenant in their small and local wars, the Christians of the new Covenant were to agonise for centuries over the issue of whether warmaking was morally permissible or not. Christians, indeed, have never found unanimity in the belief that the man of war may also be a man of religion; the ideal of martyrdom has always been as strong as that of the justified struggle and remains strong to this day. The Arabs of the conquest years were not caught on that crux. Their new religion, Islam, was a creed of conflict, that taught the necessity of submission to its revealed teachings and the right of its believers to take arms against those who opposed them. It was Islam that inspired the Arab conquests, the ideas of Islam that made the Arabs a military people and the example of its founder, Muhammad, that taught them to become warriors.” 0 likes
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