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A History of Warfare

4.01 of 5 stars 4.01  ·  rating details  ·  2,013 ratings  ·  94 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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Community Reviews

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Jason
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
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Gary Foss
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
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Mike Edwards
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
Chris Chester
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
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Mike
Jan 13, 2013 Mike rated it 4 of 5 stars
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
Anthony Ryan
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.
Jeff
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
Jake
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
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notabattlechick
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
Lisa
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
Arjun Ravichandran
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
Nicholas Jasper
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
Doc
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
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David
An interesting tour through the development of warfare throughout the world. I can't speak critically of a great portion of the book, as I am simply not familiar enough with those periods, and/or the specifics of war fighting in the period to offer comment. This account traces so much in style and thought, that it's truly fascinating to contemplate all the sources which brought us to the atomic age, and justified the use of such a devastating weapon against an enemy. Reminds of James Burke, if y ...more
Scott L.
Never finished this book, got about 107 pages in and gave up. Too thickly written for me, and I consider myself fairly intelligent.
Nrtashi
I wanted to read a book about a history of warfare. Instead, I read a book about why Clausewitz was wrong and human nature blah blah blah. Was it really so blasphemous, that I wanted to read about clubs-->swords--->tanks, instead of 2deep4u philosophical bullshit that, frankly speaking, I don't give a shit about? And if only these ramblings made some sense! But no! Keegan's agenda is his wishful thinking and perplexes me how an individual such as himself became a famous authority in MILITA ...more
Benji
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Tim
Keegan's history of warfare is a thick tome, full of wonderful detail and history that ranges beyond warfare (where sometimes Keegan's footing is less firm). It was never a slog, but certainly a book that requires more attention than the drowsiness just before sleep. Keegan begins with Clausewitz's dictum that war is just politics pursued by other means and takes it apart and takes it to task. It seems the west has fought differently from the rest of the world for millenia - Keegan does not mak ...more
Ryan
Oct 11, 2010 Ryan rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommended to Ryan by: Phil
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Kristine
I read "A History of Warfare" after it was promoted on the Writing Excuses podcast. It's not a light read and really assumes a pretty descent familiarity with world history. The most frustrating aspect of the book for me, in fact, is that I'm not as familiar with much of the history he discussed, particularly the Middle Eastern and Far-Eastern history. Keegan gave just enough detail to tantalize with the history while making his points. Consequently, I kinda had to take most of his points on fai ...more
Glen
Keegan divides military organizations into six categories: warrior, mercenary, slave, regular, conscript, and militia, then uses roughly structured yet pithily titled sections: Stone, Flesh, Iron, and Fire to proceed on a wide-ranging anthropological and historical review of warfare throughout the ages. Obviously, he is an eminently knowledgeable historian, though like Dr. Jared Diamond, he tends towards geographical determinism. Also, he joins B.H. Liddel-Hart in his disdain for Clauswitz' simp ...more
Scarlet
I quailed a little bit when I downloaded this from my library, as it's one of the biggest audiobooks I've ever tackled--19 parts, each about 70 minutes. I was a bit confused by the organization of the book for quite a while, as the author, a military historian who retired from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, has no qualms about leaping all over time and geography to find examples to illustrate his points. I was expecting something more chronological, a la Sid Meier's Civilization. I envisi ...more
bkwurm
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
...more
Aldean
This book sat on my shelf, beautiful but unread, until I heard a fascinating interview on NPR one night with a historian who turned out to be John Keegan, soon to be my favorite military historian. I started reading this the next day.

This in an ambitious work, attempting as it does to cover al of military history from pre-history all the way through the then current-day late Twentieth Century. That Keegan manages to write such a book that covered that vast sweep of years in a manner both informa
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Bill
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
...more
Tim
An extremely vast overview of the cultural variations and historical consequences of mass conflict. Lights many important conflicts from a different angle than that of more traditional texts. I do agree with many of the other criticisms here that his anti-Clausewitz sentiments are a bit heavy and don't necessarily mean that much to those of us who don't strictly adhere to that philosophy (as I'm guessing many of Keegan's peers and intended audience does), but not enough to knock down my rating. ...more
Patrick4000
I went through this book right after finishing Martin Van Creveld. The Transformation of Warfare. The former, which I honestly liked better, was more of a cultural examinaton of war while Keedan's tome focused on anthropology. Keegan makes an attempt to find the biological underpinnings of man's desire to pick a fight.
A minor complaint is his refusal to stick to chronology. As he moves through the history of warfare but will jump back and forth across the ages to provide examples and adages. It
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Charlie Huenemann
Everyone can agree that, at one end of history, we were primitive, and at the other end, less so. Then the game is on to try to pinpoint what made the difference. In reading Keegan's book, one might wonder whether the development of armies and modern warfare is the difference. Early on, people launched disorganized raids against one another, sometimes for turf, but mostly as an attempt to establish dominance. Gradually there came to be armies, and deadly weapons, and strategists, and then even p ...more
Neale Aslett
A brilliant and seminal work on mankind's favourite pastime. His research and presentation are masterful. One does not need a thorough understanding of history, but a good knowledge does help.
taarak
Apr 16, 2007 taarak rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Military enthusiasts
The incomparable John Keegan takes on war, the universe, and everything.

Starting with the premise that all civilizations owe their origins to warmaking, Keegan probes the meanings, motivations, and methods underlying war in different societies over the course of more than two thousand years. Following the progress of human aggression in its full historical sweep, from the strangely ritualistic combat of Stone Age peoples to the warfare of mass destruction in the present age, his illuminating and
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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.

More about John Keegan...
The First World War The Face of Battle The Second World War Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris; June 6 - Aug. 5, 1944 The Mask of Command: Alexander the Great, Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant, Hitler, and the Nature of Lea dership

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“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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