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A History of Warfare by John Keegan
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Aug 31, 2009

really liked it
Read in August, 2009

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 putative father of warfare, Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz argues that warfare is 'the extension of politics by other means,' and John Keegan begins his History of Warfare by laying out the tools by which he will utterly destroy that thesis. Modern western military treats Clausewitzian theory as hallowed and consecrated as the Shroud of Turin. However, I've always had the sneaking suspicion that a single theory of warfare, held unequivocally, had to be in error. Keegan simply gives me the arguments to defend this suspicion of mine.

There's nothing incorrect about Clausewitz' theories. However, Keegan uses dozens of cultural examples of warfare to show that, instead of being universal, Clausewitz' theories are only appropriate to a certain time in history, specific to a particular kind of warfighter, and applicable to a unique set of resolves from the warring nations. Keegan makes a parting appeal to Western military not to fall victim to tenants of warfare that today seem immutable. These may merely be in favor to a Western way of warfare, but could change based on a number of events.

The take-away from this book is Keegan's methodical progress through the turning points in the history of warfare. He underscores the warfare utility of animal domestication, the chariot, fortifications, the warhorse, the phalanx, and gunpowder. He discusses the unique implications of culture on warfare technique, tactics, and procedures. Each warfighting organization was dominant in its time and area based on a unique set of guiding, cultural principles. The Zulus, the Magyars--Vikings, Spartans, Huns; the Roman legions, the British navy--Samurai, Aztec, Ottomans; all practiced a kind of warfare that was born of a logical accumulation of regional technology, culture, and exposure to adjacent warfighters. Meanwhile, Keegan's encyclopedic knowledge of all things warfare allows him to effortlessly draw parallels between cultures separated by thousands of years, and to find worthwhile links in strategy embodied by militaries as diverse from one another as Mongols and the US Confederacy, conquistidores and the German luftwaffe.

Keegan begins with an intriguing denial of Clausewitz, and seems to set this as his overall theme. However, he often writes for up to 50 pages without revisiting his theme. He offers a well written chronology of warfare, but rarely makes the connection between it and Clausewitz. I believe the book would have been more focused if Keegan's theme was mentioned within each chapter, or as he calls them, interludes. Instead, we have a history of warfare that begins and ends with a conversation about Clausewitz, but little reference in between. I'm left learning a lot about warfare, but without an overriding theme, the breadth of this book is too much for only 490+ pages. It ultimately reads as a glancing--though scholarly--review of the highlights of warfare.

4 stars for a balanced, skilled review of the fundamental movements of 8000 years of warfare. No more than 4 stars because this is the abridged Britannica of warfare, should have been longer or more focused, and could have been the seminal book to deny Clausewitz.
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