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A History of Warfare

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  2,840 Ratings  ·  154 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, 432 pages
Published November 1st 1994 by Vintage (first published 1993)
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Brilliant. A cultural history of war from antiquity to the present day in a single volume. Keegan starts with the symbolic forms of war among the so called "primitives," including those from the neolithic, using much archaeological evidence to do so. He then moves on to the advent of the chariot by the ancient Thracians and Egyptians, and its eventual supersession by the compound-bow wielding horse peoples from the Eurasian steppes (Huns, Mongols, Magyars, et. al). Then the subsequent heyday of ...more
Jul 27, 2009 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 rated it did not like it
Shelves: history, war, philosophy
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
Gary Foss
Dec 29, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: war, history, re-read
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
Miloș Dumbraci
May 18, 2017 rated it did not like it
By no means a ”History of Warfare” (and that title is a cheating of the buyer), the book is also not even a book in itself, but just an overgrown academic pompous 400 pages essay with no structure or clear idea of what it wants and where it goes. It s just an obsessive ramble about how Clausewitz is wrong, but not exactly about what could be put instead of his ideas. And how could one call himself a military historian and write things like ”From whatever reasons - the subject is extremely comple ...more
Jan 13, 2013 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
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
Anthony Ryan
Oct 12, 2014 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.
Chris Chapman
"Why do men fight?" I had picked this book up at random one day and opened it to find this question. Flicking through I saw that he delved into the debate about the Yanomamo, and Chagnon's extremely contested anthropological research in that community - concluding that this was an innately warlike people. This is an area that I find fascinating, so I put the book on my to-read list.

Keegan tackles Clausewitz's dictum, that war is the continuation of politics by other means (a reductive translatio
Michael Burnam-Fink
Jun 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018, history, war
Keegan is still the preeminent military history, and in this grand and sprawling book he attempts a synthetic history of warfare from the pre-historic dawn to the atomic age. Boldly staking a claim that Clausewitz's famous epigram "war is the continuation of politics by other means" is substantially misguided, a parallel to Marx's misguided grand theory of history, he instead provides a tour through four different types of warfare that is a lot of fun, but on the whole not terribly convincing.

Chris Chester
Aug 06, 2012 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
Nicholas Jasper
Nov 09, 2014 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
Oct 16, 2010 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
Sep 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: on-war, non-fiction
Definitely not an easy book, Keegan did his work and he wants you to know that. He is not a fan of Clausewitz's ideas, and a large part of the book focuses on counterarguments to Clausewitz's ideas, Keegan draws on many counterexamples where war is not a continuation of politics with other means (ritualistic war - marauding war, the Zulu style where politics became the continuation of continuous warfare, etc., pp.). A large part of the beginning of the book is reserved to show how Clausewitz's ...more
Tom Rowe
Jul 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book tries to cover a lot of territory from ancient tribal warfare to the nuclear bomb and post colonial rebellions. The book looks at social and technological aspects of warfare. Its long chapters with titles such as Stone, Flesh, Iron, and Fire loosely center around those topics. It is nearly impossible to separate them from one another.

The big takeaway from the book for me is how limited war really is. We put social limits on war such as not allowing women and children to participate. (
Mar 10, 2016 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
Apr 12, 2013 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
Jun 05, 2008 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
Jaroslav Tuček
Sep 23, 2015 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
Jul 19, 2016 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
Oct 22, 2007 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
Octavia Cade
Mar 22, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, war
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
Sep 01, 2015 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
Sep 13, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: warfare, history
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
Dec 29, 2012 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 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
Oct 09, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, history
I don't know that this book was bad per se, but I don't think I got any particular insight into the nature of warfare from it. I think that the main reason I find it lacking is that these days anything purporting to explain a socio-cultural phenomenon as widespread and important as warfare without at least acknowledging the strong role of incentives (e.g. public choice theory) feels incomplete. It's possible Keegan mentioned incentives and I did not catch it, but it's certainly not his central t ...more
Dec 25, 2013 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, 2016 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

Scott L.
Jun 11, 2013 rated it did not like it
Never finished this book, got about 107 pages in and gave up. Too thickly written for me, and I consider myself fairly intelligent.
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Sir John Desmond Patrick Keegan, OBE, FRSL 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.” 1 likes
“[W]e are hardened to what we know, and we rationalise and even justify cruelties practised by us and our like while retaining the capacity to be outraged, even disgusted by practices equally cruel which, under the hands of strangers, take a different form.” 1 likes
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