A History of Warfare

by John Keegan
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What is a summary of John Keegan's A History of Warfare?

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John Keegan is perhaps one of the most famous historians of war today. In his A History of Warfare , he turns the long-established principle, first propounded by the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, that “war is the continuation of policy by other means” on its head. Central to...

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John Keegan is perhaps one of the most famous historians of war today. In his A History of Warfare, he turns the long-established principle, first propounded by the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, that “war is the continuation of policy by other means” on its head. Central to his argument is his analysis of the evolution of the means of fighting war itself. Keegan argues that earlier forms of warfare consisted more of symbolic displays of animosity, the end results of which did comparatively little damage to enemy peoples. In the modern age, however, he argues that modern warfare has progressed to the point where it causes absolute destruction and the unprecedented loss of human lives and materials. Sophisticated ordinances and explosives have allowed war to take place on a scale heretofore unimaginable. Keegan argues that this revolution in warfare has not been the result of conscious policymaking so much as the evolution in the technical capacity of war itself.

Keegan a thematic, rather than chronological, approach in investigating the development of human beings’ means to wage war. This is because of his emphasis on culture in determining the technical decisions that warfighters will make. Even though war has become exceedingly destructive, the result of immense advancements made in the production of war-fighting technologies, Keegan argues that society first has to undergo a fundamental cultural shift in order to make the use of these technologies palatable. As he says,

“Cultural forms, when they find strong champions, may prevail against the most powerfully besetting temptations to choose technical expedients as a means to victory, particularly when the price of victory is that of overturning ancient and cherished values.”

In other words, warfare, and the technology that supports it, cannot predominate if societies are not willing to alter their fundamental cultural systems, and the various ideologies of combat and death that they support. Keegan explores the cultural element of war throughout the remainder of the book.

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