39. A History of Warfare: John Keegan

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39. A History of Warfare: John Keegan

Post  Patguy on Wed Dec 30, 2009 2:02 am

Keegan (well-known for his book The Face of Battle) divides his book, after a historical introduction, into four parts—Stone, Flesh, Iron and Fire—with interludes addressing various limitations on warfare, fortifications, armies, and logistics and supply. These rough divisions allow him to talk about the ways man has developed new methods of organized killing over the centuries (flesh refers to horses, and fire to gunpowder). Along the way he has a running battle of sorts with Carl von Clausewitz and his famous dictum that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Keegan argues instead that war-as-politics is a relatively recent, and specifically Western, form of war. In other times and places war can be seen as a form of religious or cultural expression, even at times a form of ritual.

I’m not sure that Keegan isn’t playing a little sleight-of-hand with Clausewitzian ideas, redefining terms like “politics” to fit his thesis. But the argument with Clausewitz is at least in part a moral, not just a semantic, one: Keegan claims that it is accurate “to see Clausewitz as the ideological father of the First World War, just as we are right to see Marx as the ideological father of the Russian Revolution. The ideology of ‘true war’ was the ideology of the First World War’s armies, and the appalling fate that those armies brought upon themselves by their dedication to it may be Clausewitz’s enduring legacy.”

Clausewitz is a notoriously difficult figure to come to grips with, and I won’t pretend to understand him in full, or Keegan’s attempted rebuttal of him—but Keegan’s central point, that war does not, as Clausewitz would have it, trend inevitably toward a state of “total war,” is convincing.

There’s a wealth of historical detail in this book, much of which, I’m sorry to say, passed under my eyes without leaving much of an impression. More memorable to me were the hard specifics, such as when Keegan discusses the geographical and climatic features of the planet that have historically affected where battles can be and have been fought (i.e., coasts and otherwise mild terrain), or limitations imposed by human physical capacity:

“Experience… borne out by modern field trials, has established that the soldier’s load cannot on average be made to exceed seventy pounds’ weight—of which clothes, equipment, arms and necessaries will form at least half; as a daily intake of solid food by a man doing heavy work weighs at least three pounds, it follows that a marching soldier cannot carry supplies for more than ten or eleven days, and of course the burden is only worth the effort if the food is provided in imperishable form. These figures have not varied over centuries…”

I like it when he crunches the numbers:

“It is a safe presumption, however, that armies in all organized states before the introduction of universal conscription formed but the smallest fraction of populations—in France in 1789, 156,000 out of 29,100,000 (though by 1793 universal conscription had raised this to 983,0000); we also know that the cost of battle only exceptionally exceeded ten per cent fatalities among those engaged; and finally we know that battles were infrequent incidents in wars (the French republic fought only fifty, by both land and sea, between 1792 and 1800, or six a year, a very high number by earlier standards). Thus we may conclude that news of a death in battle was a comparatively rare family tragedy at any time before the nineteenth century.”

That was no longer the case after Napoleon, of course.

Sometimes Keegan’s conclusions seem a little dubious, but I don’t know enough to fairly judge: “Eventually [during the American Civil War] the South was to assemble nearly 1,000,000 men under arms, the North 2,000,000, out of a pre-war population of 32,000,000; a military participation ratio of ten per cent, which these figures represented, is, as we have seen, about the maximum a society can tolerate while continuing to function at normal levels of efficiency.” To me this sounds like sophistry—whatever a “normal level of efficiency” is during wartime, the South definitely didn’t have it, being economically strangled by the North, and it seems to me that other factors are at least as important to a state during wartime as the number of men under arms. But I’m not a world-renowned historian, so I make this point humbly and with great hesitation.

Clear-eyed about the human costs of war, Keegan is still anything but a pacifist: “[A] world without armies—disciplined, obedient and law-abiding armies—would be uninhabitable. Armies of that quality are an instrument but also a mark of civilization, and without their existence mankind would have to reconcile itself either to life at a primitive level, below ‘the military horizon’, or to a lawless chaos of masses warring, Hobbesian fashion, ‘all against all’.” Discouraging, and probably true, but whatever. I read this book for a history lesson—which it eminently provides—not a speculation on moral teleology.

I wish I was the kind of person who could remember buckets of facts after reading them once, but I’m not; there was simply too much detail here for me to take in from one reading, so I expect I’ll return to this book over the years, as I find myself wondering about, oh, Mongol troop movements or the ancient Assyrian form of chariot warfare.


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