“A History of Warfare” by John Keegan

This one’s undoubtedly a masterpiece. Written by a British military historian it traces the origin and progress of warfare from ancient to modern times, exploring the military cultures of the Pacific Islanders, the Japanese samurai, the Zulus of southern Africa, the Cossacks of Europe, the Turkish Mamelukes and a host of other militant groups in an effort to understand the motivations, models and methods of warfare.

War pre-dates the state by many millennia. “All civilizations owe their origins to the warrior.” Our states, our institutions, even our laws have come to us through violence and conflict. Along with war, the institution of human slavery was created at the dawn of the human race. Yet it was abolished worldwide. Duelling, infanticide and human sacrifice are no longer in vogue.

Is war still fashionable or is it losing its sheen? In the 1960s the blunt refusal of the US conscripts and their families to imbibe warrior values caused the Vietnam War to be abandoned. Today cultural and material changes are impacting man’s proclivity for violence, and no one (apart from the political and military class) would venture to suggest that war is a justifiable activity. Can we now dream of a world without war?

“Half of human nature – the female half- is in any case highly ambivalent about war-making.” War is an entirely masculine activity. Does the differentiation of social roles between male and female have anything to do with the origin of warfare? The author discusses serotonin and testosterone levels, mention the XYY chromosome combination which is found in one in a thousand males, and wonders why science cannot explain why groups of men combine to fight other groups.

Many interesting examples are presented. For instance, the Aztecs of Mexico, obtained sacrificial victims by waging war. Human sacrifice being a religious necessity, the act of individual captive-taking was central to Aztec warfare. “…for a man to give a captive to a comrade who had not made a capture, as a favour to promote him in rank, carried the death penalty for both.”

Tool-making and home-making we owe to our remote ancestors such as Australopithecus, Homo Erectus and Neanderthals. Homo sapiens sapiens is roughly 40,000 years old. He did not invent hunting parties – he inherited the practice. His own innovations include farming, irrigation and animal husbandry. Towns and cities, and pottery making, metallurgy and religion are pretty ancient too. Jericho in Palestine had an 8 acre town by 7000 B.C. Catal Hyuk in Turkey, Crete and the Aegean coast of Greece all had massive human settlements by 6000 B.C. Interestingly, “None of the thirteen cities known to have existed at the beginning of the third millennium (B.C.), including Ur, Uruk and Kish, then had walls.”

Uruk appears to have acquired walls in the time of Gilgamesh (around 2700 B.C.) The Standard of Ur of the third millennium B.C. shows a four wheeled cart drawn by four onagers on a battlefield. Egypt was unified under a single ruler around 3200 B.C. and for nearly 14 centuries it seems to have spared the vagaries of warfare.

The chariot first appeared around 1700 B.C. and revolutionised war-making. Now horse-breeders gained the advantage. “After the end of the second millennium B.C. such predatory charioteers disrupted the course of civilization in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley…”

Somewhere along the way the concept of chivalry emerged. Warfare developed a set of rules. With the coming of Islam the creed of war obtained an ideology. Jihad became a religious and moral obligation. The prophet Mohammed preached as well as practised war. He decreed that all Muslims were brothers and should not fight each other. But all ‘infidels’ must be fought ‘until they proclaim that there is no god but Allah’.

The institution of military slaves or Mamelukes was an early Muslim innovation. A slave could rise to be a military commander or even king. (India’s Slave Dynasty is a case in point, though the author does not mention it.)

The Chinese were the first to devise a philosophy of war. Confucius then put forth the idea that ‘the superior man should be able to attain his ends without violence.” But in the 20th century, Mao’s principal contribution to military theory was the idea of ‘protracted war.’ On Mao’s Long March from south to north China in 1934-35, only some 8000 of the 80000 or so who set out survived. About 1 million ‘landlords’ were killed in the year after the communists came to power in China in 1948.

Over the course of 4000 years of experimentation and repetition, war-making became a human habit. But there were strong advocates of peace too. Jesus Christ advocated pacifism. Before Christ, Buddhism and Jainism advocated non-violence.

Does war have a future? The book does not have all the answers, but it certainly provides food for thought.

Overall Assessment: MUST read!

A History of Warfare
Author: John Keegan
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: November 1994


Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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