Short, graceful ruminations from one of our greatest military historians on the ugliest of topics: the nature and impact of armed conflict.
Unlike the epic histories for which he is best known, Keegan (The First World War, 1999, etc.) fashioned these essays for delivery over the BBC as the 1998 Reith Lectures. Yet, though his medium is different, he speaks in the same assured voice, with absolute command of his material and respect for the awful gravity of his subject. He concentrates not on stories but five themes: war’s impact on the modern world, its origins, relation to the state, effect on the individual, and prospects for its abolition. The development of agriculture, he infers from archaeological evidence, may have led to defenses against roaming hunters. War’s very savagery led men to agonize over its morality, and eventually elaborate rules governing its conduct were created—notably by Christianity (which required penance for shedding a fellow Christian’s blood) and Islam (whose holy book forbade violence against all who submitted to Muslim rule). Only in the 19th century did war become a feared mass killer, following the Civil War and the Clausewitz dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means (which Keegan charges with “polluting civilized thought about how wars could and should be fought”). The author grounds his overarching theories with some particularly vivid anecdotes. A telegraph boy on a bicycle, he notes in one searing image, became an “omen of terror” for parents and wives during the two world wars, for he frequently brought news of the death of sons and husbands in the armed forces. Although pessimistic about the possibility of ending war completely, Keegan believes that fears of the horrors of the last century will result in war’s ebbing as a destructive force. To that end, he urges restricting the distribution and production of cheap arms such as the mass-produced assault rifle.
Keegan aficionados will prefer his larger-scale chronicles and analyses, but neophytes will savor these exquisitely crafted miniatures.