A Historian of War Ponders Peace

From a man who has made his life's work the study of war, comes this small book of abundant insight, and buoyant hope for a future if not free of war, then at least inclined to be more peaceable.

John Keegan was for years a military historian at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in England. He made his first trans-Atlantic voyage into America's consciousness with the popular 1976 book The Face of Battle, in which he described in sobering detail just how soldiers faced off, were wounded, and died on three battlefields—Agincourt in 1415, Waterloo in 1815, and the Somme in 1916.

Since then, he has written more than a dozen books on military history and gained a worldwide following. In 1994, he received an unusual invitation from the White House. Keegan was the only foreigner from whom President Clinton sought advice on what he would say to Europeans when addressing the D-Day commemorations in France.

This book, more like a pamphlet at 87 pages, is a compilation of Keegan's 1998 Reith Lectures, delivered in several locations around England. In these five talks, Keegan tries to answer briefly but trenchantly some of the deep questions about warfare, including its origins, its impact on states and individuals, and most important, whether war is inevitable.

Keegan has a gift for crisp prose and direct statements. He defines war simply as "collective killing for some collective purpose." And, although his breadth of knowledge of all ages of history is impressive, and drawn on throughout this volume, this is not a book of sweeping generalizations or conclusions. He is careful and modest, and the more powerful for it. Keegan knows too much about five millennia of war-making, from the first organized struggles in 3000 B.C. of Mesopotamian farmers to protect their crops from invaders, to the humanitarian impulses of the recent Kosovo war, to be too certain about what direction war will take next.

But he maintains that the world is moving toward peace despite the 20th century's great irony—that even as famine, disease, and pestilence were curbed as never before, war became longer, more deadly, and more harmful to civilians than in any previous age. It is this weariness of war, combined with the invention of a weapon—the atom bomb—"which guarantees an unbearable excess of costs over benefits in any war in which it is used" that may combine to bring some hope. Perhaps now, Keegan says, the fourth rider of the apocalypse—war—can also be unhorsed.

Keegan says his lectures are meant to convince his audiences that "the worst of war is now behind us and that mankind, with vigilance and resolution, will henceforth be able to conduct the affairs of the world in a way that allows war a diminishing part."

Keegan spends pages debunking the many theories that imbue man with a natural inclination toward war. Science, he says, whether genetics, anthropology, or psychology, hasn't found any embedded reason in human physiology to explain why people make war. Certainly, men are aggressive and have always been risk takers, and have often wanted something their neighbor possessed. But no war-making gene yet been discovered, and "war is too complex an activity"—involving too many human talents in strategy, tactics, organization, leadership, and bravery—"for step-by-step genetic mutation to 'program' organisms for it," the author notes. Better explanations lie in the coming together of ancient social groups, both farmers and nomads, who fought rival groups for land, or meat, or riches.

Keegan also tries to demolish the old academic notion that war made states and states make war. Many states have not been warlike: Egypt of the early pharaohs, although perhaps founded by force of arms, had a period of peace that lasted nearly 1,500 years, an incomprehensible notion today. Many Polynesian states had no history of war, and so, too, Inuits. And many conquering armies—the great invaders on horseback, Huns and Mongols alike—did not create or sustain states, nor arise from them.

But Keegan reserves special condemnation for Prussian militarist Carl von Clausewitz, who after fighting against Napoleon, came up with the "pernicious" notion that war is nothing more than the continuation of politics by violent means. In almost all of his books, but most forcefully in his comprehensive History of Warfare, Keegan rails against Clausewitz's ideas that nation-states are amoral institutions and war is a value-free activity limited only by a threat of greater violence from an opponent. Keegan sees this as a justification for totalitarian states that do violence to their own peoples and neighbors without remorse, noting that both Hitler and Lenin were students of the German theorist.

Perhaps most persuasively, Keegan shows that as the influence of Clausewitz was growing in Europe, so, too, was the idea of European integration and a continentwide arrangement that would preserve peace. And in fact, peace held in Europe for most of the 19th century after the defeat of Napoleon.

Those impulses have produced today's European Union, a band of peaceful countries whose chief duty is not to pursue war, but to serve as "nanny" states for the social welfare of their citizens. Indeed, Washington has an impossible time these days getting the Europeans to boost their defense budgets.

These two parallel tracks of historical forces—the steady increase in deadly firepower and the growing pressure for peace—are the overarching themes of War and Our World. From the most primitive tribal warfare by hunters and gatherers to the modern high-tech wars of this era, Keegan can point to periods when warfare had its restraints. And throughout history, there was a persistent belief that war should and must have limits, that certain acts of war are unsupportable and indeed criminal, and "that the use of force by the strong against the weak is an intrinsically repellent activity."

This notion of a natural human instinct for restraint, and mercy, even in the most brutal battles, crops up in most of Keegan's books (whether The First World War, or Fields of Battle, which is about the wars of North America), but particularly in A History of Warfare. The instinct for restraint has its roots in the protections, going back millennia, for women and children; in more-recent conventions regarding prisoners of war, who were treated quite well throughout the 18th and 19th centuries; and in the strict code of conduct of the Japanese samurai. Even during World War I, despite the senseless killing in the trenches, most of the conventions on prisoners and on civilians held. It was only during World War II, with the rise of the totalitarian states and coercive ideologies, that the notion of restraint went begging. Japanese nationalists bred hatred in their soldiers, which led to atrocities against Chinese and Westerners. Hitler hunted the Jews. The Allies abandoned the aerial bombing of select military targets in favor of carpet-bombing the cities of Germany and Japan, and ultimately, the U.S. Army Corps dropped A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Keegan, nevertheless, sees restraint winning the war for human history.

He sees it in the way that soldiers and veterans are now treated by most of the economically advanced countries, as men of honor. Throughout most of military history, civilian populations dreaded the coming of soldiers, because most often these combatants were drawn from the dregs of society, or were slaves or mercenaries, who brought with them plunder and rape. In those earlier times, honor or chivalry was a part of the code of conduct for a very few officers or leaders of war.

But with the advent of universal conscription in the 19th century, a practice not seen since the Greek city-states of the ancient world, men were drawn from a larger cross section of the citizenry, and more families were hit by the loss of fathers, brothers, and sons (and, today—even without the draft—mothers, sisters, and daughters). Today, we honor our fallen war dead as the ultimate victims. "War has, in our time, chosen many victims, but none so numerous as the ordinary soldier himself," Keegan writes.

And now, with the 20th century's memory of mass civilian and soldier deaths still fresh, and the shadow of nuclear war ever present, violence is almost universally condemned as a method of problem-solving. "We live in an age," Keegan writes, "that deprecates conflict and sets the ideals of harmony, compromise, and communality above all others."

That conflict endures is irrefutable, Keegan concedes, but the signs that war is no longer acceptable to the broad masses are unmistakable. War, according to the United Nations, is illegal unless engaged in for self-defense or authorized by collective action. Progress is visible in the establishment of a permanent war crimes tribunal. The numbers of citizens in uniform in developed countries continue to decline steadily. Even America's elation over its Persian Gulf War victory was tempered almost immediately by the revulsion caused by the video of the "Highway of Death" leading out of Kuwait, showing miles of charred remains of men and materiel crushed by U.S. weapons.

Other evidence includes the variety of arms control treaties that have been negotiated, and largely honored, in the past 50 years. Europe is a forbidden zone for the deployment of intermediate-range missiles. Most nations have signed test-ban treaties on nuclear weapons, and prohibitions against chemical weapons. The number of countries acquiring nuclear weapons has been few. Movements are afoot today to ban the use of anti-personnel land mines and weapons in space. These, Keegan says, are all hopeful signs.

The counterargument, of course, is that war and violence continue, particularly in poor countries and from terrorist, ethnic, and fundamentalist religious groups.

And for this kind of war, Keegan suggests, the rich countries bear some responsibility, and some duty to stop it. "The decision of the great powers, taken during the struggle against Hitler, to arm guerrilla and partisan forces and to raise civil war as a means of bringing him down set an example easily followed, as it has been by national liberation movements and now by fundamentalists and ethnic extremists around the globe. The encouragement of subversion as a strategy was shortsighted and the long-term price is now being paid. The price is paid through the evasion of the ideal of honor as the warrior virtue, an erosion that has once again made unfair fight, sabotage, assassination, and massacre acceptable mean s of waging war."

In some parts of the Pentagon, and here and there around the Bush Administration, it is not unusual to hear some variation of the sentiment, "The military's job is to fight and win the nation's wars." Implicit in that declaration is that peacekeeping and other missions short of all-out war are somehow beneath the soldiering class, even implying that somehow there is less honor in the undertaking of them. Keegan would strongly disagree.

As he notes in A History of Warfare, many ancient empires and city-states—two of the most stable being Rome and China—were careful to keep their peripheries guarded by well-trained legions, so that the peace was not threatened. This required men of skill and honor. Today, he writes in War and Our World, it requires something more. "It also requires a particular ethic, a readiness by the individual to risk his—or her—life not simply for any of the traditional values by which warriors fought but for the cause of peace itself."