The Defence Associations National Network
Volume 6 No. 1 - Spring, 1999

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John Keegan, A History of Warfare (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1993)


By: Jim Byrne


In 1993, the well-regarded military historian John Keegan published a book "The History of War" which gives a magisterial survey of this topic. In it he describes and analyses the development of war from the Stone Age onwards. But this is not just history, rather it is history with a message, and the message is, that:

war is not a worthwhile instrument of national policy; and that

von Clausewitz was mistaken in his analysis of war, in particular, his dictum that "war is not merely a political act, but a continuation of political relations, a carrying out of the same by other means."
Unfortunately Keegan's analysis of the place of von Clausewitz in military thought seriously warps what has been and is an increasingly valuable insight into the philosophy of war.

Although the book was written a few years ago, Keegan has continued his attack on von Clausewitz (most recently in the Winter 97/98 issue of the US periodical National Interest). Consequently, in view of Keegan's standing in the community of military commentators, it seems worthwhile to examine his theses particularly since, in my view, von Clausewitz' analysis is of particular import and relevance to Canadian military thought. The bulk of Keegan's book is standard history but the first part and the concluding section are devoted to the exposition of his underlying theme.

The book opens with a challenge to von Clausewitz's well-known characterisation of war, with the statement that war is not part of politics but rather part of culture. By this Keegan means that emotions (passions, pride, instinct) play a major if not dominant role in decisions such as whether to declare war. To think of war as a result of rational decision-making is in his view, unrealistic.

In particular, due to the considerable role which they play today, Keegan accuses von Clausewitz of ignoring irregular/guerrilla operations such as those conducted by the Cossacks in Imperial Russia, and of which von Clausewitz was well aware. From Keegan's perspective, those were almost solely brutal attacks which expressed a particular Cossack culture. In current terms, Keegan cites the Balkans and trans-Caucasian conflicts as similar examples of culturally driven conflicts.

Put another way, von Clausewitz sees war as being a rational choice for the advancement of a nation's state interests; whereas for Keegan, nation states are not the sole entities involved in war, even in those national cases, it is misleading to imagine rational calculation as being the decision-making model. Keegan further observes that von Clausewitz's ideal "true" war was an all out exertion of force almost without bounds. In this nuclear era this could, of course, lead to disaster.

Keegan on war itself

Beyond von Clausewitz's analysis, Keegan develops a second theme that war has lost its usefulness. He argues that as an instrument of policy it suffers from "chronic indecisiveness"; wars do not resolve policy dilemmas. For him, war today cannot be a continuation of policy, it is the "bankruptcy" of policy.

Critique of Keegan's Analysis

Keegan is mistaken in separating politics and culture. By definition, "culture" includes all of the activities of man; Keegan seems to restrict it only to the area of emotions. Culture includes politics, and in fact, politics is the process which adjudicates between the often competing values each underline emotions and other aspects of culture. One cannot simply exclude rational decision-making from culture; it is an integral component. Similarly, one cannot exclude culture from politics. They are indeed linked. Even in the cases of the Balkans and trans-Caucasian conflicts, if one understands politics as the common and collective decision-making of the directing agency, then it can well be argued that these conflicts, brutal as they may be, express the policies of the conflicting parties. Keegan's discussion seems to equate irregular operations with irrational operations.

With respect to his analysis of von Clausewitz, there is no disputing von Clausewitz's focus on wars between nation-states. It must be acknowledged that von Clausewitz was a child of his times and circumstances. Beyond this, he never refined or completed his work to his own satisfaction. As in biblical criticism, it is possible to pick and choose amongst several formulations to construct contrary or extreme positions. But Keegan makes a parody of von Clausewitz' philosophy. Taken as a whole, von Clausewitz clearly did not advocate "all out" war regardless of its relation to the goals of the participants. For von Clausewitz, "true" war with its final control of the enemy, was an ideal philosophical concept, not an operational model. Of equal importance, Keegan makes no allowance for a more general application of von Clausewitz' aphorism, as I have argued above.

Keegan's treatment of war itself fails on two grounds:

He ignores those conflicts that have, in fact, resolved issues, at least for as long as the dynamics of our societies would reasonable allow. From times past, two North American examples could be cited: the American Revolution and the US Civil War. In recent memory, the Falklands War provides another example, which becomes even more compelling when its very considerable influence in effecting the overthrow of the Argentinean military junta, is recalled. I would argue also that the combination of World Wars I and II were decisive in that they resulted in a mature German society and the creation of a stable Europe.

He is inconsistent in that he acknowledges that conflict will continue in the future. Keegan envisages and hopes these conflicts will be limited to situations when the armed forces will be employed by an international body against a supposedly recalcitrant rogue force. Why such a conflict would be more effective than that conducted by nations and why the operative policies would not be poisonous, is not at all clear. Nor is it clear how the transition from national to international control is to be effected. (In his recent article, Keegan seems to imply that the international/post state decision-making would not centre around politics. What such decision making would centre on is not clear.)

Fundamentally Keegan would like war between nation-states to disappear; policies which lead to war are a "poisonous intoxication". Since war-making is ineffective, he holds that it cannot have a rational goal.

It is in his treatment of nuclear war that, for me, Keegan reveals the genesis of his attack on von Clausewitz's position. He is certainly on stronger ground in arguing that a nuclear war could not be a worthwhile means to advance national policies. His understandable concern is such, however, that he does not want nations to contemplate the use of war under any circumstances. He seems to fear that the combination of von Clausewitz's "continuation of politics" approach and his supposed "all out" war methods would inevitably lead to nuclear suicide. As I have argued, his critique of both of these aspects is badly flawed. But, more importantly, his critique deflects attention from what I believe to be von Clausewitz's fundamental point: every participant in a conflict should have a clear outcome in mind. 

Currently, Canadian forces are likely to be involved in coalition operations. In these circumstances, the goals of a conflict may be unusually resistant to clear formulation. They should be so formulated and commanders must be fully aware of the national policies which they are advancing. 


For Keegan, von Clausewitz personifies the view that war can be rational; he must therefore be condemned. Fortunately for us, von Clausewitz, despite any narrowness of views, has been able to formulate from his particular experience a generalisation which is of fundamental importance. Keegan has a good point in that we must not let what he terms as cultural factors overwhelm our decision making. But I believe that this is exactly von Clausewitz' concern: whoever is engaged in armed conflict must consistently keep in mind the purpose for which they have become engaged. This is as true of guerrillas or similar operations as for organised entities. Guerrillas do not fight without a goal in mind. With our capacity for greater destruction, the thinking behind von Clausewitz's statement is more important than ever and could be paraphrased as: "Keep your eye on the ball to make sure the military operations are consistent with policy goals."

About the Author: Jim Byrne is a defence policy analyst who served in both DND and the PCO.

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Created: April 24, 1999