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3.9 out of 5 stars28
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on 13 January 2011
As the title suggests this is a hugely ambitious work. Strangely, it begins with Clausewitz and devotes the best part of the first chapter to the life and times of this admittedly highly influential writer and theorist. It then goes back to the beginning, to an account of warfare from the earliest `primitive' warfare of inter-tribal conflict (so far as it is known) and continues through to the atomic age. In the process, it describes the effects of socio-political and technical developments on the practices and consequences of war, and includes some graphic and gruesome examples of man's inhumanity to man. The book is primarily concerned with land warfare but also covers war at sea and, latterly, in the air. The logistics of warfare and the limitations they impose, are also covered; constraints such as - how far a man can march in day, how far he can march before he must be resupplied, the socio-economic impact of attempting to raise and then maintain a large citizen army, and, not least, the constraints that terrain, climate and regional resources impose on military ambition. A not insignificant portion of the book is devoted to a consideration of the causes of war, to its psychological and sociological underpinnings, to the motivations of those facing death on the battlefield, and to the psychology of face-to-face combat.

In areas of the topic where I have some knowledge, I spotted a few, albeit relatively minor, errors of fact. Assuming that the rest of the book contains no greater errors, the ambitious nature of the title would seem to have been broadly achieved.
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on 18 August 2001
The book is structured around an examination of the Clausewitzian definition of war. Keegan compares forms of warfare from other cultures and across history in order to test the definition's validity.
We are treated to a wide-ranging and intelligent discussion of various forms of warfare written in an engaging and accessibl;e academic style (so no... it's not populist). I cannot recommend this book highly enough, it's a must for most students of warfare.
HOWEVER, Keegan, by trying to be accesible relies enormously on secondary texts which are often swiftly dealt with in passing. For serious academics this might be dissapointing but I am sure that the comments he makes on secondary sources are valid and insightful.
So it's a superb book but experts might find it a little light.
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on 1 April 2015
This (in my opinion) is more a dissertation to provoke debate and discussion than an standard military history book. It discusses military history throughout the ages from a Clausewitzian viewpoint and the way war is prosecuted by different cultures at various points in history. Its an interesting and thought provoking book, its conclusions are interesting and I would say for anyone reading History in general at a university level this book is a must read. The insight and analysis of why and how various cultures fight shows why warfare has always been (and still is) a hugely important driver of society, possibly more influential than anything else on all our lives. I think that although all the theories in this book have been aired before by the author and others this pulls it all together and delivers a very useful and informative read ..... and some questions for further research.
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on 19 May 2006
Few books in the market provide a better general overview of the history of warfare since the dawn of war-making. In this ambitious piece of work, Keegan ranges effortlessly across epochs and continents to tell the story of more than four millennia of world history. If all this sounds a little daunting, the book is written in an accessible style that constantly engages the reader and ensures that you'd probably not need to go over a paragraph twice.

One of the great strengths of the book is its thematic layout. What might have been a long and humdrum narrative is enlivened by intelligent chapter divisions that deal with the different `ages' in warfare according to specific themes. This breaks the account into more manageable portions. The overall structure and coherence of the narrative is always preserved.

Keegan offers something more for the informed reader through the inroads he makes into military philosophy. Notably, he highlights the limitations of Clausewitz's `war is merely a continuation of politics' by demonstrating the intimate connections between war-making and culture.

This book is a must-read for any military history enthusiast, or anyone else interested in a first taste of this genre.
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on 7 August 2008
This book is not a history of warfare at all, but a political-military treatise, heavily biased to a single point of view. However, it is an interesting read and also thought-provoking - so I gave it 2-stars.

Keegan makes a range of claims in this book which are fundamentally incorrect. Three such lines of argument are discussed below, but there are many others and I wonder if Keegan has even misinterpreted some of the 'facts' he suggests about tribal warfare in South America.

1. He claims that there is no Clausewitzian way of interpreting, or applying, nuclear force. Nuclear force is applied to give weight to political and military bargaining. The threat of use provides its power. In the case of the Cold War, the East-West military balance in Germany was primarily ensured through the West's nuclear armament offsetting the East's conventional armament. The lack of use of a weapon does not make it irrelevant.

2. He over-simplifies the role of the castle. He contends that the use of gunpowder made the castle obsolete. This is again incorrect. The castle approach may be no substitute for mobility, but the principle has been applied widely (if poorly), even in the 20th Century. Further, his claim that it was impossible to take a castle prior to the arrival of the cannon is also flawed - as history shows a range of methods which were applied successfully (such as at the successful seige of the 'impenetrable' Rochester castle in 1215).

3. He denegrates the role of citizen armies. This flies in the face of 20th Century and 21st Century history and is, quite frankly, dangerous. The proof of history is that citizen armies are vastly more trustworthy and loyal to their homeland than their alternatives.

This book is very anti-Clausewitz, which is not helpful at all. I suspect that it was Keegan's intention to make an impact by attacking a giant of the genre. This is rather like the Clausewitz vs. Sun Tzu debate - which I also find counter-productive.

A true premier work on this subject would be one which could take existing theories and meld them into something new. This book neither attempts nor succeeds in doing any such thing. One for the vaults...
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on 1 September 2006
This is simply excellent. The narrative is well-written, never stuffy and pitched for a level above beginner. Keegan places the development of armies, arms, materials and transport in various sections. This makes for easy reading, learning and entertainment. I find this combination unusual in books about war. At almost every page I wanted to know more about the history of the particular tribe, nation, war or armaments being described. I like his personal slant; though he does give fair credit to other views. Recommended.
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on 7 December 2010
Even though I didn't always agree with him I found this book to be fascinating.
It give a great rundown of warfare through history and he also studies how it stands alone as warfare for its own stake and also how it integrates into the rest of human life.

I think that possibly he exaggerates his disagreements with the work of Clausewitz but as he is such a great writer this book is always interesting and a pleasure to read.
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VINE VOICEon 4 February 2000
Extremely literate, well-constructed consideration of the history of warfare, which advances the argument that contrary to von Clausewitz's mis-quote, "War is the continuation of policy by other means", that war is actually culturally determined, often irrational, and the subsuming of it as an almost legal means of the advancement of global policy is not only undesirable but potentially terrifying.
Also fascinating were the insights into Oriental idioms of warfare, the role of technology in battle, and the consideration of the anthropology of war amongst so-called "primitive" peoples. Keegan speaks about "primitive" war without really examining the ideology behind calling the peoples involved "primitive", which is probably my single quibble.
In all respects, however, the scholarship has the vast breadth that a history of world warfare requires and the style is readable while being eminently authoritative.
I think any thoughtful person would find this book interesting.
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This is an interesting look at warfare throughout human history. It looks at the various developments from primitive ritualised warfare, the use of horses and chariots, the growth of iron weapons, the building and development of forts and the discovery and implementation of gunpowder and more besides. It is fascinating to read, but fairly dry in places (hence the 4 stars). It takes some perseverance, but the dividends from sticking with it are worth the extra work. Overall a good read with some interesting information to give you a deeper insight into human society and the development of warfare.

Feel free to check out my blog which can be found on my profile page.
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on 27 April 2016
John Keegan is a masterful historian with an excellent grasp of his subject matter. I thoroughly enjoyed this overview of warfare and would recommend it to anyone interested in the general subject of military history.
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