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Publisher's Summary

Starting with the premise that all civilizations owe their origins to warmaking, Keegan probes the meanings, motivations, and methods underlying war in different societies over the course of more than two thousand years. Following the progress of human aggression in its full historical sweep, from the strangely ritualistic combat of Stone Age peoples to the warfare of mass destruction in the present age, his illuminating and lively narrative gives us all the world's great warrior cultures, including the Zulus, the samurai, and the horse peoples of the steppe, as well as the famed warmakers of the West. He shows why honor has always been accorded to the soldierly virtues, whatever the cultural context, and how war has maintained its singular hold on the imagination, reaching into "the most secret places of the human heart, places where self dissolves rational purpose, where pride reigns, where emotion is paramount, where instinct is king".
©1993 John Keegan (P)1994 Blackstone Audiobooks

Critic Reviews

"A work of massive sweep...in which the resources of anthropology, ethnology, psychology, and history are drawn on in comprehensive but succinct synthesis to create what is perhaps the most remarkable study of warfare that has yet been written." (New York Times Book Review)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Dan
  • Maple Grove, MN, USA
  • 11-07-05

Complete, Informative, and Insightful

This book was written and is narrated well. Be prepared to learn everything from how a composite bow is made to how long cannons ruled the battlefield after the discovery of gunpowder.

However, this book is more than an explanaition of facts, and seeks to discuss the reasons behind historical warfare. The author has strong opinions on the motivations of armies and nations at war, and on the definition of war itself.

I reccomend A History of Warfare to anyone wishing to learn how warfare has grown over the centuries into what it is today and to anyone interested in the motives and situations that brought about many of the world-changing conflicts experienced throughout our history.

16 of 16 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Mark
  • Dallas, TX, USA
  • 12-05-06

Not what I expected

I have mixed feelings about this book because its not a history of warfare as I expected it to be. First off, its not well structured. It meanders all over the place, challenging Clauswitz's notion that war is an extension of policy, delving into a history of the world in general (trashing various anthropologists along the way), and finally, after spending too much time on the ritualized warfare of primitive peoples, gets into some forms of fighting here and there. What I wanted (and expected) was to understand the evolution of warfare from the standpoint of technology, tactics, operations, and grand strategy. I hoped to walk away from the book with an understanding of how people fought in each era, the factors causing them to fight that way, and perhaps learn a little more about some famous battles along the way. I indeed did learn some of that from this book, and some of his meanderings are interesting, but I really had to wade through a lot of superfluous gibberish to get there. I also have to agree with another reviewer's comment that the book is pretentious. I like Keegan's work, but I have one suggestion for him: focus man.

21 of 22 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

Very interesting work.

When I bought this book, I expected the book to be chronological narrative that outlined the method and technology of warfare. What I ended up with was a far more sophisticated book that divided the narrative by subjects and outline the philosophy and ideology of warfare, which is far more abstract than what I anticipated. Still, a very interesting read, but the narrative goes everywhere.

7 of 7 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

Tough read (listen)

The structure of the book from afar is a sensible walk through military and warlike history. As written however, Keegan seems to spend so much time referring to and battling against the writings of Clausewitz (a writer from long ago who wrote "On War" - "war is the extension of policy (or politics)"). I, as the reader, wanted to learn and review the evolution of war, but grew bored and lackluster about the progress due to these constant efforts to refer to and contradict Clausewitz. When Keegan was truly discussing military history and the causes of different evolutionary changes, it was enjoyable, but the book could have been 1/2 as long and twice as enjoyable if he stuck to the substance.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Terrific Keegan

I found this a terrific review of war over the millenia. Many insights, frequent references to the validity of Clausewitz's views. I wish I'd had Keegan as a professor.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

Interesting - but not outstanding

This is a solid scholarly work. However, it is not exhaustive regarding the history of warfare and examines only several snippets to prove some anthropological points. These points are good, the work is solid and well-researched, but not greatly exciting. The narrator was solid, but the work was not the most exciting of Keegan's (whom I admire as a leader in his field).

If you like Keegan, get his book on the Iraq War. And please somebody narrate his Face of Battle books.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

Slow, dull, not much history

I was hoping for a lot of history, as the title suggests. Instead, the book is mostly analysis based on little tidbits of history. As someone interested in the history, it was tedious. I was unable to get all the way through it. The fact that the narrator speaks so slowly and carefully doesn't help. Listen to the sample, and see for yourself if you can stay interested in this book for more than a few minutes.

6 of 9 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars
  • T. Rowe
  • Tulsa, OK United States
  • 08-06-18

A Big Story to Tell

This book tries to cover a lot of territory from ancient tribal warfare to the nuclear bomb and post colonial rebellions. The book looks at social and technological aspects of warfare. Its long chapters with titles such as Stone, Flesh, Iron, and Fire loosely center around those topics. It is nearly impossible to separate them from one another.

The big takeaway from the book for me is how limited war really is. We put social limits on war such as not allowing women and children to participate. (Yes, there are exceptions.) There are technological limits such as how accurate a firearm can be. And there are logistical limits based on how can an army keep its fighters supplied with food, water, and munitions.

Of particular interest to me were the social and logistical limits. In primitive societies, it seems war is very ritualized and limited as to when, where, and how it is fought. Thus large scale death is avoided. Logistical limits seemed to limit the size of any fast growing, large scale empire such as the Huns or Alexander the Greats movement. It was also interesting to see how these limits can be somewhat thwarted, at least for a time, by the willingness of combatants to fight such as the Confederacy holding out against the United States in the American Civil War.

The only problem I had with the book was largely my own expectations. I would expect it go to go one way, and it would go another. Therefore, I was struggling with the text. I normally embrace this kind of challenge to my thinking, but for some reason, it just irritated me. I think I felt as if I was missing some important information. This book could have easily been twice the length and still not have been comprehensive enough for me. Maybe that was the real challenge I had with the book.

If you are interested in learning more about war, I would recommend this book.

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars
  • T
  • 05-18-17

Uninformative

Woefully short on insightful analysis and long on unfounded conclusions. Narration was droll and monotonous.

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Michael
  • Citrus Heights, CA, United States
  • 03-31-15

Interesting but not Outstanding

Keegan's History of Warfare takes broad approach to the subject of warfare. Keegan spends too much time at the beginning of the book addressing the origins of man and his psychological makeup in regards to war. While admittedly it is a part, Keegan takes this tangent, and others away from the main point of the narrative. I found myself struggling to find cohesiveness until half way through the book when Keegan regains his footing. It was only by the excellent performance of the narrator that I was able to finish the novel.