The End of War?


By John Keegan

Vintage -- 87pp -- $10 paper

Is war dying out? Eminent military historian John Keegan ponders this question in his literate and provocative War and Our World. The short volume is composed of a set of lectures that Keegan, author of such magisterial works as The First World War and Fields of Battle, wrote in 1988 for the British Broadcasting System.

Keegan feels that "the worst of war is behind us," disappearing like the great European famines and the plagues that once threatened to eradicate mankind. To consider this proposition, he investigates the origins of warfare, the relationship between the state and war, and the experience of the individual.

Neither science nor anthropology offers conclusive discoveries about the wellsprings of aggression, Keegan finds. But the historical record shows that war emerged during the third millennium B.C., when pastoral societies developed counterattack forces to respond to savage raiders--themselves the remnant of nomadic hunting societies. By about 1300 B.C., the first military empire had emerged, in Assyria.

Are the state and war inseparable partners? By the 19th century, it may have seemed so, as the revolutionary French Republic set the pattern of compulsory military service. Western governments became "potent war-making agencies and...very little besides," says the author. But since 1945, he observes in the most interesting section, there has been a "progressive abandonment" of requirements for universal military duty, and armies are withering away across the globe. "Wherever electorates rule, most are withdrawing their consent from the state's right to make their sons soldiers," says Keegan.

War and militarism, it seems, have lost legitimacy. Until recently, Keegan writes, the public held a man's military service in high regard, thanks to a definition of civic honor dating from ancient times. Twentieth-century war, with its punishing duration and unparalleled destruction of life and property, has eroded this ethos. In a particularly affecting section, the author describes the consternation and sorrow of those on the home front during the World Wars. "The telegraph boy on his bicycle" became a terrifying specter, "a trigger for the articulation of the constant unspoken prayer, `Let him pass by, let him stop at another house, let it not be us."'

Keegan is an optimist, but he is also a realist. He knows that the use of troops is sometimes necessary, as in U.N. actions. He also finds cause for hope in international agreements, such as the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. With the Bush Administration saying it intends to scrap this pact in favor of an antimissile system, readers may feel that the author's judgments are flawed. But take note, Mr. Rumsfeld: Keegan finds that almost every advance in modern military technology was heralded as a life-saving innovation. Instead, they often resulted in bloody, long-running calamities.

By Hardy Green

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