In The Book of War, eminent military historian John Keegan assembles a masterful anthology recording the progress of Western warfare as told through the authentic and often unique voices of its participants. No dry narrative history, Keegan's work is characterized by diversity and depth. Through eighty-two essays and poems he gathers in a single volume some of Western history's most spectacular military writing. His introductions to each entry are superb: concise yet definitive. Outlined in three segments, Part I illustrates the various forms war takes, particularly highlighting the fact that what motivated men to war today did not necessarily provide the impetus to combat in the past. Tribal or personal honor, as well duty owed to gods formed as much a part of the causa belli as economic or political dictates. For the European, warfare served to create stable states and winning empires. Yet out of diverse and often marginalized cultures would arise alternative forms of warfare, employing methods at odds with centuries of Western warfighting traditions. Considering such cultural and methodological divergence, Keegan's aim is to exemplify these contrasting military traditions. In Part II, Keegan examines warfare among established European states of common military cultures and employing similar technologies. The dictates of empire would bring these powers into conflict with dissimilar cultures, specifically Africa and India. Finally, in Part III, Keegan examines war in the twentieth century. One salient feature Keegan explores is how primitive or less technological cultures often overcome the advantages of advanced enemies through ingenuity, evasion, and the perpetuation of 'warrior spirit.'
Readers will find many familiar names such as Agincourt, Waterloo, Gallipoli, the Somme, Saigon, and the Gulf War. Yet many of the testimonies in Keegan's anthology will be unfamiliar to even professional readers. Hence, Keegan provides a valuable service for many by presenting a heuristic glimpse into the military lives of lesser-known or studied groups such as the Gurkhas, Boers, Cossacks, and the last Prussian cavalry unit. Indeed, it is likely that few have read accounts of warfare by the knight of an Islamic Caliphate, nor a French priest's testimony of an attack by Iroquois Indians. These are rare glimpses, further exemplified by the harrowing experiences of an 18th century militiaman captured by Indian warriors, and a German U-boat officer, whose service suffered a 70% death rate, the highest of any category of military unit during the Second World War. Throughout, Keegan refuses to whitewash the hypocrisies of his protagonists. For instance, he notes how Davy Crockett could impugn the military practices of the Creeks but overlook those of his Indian allies. Similarly, Wellington's English soldiers took their compensation in plunder, female virtue, and the lives of French civilians.
Particularly praiseworthy is Keegan's insertion of some of Western history's most haunting poetry. Included are Thomas Hardy's, 'In The Time of The Breaking of Nations,' Thomas Campbell's 'Hohenlinden,' John Scott of Amwell's magnificent 18th century anti-war poem, 'The Drum,' and Wilfred Owen's opus magnum, 'Anthem for Doomed Youth.' Moreover, Keegan's book is just as valuable for what it does not include. He refrains from including a warmed-over serving of Clausewitz or SunTzu, as well as sparing us a currently fashionable diatribe on the supposed leadership qualities of history's mass murderers. Likewise, we must not overlook the fact that Keegan includes the testimonies of both victors and vanquished, a fact making the work all the more alive and didactic.
There is little to criticize in this outstanding anthology. As only so much poetry could be included, I would have dropped one of Sassoon's two poems and added one from an era subsequent to World War I. The universal lessons of Goethe's 'Campaign in France' (1792), a poignant portrayal of war as seen through the innocent suffering of horses would have underscored much. But such considerations take nothing away from Keegan's present anthology, which remains a paragon of military anthological writing.