War and Our World: The Reith Lectures, 1998

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9780091777944: War and Our World: The Reith Lectures, 1998

The subject of the 1998 Reith Lectures is war - its origins, history and future. Keegan focuses on significant themes, among them, the impact of war on our century and the forms it has taken, from the all-out conflicts of industrialized states to the deadly assaults of religious fundamentalists.

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Review:

Violence rarely settles anything, as John Keegan openly admits in this thoughtful polemic, based on the series of Reith lectures he gave in 1998. And yet in the same paragraph he goes on to say that there are some things--when the threat of violence has failed--that can only be settled by violence. As a predictive summing up of the present conflict in Kosovo, this can hardly be faulted. But then you wouldn't expect anything less, because when it comes to war--its causes, its miseries and its consequences--Keegan is the boss. For many years he was the senior lecturer in military history at Sandhurst and is the author of some of the most accessible books on warfare--in particular The Face of Battle, Six Armies in Normandy, The Second World War and 1999's The First World War.

Every century has had its wars, but the 20th century has been the worst in the history of humankind. The First World War killed 10 million, the Second World War 50 million and since 1945 millions have died in theatres as diverse as Korea, Vietnam, Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central America, the Balkans and the Falklands. And that the world hasn't yet been annihilated in a nuclear holocaust owes as much to luck as to judgement. Despite a general agreement among most nations that there should be no repeats of the catastrophes of the world wars and despite a growing breed of communitarians--politicians seeking a third way between capitalism and socialism--the threat of war is as ever-present as it always has been as we reach the year 2000. Keegan doesn't attempt a potted global history of warfare; instead he concentrates on certain themes such as the origin of war in human nature and history, the adoption and use of war by states as an instrument of policy and the experience of war by individuals and human groups and its effects on their existence.

This is not a long book, but much of its 74 pages makes fairly depressing reading. If you're looking for an affirmation of the essential goodness of human nature you aren't going to find it here. Keegan reminds us that it is not the military that are the warmongers, but the stay-at-home politicians and wannabe statesmen and women who often disguise naked political, economic, personal and national self-interest as the moral high ground and use them as a pretext for a campaign of destruction. No-one, on whatever side of a conflict, has ever said that God and right were not on their side. Poor old God, eh?

But there are touching moments, especially when Keegan is writing about the individual and war. He talks of the long periods of boredom interspersed with moments of high terror, and the poignancy of the first-person accounts of the relatives at home waiting for the telegram to be posted through their door is almost unbearable. Keegan's last chapter is devoted to the notion of whether there can be an end to war. He nobly and boldly concedes the idea as a possibility, but then underwrites his message with the caveat that human beings will almost need to reinvent themselves to achieve this.

Despite mountains of evidence, no-one it seems is willing to learn the lessons of war. We've seen it all before and we're going to see it all again. --John Crace

Review:

"Majestic...War, he argues, has been the curse of our civilization and our century. Never has war been so destructive as in the late industrial era, and he backs his claim with a superb sweep of history since the beginning of organised warfare, armies and fortification, to the present age of the nuclear bomb, smart weapons, the urban gueriila and the terrorist." ( Times Literary Supplement)

"The most readable and the most original of living military historians." ( New York Times Book Review)

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