John Keegan reflects on the motives for war throughout human history.
Whilst war is all too familiar a topic in recent times, little attempt is made to analyse the fundamental motives which lead countries to resort to armed conflict to settle their differences, or to consider how warfare as we know it today has evolved. It would not be true to say that the past did not know episodes of something like universal peace, at least within the boundaries of civilisation: for much of the second and third centuries the Roman Empire was untroubled by war; and during the nineteenth century, the British, by ignoring their imperial campaigns and treating the Crimean war as an aberration, persuaded themselves that they had entered a perpetually pacific era. But intervals such as these, which in any case look more peaceful at a distance than under close scrutiny, are islands in a vast ocean of storms. No part of the earth's surface on which men live or travel has not been fought over at some time or other. Some spots, like Adrianople in European Turkey and Antioch in Syria, have been fought over time and again. Armies are attracted to such places for 'strategic' reasons, meaning that possession or control of the area is desirable usually because it stands at points of communication between one productive region and another. It might be suggested then that the prevalence and frequency of war arise out of one group's desire or need to prey upon the land or wealth of another. What we know of the earliest warfare endorses this view, and it is further borne out in our own world where the correlation between deprivation and aggression is undeniable. Yet want does not sufficiently explain why we engage in battle. The richest and most powerful states are frequently the most warlike, whereas the poor are often too weak to resist even a direct threat to their independence. War serves many purposes: revenge, remonstrance, religion and ideology, as well as acquisitiveness and pre-emption. For some societies it is a last resort undertaken with reluctance; for others it shapes and informs their whole character and is embarked upon in anticipation of glory and triumph. But no known society, however high-minded, has been able to banish war from its dealings with others; nor, because the urges that underlie warfare are individual as well as collective, has a society been able to base itself on any but an ultimately military foundation.
Leadership in War
Heroism, whether masculine or feminine, is ultimately of limited usefulness on the battlefield, and even its most powerful verbal celebration is of limited effect. For in the midst of fear, which is the fighting man's psychological element, it is example which counts. Once armies, and therefore battlefields, grew to a size larger than the individual's eye could take in at a single sweep, heroic behaviour lost its power to inspire the mass. The onset of that trend was already perceived by the Greeks in the fifth century BC, when Xenophon thought it worth rehearsing for himself and his readers the relative merits of rashness and prudence in a commander's behaviour. He concluded that rashness was still the more desirable trait. But two hundred years later Philo of Byzantium no longer thought the issue worth debating. 'It is your duty', he wrote to an imaginary general, 'not to take par t in the battle, for whatever you may accomplish by spilling your own blood could not compare with the harm you would do to your own interests if anything happened to you... keeping yourself out of range of missiles, or moving along the lines without exposing yourself, exhort the soldiers, distribute praise and honours to those who prove their courage and berate and punish the cowards.'
In this short passage, Philo sums up almost all the duties of the commander as we recognise them today. Only those of planning the campaign – 'strategy' – and manoeuvring his army to battle ain favourable terms by 'stratagem' – both words which nevertheless derive from the Greek for 'general' – are omitted. Philo's commander, in short, has become a manager of heroes, rather than a hero himself (though he may have won that reputation in youth), a man who 'leads' from behind. The art of leadership from the rear is quite different from the impulse to heroic display, requiring both training and experience to master. And in the great military civilisation of Rome, within which the Greek world was eventually subsumed, the public life of the upper class was so organised as to lead the young aristocrat through all the necessary stage,'. Apprenticed as a junior officer in a legion, he moved, if merit took him that way, via its command into politics and perhaps eventually to leadership of the republic. Realistically the Romans accepted the total interdependence of force and persuasion in the government of men. It was only when the republic succumbed to dynastic and imperial rule that the system, increasingly dependent on the one hand on professional civil servants, gave birth on the other to career generals. Too often the more successful took the empire for themselves, but after its collapse in the West, the Eastern half produced at least one great commander of the wholly modern professional type in Belisarius.
In the chaotic kingdoms of post-Roman Europe, heroism and leadership became once more intertwined, in the minds both of the ruling class and of their subjects, and would remain so in many states almost into our own times. Three of Germany's seven armies were mobilised in 1914 under the command of royal princes, and both the Kaiser and the Czar thought it necessary to spend the whole war at general headquarters. Yet paradoxically the office and role of the career general was by then firmly institutionalised in the Western world, and had been for several centuries. The origin of that development lay in the proprietorship of the mercenary companies which had come to dominate military life at the end of the Middle Ages. Many of these proprietors – condottieri – used their skills to become ruler: in their own right – the Medici of Florence were almost an exception to that trend – but despite the danger implicit in the transaction, others found for theirs a ready market in the service of established ruling houses. Their example also acted as a spur to subject noblemen, the more ambitious of whom, recognising that the days of mere heroism were over, sought to emulate their professionalism. Among the first and greatest was Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain's 'Gran Capitan', Gonzalez de Cordoba, who, beginning as a minor courtier, virtually created the Spanish Army and yet ended his life as he had begun it, a loyal subject.
Under such great military servants of the European crowns, a whole new range of opportunities for permanent, salaried employment opened to the minor aristocracies, an alternative to the scarce 'offices' at court from which they were excluded by the greater families. Military office produced the career of 'officer', which soon came to have its own internationally recognised hierarchy of steps. Derived from those of the mercenary companies – headman or captain and his deputy or lieutenant – the ladder was extended to include the commander of a column (colonello) when companies were so grouped, under the 'regiment' of royal authority. The grouping of regiments into a field army required that these ranks be made 'general' over it; hence (captain-) general, lieutenant-general and, from the senior common soldier of the old company, (sergeant-) major-general. The hierarchy was conventionally crowned by the royal appointment of marshal, called 'field' to distinguish him from the civil marshals of the court.
We find most of these ranks in use in the armies of the Civil War in England, and all, including that of marshal, in those of Louis XIV; Peter the Great carefully copied them for the royal army he created on Western lines in Russia. We do not, however, find any organised method of appointing men to, let alone training them for, these ranks until much later. The heroic ideal still gripped the old warrior class strongly enough to ensure rejection of the demeaning notion that its siblings needed to be taught how to behave on a battlefield. And the first military academies were indeed established for precisely those branches of soldiering which aristocrats would not practice: fortification and gunnery. The most to which they would consent was genteel education in military boarding schools, where instruction was specifically not military in scope.
Yet within a hundred years of Louis XIV's death, the modern military academies had everywhere come into being: Sandhurst (1799), West Point (1803), St Cyr (1801), the latter a creation of Napoleon's. In 1810, Prussia founded a War Academy to teach these skills not to future lieutenants but to future generals, and by the end of the nineteenth century 'command and staff colleges' flourished in all advanced countries. Their aim, moreover, was to produce a soldier whom Xenophon might have had difficulty in recognising as a fellow-practitioner of art, and to whom Bohemond or even Napoleon's Marshal Murat would have denied the title of warrior altogether. A creature of the study and the map room, his skills lay in the understanding of the science of military movement and supply, and in the laying of plans to be executed far from the sound of gunfire. Planning and logistics had increasingly taken hold of the military mind, of course, as armies had grown in numbers from thousands toward millions.
Extract from The Nature of War by John Keegan and Joseph Durracot (Jonathan Cape, London, 1981)
John Keegan is Senior Lecturer in War Studies at the Royal Military College, Sandhrst. His most recent book is Six Armies in Normandy (Cape, 1982).
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