War and Man's Past

'War, far from being an exact science, is a terrible and impassioned drama' wrote Baron de Jomini in 1862. John Keegan argues that it is this drama that military historians must confront in their probe into man's past.

Military historians notoriously suffer from an identity anxiety. So, too, it is said, do economic, social and cultural historians, suspecting that general historians tacitly and patronisingly regard them as partial and peripheral practitioners of the craft. Military historians conceal the affliction in a more acute form, however, since they know that war is not a 'nice' subject, like culture, nor a rigorous or 'significant' system of study, which is what economic and social historians claim for their work. War, they are made to feel, is an aberrant activity, which distorts and disrupts the proper rhythms of man's life and would not happen in a world run by people with the right training – say in general history, or even in its cultural, economic and social dependencies.

It does not help that military historians have to travel in pretty mixed company. Other specialists are encumbered by hangers-on: by genteel biographers of dead lady novelists, by enthusiasts for obsolete railway engines and abandoned tin mines, and by prurient excavators of the archaeology of sex. But usually they can be disowned, when they do not disbar themselves by incompetence or obsessiveness. 'Military history' is, however, a garment loose and ample enough to be thrown over the most heterogeneous range of subjects and activities: the study of uniforms, buttons and badges, the 're-enactment' of historic battles, the collection of antique firearms, and such arcane matters as the height of Frederick the Great's guardsmen and the survival of the heliograph. Academic military historians shrink from association with such vulgarities and inanities; by convulsive reaction, many have come to insist that they themselves are not historians of war at all, but of institutions, administration or ideas – armies, conscription, strategic thought.

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