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November 30, 2006

A History of War: War in Human Civilization - Azar Gat

Posted by Jeremy Black

War in Human Civilization
by Azar Gat
Pp. XV+822. Oxford University Press, 2006
Hardback, 25

I was anxious when I was asked to review this book because I had been disappointed by Gat's A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War, which I thought overly Eurocentric in coverage and approach. The new book, in contrast, offers a much more effective engagement with different cultures and a wider understanding of military "thought". In short, the new book is a mature and impressive work. It is also ambitious, trying to ground war in an analysis of environment, society and human nature. This, indeed, crowds out much of the standard narrative of war. At times, therefore, the impression in this book is rather that of John Keegan's A History of Warfare, although the emphasis here is more geared to discussion of social development.

The book is divided into three parts:
warfare in the first two million years: environment, genes, and culture;
agriculture, civilization, and war;
and modernity: the dual face of Janus.

The first part deals with motivation and early development. Gat argues that:

competition and conflict are "real" in the sense that they arise from genuine scarcities among evolution-shaped, self-propagating organisms and can end in vital gains for one and losses for the other; at the same time, they are often also "inflated", partly self-perpetuating, and mutually damaging, because of the logic imposed on the antagonists by the conflict itself in an anarchic, unregulated environment.
This part is interesting and ranges to include topics such as the role of testosterone and Aztec human sacrifices.

The second part is also wideranging, but is more grounded in examples, the range of which is truly impressive. Gat argues that there was a close relationship between armed force and benefit acquisition, with armed force as essential as productivity for reaping benefits. Violent conflict is seen both as highly beneficial to some and as terribly wasteful overall. As with Kenneth Chase's recent book, the focus is on Eurasia.

The third part again is interesting, although many readers would have preferred more of an emphasis here. Furthermore, the conclusion with its emphasis on the triumph of liberal democracies and the market economy looks somewhat strange from the perspective of conflict in Congo, Central Africa, the Horn of Africa, Sudan, or the Middle East in the 1990s and 2000s.

Throughout interesting, Gat's work deals more with anthropological and sociological contexts than the processes of conflict. As such, the title is accurate. This is an account of war in human civilization, and not a history of war or warfare.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).


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