Probing the Cultural Roots of War

OVER the centuries, the battles of different wars have often been fought on the same patch of ground. The most pronounced example of this curious pattern, notes John Keegan in his new book ``A History of Warfare,'' is Edirne, in European Turkey. Fully 15 battles or sieges are known to have occurred at this historic crossroads - the first between the Roman Emperor Constantine and his rival Licinius, in AD 323, and the last between the decaying Ottoman Turkish empire and invading Serbs in July 1913.

The constraints of geography are a major reason for this repetition. But so is the dismaying persistence of warfare as an institution. Romans, Goths, Bulgars, Crusaders, and various Byzantine and Balkan factions have all thought Edirne (or Adrianople, as it was once known) a place worth fighting over. No doubt the conflict seemed important at the time. Centuries later, much of it seems like folly.

As the current Balkans conflict shows, however, war is not a rational business. It is a dark aspect of human behavior. Its persistence and varying styles through the ages spring from the very roots of culture, as shown in both ``A History of Warfare'' and, differently, in Alvin and Heidi Toffler's ``War And Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century.'' You may not be interested in war or books about war. ``But war is interested in you,'' according to a chilling Tolstoy quote mentioned by the Tofflers.

Keegan's estimable work is ambitious. A British military historian who was long a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Keegan has produced a number of path-breaking volumes in recent years, most notably a detailed study of what actually occurs in combat named ``The Face of Battle.''

His new book is a complete survey of organized armed conflict, from the beginning of written records to the atomic bomb. He accomplishes this feat with amazing dexterity in only 400 pages, pausing occasionally to throw in small asides such as the fact that margarine was invented for the armies of Napoleon III.

His main theme is that war is not an extension of politics, as the Prussian writerClausewitz held, but an extension of a people's culture. Primitive war was primarily ritual and had no particular point beyond the occasional avenging of insult. Later cultures added more deadly aspects.

Horse people of the steppe, for instance, pioneered the concept of ruthlessly fighting to win. Romans added the idea of state-controlled standing armies. The leaders of the French Revolution invented universal conscription, ending the idea of soldiering as an activity for the few and preparing the way for the disastrous mass casualties of World Wars I and II.

The sweep of Keegan's book results in a certain high-history denseness that at times makes difficult reading. It is also suffused with a kind of romanticism for the life of soldiers. Physical problems precluded Keegan himself from ever serving in the military, but he has worked with British officers for much of his adult life. His description of ``soldierly temperament'' is very British: ``most soldiers are satisfied merely by the company of others, by a shared contempt for a softer world, by the liberation from narrow materiality brought by the camp....''

The idea of liberation from materiality is not widespread in the American military, as anyone who has seen the parking lot of a United States Air Force base can attest. Never have so many five-liter Mustang GTs been bought by so few.

By way of contrast with Keegan's book, the Tofflers' ``War And Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century'' is not about war's past, but its future. The futurist couple makes the interesting point that styles of war are rooted in a particular aspect of culture - economic activity. As the manipulation of information is coming to dominate the way the Western world makes wealth, so is it becoming central to the Western way of fighting.

``In both production and destruction knowledge reduces the requirement for other inputs,'' the Tofflers write. Consider the input of explosive power: In World War II, thousands of pounds of dumb bombs were often dropped to destroy a single target. In the Gulf war, one smart bomb, ``aware'' of its location thanks to laser guidance, could sometimes do the same job.

Intelligence provided by radar aircraft gave allied forces an enormous advantage over Iraq in the fight to liberate Kuwait. Likewise, initial allied attacks struck Saddam's means of information dissemination: his communication, command, and control facilities.

Thus, future efforts to keep peace - the ``anti-war'' of the title - must focus on knowledge. One approach, say the Tofflers, might be an embargo on hate propaganda, similar to an embargo on weapons and enforced by United Nations or Western television jammers and communications facilities.

Like all futurist tomes, ``War and Anti-War'' has a tendency to indulge in large amounts of technological fantasy prediction - in this case dwelling on such things as cyber-suit soldier armor and sound-wave weapons. Large sections of the book's analysis of the US military are lifted, with attribution, from articles in the Washington-based trade journal Defense News. Then there are the subtitles, one on almost every page, with many of them alliterative and barely related to the subject at hand. ``Diplo-Dither,'' ``Peace, Inc.,'' ``Open Skies and Open Minds'' - does their editor really think the sort of person that reads this book needs that kind of hype to slog through it?

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