Clausewitz, Keegan, and the Big History of Warfare



As a social phenomenon, is war subordinate to politics, as Carl von Clausewitz argued in the early nineteenth century, or, instead, is it the product of an instinctive ‘warrior culture’, common to all peoples and times and beyond politics, as John Keegan suggested in the late twentieth? Should we emphasize ‘essential historical elements in the search for a tem-poral continuum in warfare? In this article, we stress the relevance of the ‘perennity of war’ thesis, and the impropriety of a dichotomy between political rationality vs. instinct. The results of the clash between these two strands of thought about the origins of warfare face limitations due to the absence of a temporal ‘play of scales’, so that short-term approaches emerge as incompatible with macro-historical views. We suggest that a deep understanding of the phenomenon of warfare must consider the interaction and the feedback between processes at different time scales.