How should Western military interventions of the past decade be situated within the millennial epic of human civilization? The theme itself, in all its hoary grandeur, might bring to mind lectures on civic virtue and occidental destiny from Harvard or the Hoover Institute. But Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization has little in common with these best-selling tributes to exemplary republics and military orders.footnote1 Instead of a few glosses on famous battles, Gat—a specialist in Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a major in the idf Reserve—has attempted nothing less than a survey of the entire history of organized violence, from the hunter-gatherer origins of humanity to the current security predicaments of liberal democracies. War in Human Civilization sets out to resolve questions that have long been at the centre of controversies in anthropology and historical sociology. What is war? Has armed strife been endemic to all known forms of human society? Did violent group conflict take place amongst pre-historic hunter-gatherers, did it begin with the onset of agriculture, or take off after the formation of the first states? What role has war played in different forms of society, from the earliest city-states to the present day?

A work that succeeded in answering any one of these would arguably be a scholarly landmark. Gat has made a heroic attempt to deal with them all in the form of an evolutionary epic which begins with our hominid ancestors and ends with a few modest suggestions on how the West should respond to the threat of terrorism. The hunter-gatherer state of nature, the first village settlements, the rise of agriculture, the foundation of the earliest states, barbarian frontiers, empire building, the early modern European Miracle, the transition to capitalism, all culminating in a monumental account of the rise and fall of mass-mobilization warfare in the West—the episodes in this chronicle of civilization have a topical weight that is independent of the theory which seeks to subsume them. Whatever the limits of the latter, the work exhibits a pleasantly old-fashioned historical literacy that will hopefully prompt those with other conceptions of human development to consider enterprises on a comparable scale.

For in Gat’s view, this entire macro-historical sequence is to be read as an unfolding expression of our inexorable, biological propensity to survive and expand. What he offers is a panorama of the civilizing process in the 19th-century tradition of social evolutionism. While the original grand narratives of this ilk have largely disappeared from the mainstream—how many today have read a single page of Herbert Spencer, Ludwig Gumplowicz or Karl Kautsky?—Gat’s undertaking must be seen in terms of a much broader project to restore this once vastly influential school of thought. Socio-biology is currently experiencing an ascendancy reminiscent of its glory days in the Belle Epoque. While biological essentialism in its overtly racist form has fewer adherents than a century ago, ongoing advances in human genetics seem destined to spawn a form of neo-social darwinism better adapted to contemporary values, and with good prospects for becoming, once again, a dominant ideology.

This adaptability of evolutionary theory to prevailing conditions has manifested itself in the changing significance of history itself. The first generation of social evolutionists emerged in a Europe saturated with historicism; in the current ideological context, the problem of change over the longue durée can be handled more casually, by banishing old-fashioned anxieties surrounding the specificity of different times and peoples. As a result, the many recent attempts to offer an evolutionary account of the direction of history, in terms of the interplay of evolved propensities to conflict and cooperation, lack the characteristic breadth and occasional depth of the classics of this tradition. The virtuoso scholarship and intellectual range of Gat’s earlier works on the history of military thought, however, would seem to raise the hope that his latest contribution might change this state of affairs at a stroke. In three books (1989, 1992, 1998), reissued in 2001 in a single volume entitled A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War, Gat produced a formidable work of intellectual history that deserves consideration in its own right—a striking precursor to War in Human Civilization. It effectively captures the main episodes of three centuries of writing on military affairs, in a narrative of the rise and fall of Clausewitzian hegemony and the subsequent formulation of the containment doctrine.footnote2

The first volume of the series, the outcome of his doctoral thesis under Michael Howard and published when Gat was still in his twenties, traced ‘the quest for a general theory of war’ from Machiavelli to Clausewitz.footnote3Gat argued that the classical military theory revived during the Renaissance initially focused almost exclusively on the glories of past forms: Xenophon’s account of the combat formation of the Spartan phalanx; Polybius on the Roman legion. In Gat’s judgement, the early-modern classical spirit was oblivious to the historical contexts of war. He seconds Clausewitz’s dismissal of Machiavelli’s supposedly ‘ahistorical’ approach, in failing to register the impact of firearms: ‘The art of war of the ancients attracted him too much, not only its spirit, but also in all of its forms.’footnote4 The Enlightenment brought an enthusiasm for mechanical precision to the ideal of martial excellence: map-making and statistics would bring artillery and infantry manoeuvres into accord with the principles of geometry. The stunning mid-century victories of Prussian arms under Frederick the Great during the 1740–48 War of the Austrian Succession occasioned an outpouring of technical literature of this kind.

It is Clausewitz—the central figure of the first volume—who is given the honour of having formulated the most radical criticism of this ahistorical approach, writing in the shadow of the Prussian defeat and his own capture and imprisonment by the French in 1806. From 1792, the Revolution’s desperate defensive mobilizations had overturned the old-regime textbooks, as the great emergency levées of the Terror created enormous makeshift armies that were forced to improvise new line formations, firing sequences, and velocities of manoeuvre. Thermidorean juntas of generals and civilian fixers would appropriate the earlier successes of popular improvisation, and the Emperor’s campaigns be made the subject of a literature that would haunt European military planning up until the grinding deadlocks of the First World War. Gat’s meticulous reconstruction situates Clausewitz’s intellectual development firmly within the context of German idealism and historicism, a climate of ideas that allowed him to grasp the relationship between particular ages and their unique modes of warfare.

Gat follows Howard in his approach to the long-standing disputes over the apparent contradiction between Clausewitz’s summary of the aim of war as ‘definitive victory’ and his renowned proposition that ‘war is but a continuation of policy with other means’—from which it would follow that war could not be exclusively defined in terms of ‘absolute’ hostilities, and that limited war should be regarded not as an adulteration, but as a legitimate form in its own right. Gat demonstrates that in 1827, with the first six books of On War already completed, Clausewitz concluded that ‘the test of experience’ suggested that there were two types of war—and furthermore: ‘There is no denying that a great majority of wars and campaigns are more a state of observation than a struggle for life and death.’footnote5 Clausewitz’s ambivalence could be seen as a prefiguration of the conflicting tendencies at work in the statecraft of the upcoming century: would the further development of bourgeois-civil society find expression in a new geopolitics of ‘limited’ warfare—or alternately, in a return to the ‘absolute’ hostilities of the Napoleonic Sturm und Drang?