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on July 4, 2002
This is a spectacular book and one that all Westerners need to read in the wake of the events of last September. Donald Kagan has become somewhat celebrated of late. His recent book (written with his son) "While America Sleeps" has been justly praised and arrived at an extremely apros pos moment in American and world history.
But it was this book, "On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace" that first brought Kagan to the attention of the world. Kagan is a classical historian - he is the Bass Professor of History, Classics and Western Civilisation at Yale. I have reviewed the first volume of what might justly be called his magnum opus ("The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War") elsewhere.
This is NOT a history of war; this is a history of how it is that people come to fight wars. And while people often refer to this book as "One the Origins of War", I think that would be to miss the point. For this book is more about the preservation of peace than anything else. Elsewhere I note that Kagan has been critiqued for not spending any time discussing the wars themselves -- and the aftermath of the wars. But this is ridiculous. This misses the entire point of what Kagan is trying to do here. If that is what you are looking for -- look elsewhere and do not fault Kagan for failing to provide it.
Drawing heavily upon his classical training, Kagan compares the origins of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) with those of the First World War. He then compares the origins of the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) with those of the Second World War. His final chapter deals with the Cuban Missile Crisis (and relies heavily on recently declassified Soviet and American documents).
There is a sort of systematic approach. In each case he examines the nature of the rivalry between the great powers in question. He then examines, in turn: (1) the nature of the peace that subsisted between the powers in question; (2) the manner in which the peace was "tested"; (3) the crisis that precipitated the eventual outbreak of war; and (4) the manner in which the war itself broke out - his wonderful chapter on the Peloponnesian War ends simply, "So the war came."
His thesis can be fairly summarised as follows: no peace keeps itself. Democracies have to be prepared to fight, to stand up for the peace. And their willingness to fight for the peace must be CREDIBLE.
As always, Kagan's style is lucid and compelling. This is a man who force of logic gives true meaning to the term "ineluctable". For his logic is relentless, his marshalling of the facts is awe-inspiring and his arguments lead inescapably and unavoidably (ineluctably) to their conclusion.
His final paragraph will offer eloquent testimony not only of the value of the book, but of the thesis:
"The Cuban missile crisis demonstrated that it is not enough for the state that wishes to maintain peace and the status quo to have superior power. The crisis came because the more powerful state also had a leader [Kennedy] who failed to convince his opponent [Khrushchev] of his will to use its power for that purpose."
This book makes a most interesting companion to any of the works of Victor Davis Hanson (particularly "Carnage and Culture" or "The Soul of Battle") or Samuel Huntington ("The Clash of Civilisations") as well as to the more incisively written books of Robert Kaplan (such as "The Ends of the Earth").
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VINE VOICEon December 16, 2003
Donald Kagan's "On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace" is a fabulous book with an important message. Derived from his popular undergraduate class at Yale, the book uses an eclectic mix of great power case studies to illuminate the importance of actively and energetically working to maintain great power peace is an international system that is inherently unstable and competitive.
Kagan's basic thesis is that war is a natural component of human society. Moreover, wars are just as likely to arise over intangible issues such as prestige, power, respect and honor as they are over more tangible concerns like land and natural resources. He demonstrates that attempts to avoid war through unilateral disarmament and conciliation -- although well intentioned -- are ultimately chimerical and doomed to failure. Kagan notes that many wars may be "unnecessary" and therefore avoidable, but war as an instrument of policy and change is permanent. Thus, the objective of statesmen should be to fight only those wars that are necessary, while maintaining a strong and credible defense to keep the peace. As Kagan writes "the preservation of peace requires active effort, planning, the expenditure of resources, and sacrifice, just as war does."
As for the individual case studies, I found them to be a bit longer than necessary, but each one was well-crafted and powerfully argued. The book does assume a certain familiarity with the subject matter, so the content may be a little overwhelming for those less-steeped in military history or foreign affairs.
The chapter on the causes of the Peloponnesian War is a gem, but essentially a synopsis of Kagan's seminal work in that area. The piece on the origins of the First World War is forcefully argued and long enough to stand on its own as a monograph on that much-debated historical case study. Kagan revives the classic argument that the perceived ambiguity of a British response to a German invasion of Belgium and France is what set the stage for war, with the author arguing that war could have been avoided if London made their commitment to defend the Low Country clear and by introducing peace-time conscription to field a credible European land army. The chapter on the Second Punic War is crisp and compelling; that on the Second World War too long (he again blames the British for doing the most to "lose the peace"). The last case study was a bit surprising in that Kagan takes a classic diplomatic "success story" and lumps it in the same category as classic blunders like August 1914. In short, he argues that Kennedy's many mistakes, attempts at conciliation, and failure to understand his adversary is what put him in the crisis in the first place. Kagan contends that Kennedy was inclined to accept missiles in Cuba and it was only because of a coterie of strong-willed advisors, upcoming mid-term elections that threatened to overturn his slight Democratic edge in Congress, and a genuine fear of impeachment that compelled him to act. And the resolution of the conflict only came at the expense of the US removing missiles from Turkey in a quid pro quo with the Soviets.
The case studies, which focused exclusively on conflict between great powers and/or their alliance systems, don't apply to the current War on Terror, but the general thesis that tough decisions and sacrifice are required for larger catastrophes to be avoided is still valid and directly applicable. Whether you are a serious student of war and peace, or are simply looking to gain some insights into such issues, you'd be well-advised to put this book on your reading list.
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on January 4, 2000
If you are at all interested in international relations, politics, or war as subjects for study, why haven't you read this book? Kagan, without ever pressing home some pet thesis, lays out in detail the events leading up to four wars that were and one that wasn't. Aside from learning many lessons from these individual histories - states and individuals almost never truly want war, "honor" construed as a potential or actual presence in international affairs (deference, prestige, etc.) often winds up being crucial in triggering a conflict, wishful and idealistic thinking or a failure to recognize a threat to a rival nation's security or honor have often contributed mightily to growing conflicts, and many others - one will also get a vivid, in-depth account of some critical moments, accounts that are likely to stick in your mind better than a more general history. While some of Kagan's points may seem to lean toward the trivial when taken out of context and looked at in the clear light of day, it is the very fact that over many years and many events, a slow buildup toward war involves these very things - that at the time are much harder to see clearly - that contribute to movements that end in war. To see the many missteps in detail in these cases is fascinating. With the exceptions of Chamberlain and some of his cronies, and especially Kennedy, very few of the men in this book come off as anything approximating downright foolish; nevertheless, in these pages you will find many men, through many small mistakes, leading their nations to war.
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on September 1, 2013
I once heard a historian famous for his biographies and histories of modern warfare complain that all Donald Kagan does or did was publish books based on his various university lectures. That same historian would end his career by doing some of the same types of books. What delights me about Kegan histories is that he does not simply recount events he seeks the greater meanings that connect events. This places Kagan near the top of the second of my three-tiered approach to historians. At level I a historian recounts in some detail what happened during the course of some important event(s). At level II a historian will speak more generally about a number of events seeking to explain not so much what happened as what meaning we should take from what happened. At the third level the historian is typically speaking to other historians using events to hypothesize how historians should go about analyzing and reporting events.

In On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace Kegan draws on lectures he had given at Hobart College in 1967 and later in 1970 at Yale University. These facts are virtually the first statements in this book suggesting that Kagan is not apologetic about converting lectures into standalone books. My edition is about 550 pages long leading me to believe that there is deal more depth and content in the book then would've been in the lectures.

The hypothesis that Donald Kegan presents is that war results from a small set of motives as originally formulated by the ancient Greek Thucydides. These motives are honor, fear and interest. To our ear the term honor would seem something of an ancient casus belli . I do not think it is too cynical to suggest that one reason for some contemporary American military action can be an elaboration of the concept of honor into the suggestion that it is dishonorable not to take action in the name of the humanitarian value of intervention.

That one statement can be converted to serve any number of political viewpoints none of which are of interest to this particular review. It is sufficient to say that "honor" if defined broadly enough can cover almost any instance where uniformed military might, read that as " violence ", is applied for reasons not clearly linked to either an immediate defense of national interests or out of a closely related concept fear of threats against national interests. And so we have honor, fear, interests.

Given that this is history reported in support of a hypothesis Kagan uses five historic cases but not in historic order. His case studies are, in the order printed the Peloponnesian war (431 - 404 BC), the First World War, the Second Punic war (218 - 201 BC) the Second World War and the Cuban Missile Crisis ( a nearly avoided war). Note that professor Kegan has separately published books on all but I believe the Cuban missile crisis.

In each case study Kagan will give a historic context, the view from each of the major belligerents what drove the decision for each belligerent what events brought the crisis to ahead that is the outbreak of war ending that case study with his analysis of the actual causes of that war.

Ultimately Kagan will suggest that for nations to be at war is perhaps more natural than for nations to be at peace. Consequently the best way to avoid war is to be prepared for war. The suggestion being: opponents are typically very good judges of your ability to fight and will avoid fights where they do not have a reasonable expectation of victory. In this light Kagan points out that part of the cause of the Cuban missile crisis was a belief that America, Pres. Kennedy lacked the will to use what both nations knew to be a superior military capability.

While the majority of each case study is built around extensive analysis of each belligerent prior to coming to the point of violence; the analysis that matters is Kagan's take on the causes of the war. That is, he has told us why he thinks nations fight. The five case studies are presented to demonstrate his initial hypothesis.

I've lost count of how many Donald Kagan books I have read. I like his use of the language. I like how he makes you think and how he uses events to help you understand them from a different point of view. One of the major activities of the literate military history buffs is to pick apart the detailing of facts. Donald Kagan books are rarely about these details. They are about asking yourself why? Why does it matter?

If Kagan is right in On the Origins of War modern civilization is presented with the simple fact that populations are always at risk and the expense of warfare is something we must all bear in the thin hope that killing can be forestalled if not prevented. If this is correct and I can only offer optimism as an argument against it, one of the roads to longer periods of relatively less violence must as a practical matter include defensive treaties that require the sharing of military costs between entities who must also share what Kegan defines as interests. I would like to believe that that shared interests imply shared fears and I more than suspect that individual countries will still act individually in the name of honor. Ultimately this entire approach prefers a practical philosophy over humanist philosophy and that alone will make this book objectionable to a number of readers.

I am aware of these objections there is certainly some validity to them. I have enough military experience to know that given a choice Defense Departments would gladly and productively consume every nation's resources. Facilitating this kind of budget grabbing are very powerful lobbyists backed by very large industries who also have more or less legitimate products that a modern military "must-have".

To read in Donald Kagan's On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace it is not necessary for you to agree with any aspect of his analysis. I enjoyed the man's language and I benefit from pursuing his thought processes. Informed citizens can benefit from the exposure to this man without fear of becoming mindless warmongering hawks. Instead a reader will become a more informed citizen.
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on February 5, 2000
Rather than a look at wars in themselves, this is a select history of the events leading up to four particular conflicts, and to one, the Cuban missle crisis, than did not result in direct aggression. The events leading to the disastrous Peloponesian War between Athens and Sparta, and the Second Punic War between Carthage and Rome are drawn from ancient history. The origins of 1st and 2nd World Wars serve as the modern counterpoint, as does, in a different fashion, the Cuban episdode during the Cold War.
Kagan ultimately finds Thucydides' ancient and eloquent appraisal to be relevant to moderns. That the author elects to not rely on examples from other times or places does not really hamper the thesis. The broader message that Kagan develops concerns the inclinations of large states in relation to one another. That this remains a major feature of the geopolitical landscape makes this book (regretably) relevant.
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on June 19, 2012
Summary: Historians should use as many tricks as possible to explain events and generalizations, Donald Kagan writes. The trick this book uses is to examine the origins of war through detailed examples, what he calls "comparative narrative history." Kagan hopes this method, tying quantity and quality together, will shed light on a question that that has bedeviled mankind for millennia. Indeed, his case studies span nearly 2,500 years. What he does not do is attempt to create a general theory of war, deriding that approach as at best explaining war's dismal recurrence throughout the millennia, while not explaining why any particular war came about (p. 70). Therefore, he examines in detail four major wars and one-near miss. These are the Peloponnesian War, the First World War, the Second Punic War, World War Two, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. These are not presented chronologically since the author likens the Peloponnesian war to the First World War, and the Second Punic War to World War Two. What does Kagan find? He agrees with the ancient Greek chronicler of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, that wars are fought over "honor, fear, and interest." In explaining why interest leads to war, Kagan writes: "In a world of sovereign states a contest among them over the distribution of power is the normal condition and that such contests often lead to war (p. 569)." He calls this the search for security or material advantage. As for fear, threats emerge from distant threats, and this makes reassurance against them difficult, if not impossible. As a result, Kagan concludes that war is part of the human condition which may be with us for a long time. But Kagan's most important conclusion concerns war for honor's sake. These are demands for greater, prestige, honor, and respect. These seemingly trivial issues have played a role in surprisingly large number of conflicts, according to Kagan, such as the Peloponnesian War, sparked by Corinthian demands on Corcyra, based both on a thirst for revenge and a desire to improve their position in the Greek city-state system. This was not material interest, according to Kagan, but honor.

Critique: Kagan acknowledges a debt of gratitude to "realist" scholars who argue that states seek power for security reasons, referred to as interest. But are `interest' and `fear' really different? Interest refers to material gain in terms of power that may benefit the state; Fear means a possible threat that a state chooses to act on sooner rather than later. Both are attempts to increase a state's power in relation to another. More problematic is the factor of honor. Corinth's desire to improve its station in the Greek city-state system is referred to as honor, but isn't the improvement of a state's position in the system an important, if not material, interest that may improve their security? The fact that an interest in not tangible does not make it honorific. It may still be related to security, just not in a physical sense. If this is the case, Kagan has not broken any new ground from the realists. He simply restating the long-standing realist case that in an anarchic world state's seek to increase their security by gaining as much power as possible.

Case Studies: Considering that one of Kagan's main conclusions is that war and not peace is the natural order of things as a result of the contest over the distribution of power, Kagan finds much to blame in the actions of statesmen in starting wars. As mentioned, he finds Corinth's demands on Corcyra as the major catalyst to the Peloponnesian War, as Athens feared a Corinthian victory would tip the balance of power against them. Yet is not clear that Corinth's demands were unreasonable for their own security needs. In the First World War, he finds that Germany sought to secure its empire by weakening both France and Russia. Yet he faults Britain for not building a large army capable of deterring Germany. Such a threat could have saved Europe from four years of terrible war, Kagan claims. But is not also possible that a British arms buildup could just have easily have pushed Germany to war faster, before a potential Anglo force could be ready? Kagan faults Rome entirely for the Second Punic War. He claims that their alliance with Saguntum provoked the Carthaginians and violated the agreements they had imposed on Carthage after the First Punic War. Moreover, the Romans imposed a harsher peace that was agreed on, raising Carthaginian ire. Kagan proposes a policy of containment, leaving Saguntum to Carthage while maintaining an army north of the Ebro. But such a policy would have left Carthage in control of one more city and its resources, to potentially be used against the Romans. Indeed it was this that fear that prevented Rome from abandoning the city. Kagan makes a similar argument for the Second World War. Here, the victors, the allies, did not create a constructive peace, as Britain failed to arm sufficiently to restrain Germany. But it is not clear that such a policy would have worked anyway. In the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kagan writes that the crisis came about in the first place due to Kennedy's failure to convince the Soviets that he had the will to use America's superior power if necessary. This thesis has been challenged elsewhere, as some believe that Khrushchev was aware of, and impressed with America's military might, and this led him to gamble on secretly introducing nuclear weapons into the Western Hemisphere in order to alter the balance of power. But American spy planes caught the missiles before they were ready and the gamble failed.

Conclusion: This book is filled with contradictions. Kagan is aware of the anarchic nature of the international system that leads states to seek power and security, achieved through occasional wars. Despite this, he places almost all the emphasis in this narrative on statesmen and their policies. Wars happen and are times inevitable, but prudent policies might have avoided them here and there, Kagan tells us. Yet his alternative policies are far from convincing. He seems to want to have it both ways, telling us that war is always with us, but that smart statesman can avoid war. Five years after this book was published another similar work came out Dale Copeland's "The Origins of Major War." Like Kagan, Copeland used a comparative narrative history, detailing many of the same wars. Unlike Kagan, Copeland found that wars are often inevitable because the power of a rising state challenges that of an established one. War results, regardless of the best intentions and policies of statesmen. Copeland eliminates the contradictions found in Kagan's work, explaining that the anarchic nature of the state system leads states to seek power in order to insure their own security, even if it means war. This situation cannot be altered as long as anarchy exists. Apparently, Donald Kagan never understood this. He also seems woefully unaware of what Robert Art calls "the security dilemma," that in an anarchic world if one state increases its military might in order to deter others, the result is that it makes others less secure by the fact that it is now more powerful, and hence, more threatening. All of the case studies presented here fall into this pattern, regardless of specific state policies. Many of Kagan's policy critiques are interesting, and thought-provoking in the "what-if" sense, but he presents them as certainties, not possibilities. But most of all, he zeroes in on micro-level factors when what really drives the origins of war are much larger variables, the fluctuations of state power, which no single policy or statesman can overcome.
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on August 24, 2006
There are a lot of books that focus on battles in virtually all of the wars, but very few that actually focus on how wars came about. Usually, a book on the war spends a few pages discussing the origins in passing, then quickly moves on to the war itself. This book is very different, and focuses on how wars come about. The writing is terrific and the author's insights are very insightful. The sections of this book explaining the origins of the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis are especially good. In addition to history readers, I would recommend this book to those looking for books on leadership and crisis management, because the author focuses on the decisions made by leaders on both sides of various conflicts and explains how those decisions, in light of the existing circumstances, led to an often unintended outcome.
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on January 17, 2016
A thoughtful well written piece of historical analysis. The author use five case studies on wars that started or in the case of the Cuban missile crisis did not start as the basis of his study. He also provides a short introduction to each case study for those unfamiliar with the historical event. If you are rushed for time his intro and conclusion do a good job of presenting his conclusions, basically peace is not free and one must work at it to allow peace to continue. Dr Kagan does not play favorites and even such modern day hero's as Churchill and such ancient ones as Pericles (and my personal favorite Alcibiades) come in for some share of criticism. He wrote late enough that many of the "secret" files from the Cuban missile crisis were in the public domain and we get a chance to see early on the falsehoods presented to Congress and the American people by the likes of McNamara and Rusk. A good example that even with all the supposed elements of power to maintain peace lousy leaders can make a difference.
I read the paperback version of this book and there were a couple of printing errors (a small portion of one page was blanked out) Also I like a lot of maps and found myself following along on internet maps at times during the reading. For those of you who have attended military schools you will find the format very much like that used at the academies and war colleges.
The book is well worth the time to read (as are Dr Kagan's works on the Peloponnesian War).
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on March 24, 2014
I thought this book was excellent. There are four wars covered in the book, and each is used to support the book's premise, which is basically an idea Thucydides ([...]) came up with many centuries ago: that nations end up going to war out of "fear, honor, and interest." It is shown how a nation's overall sense of honor affects their motivations when dealing with other nations, and how each nation will take what seems like a rational action to protect their honor/interest. Much of the time, crises are averted in this way. However, now and then, a series of subsequent political action-reactions between nations, sometimes combined with a misunderstanding of the opponent's abilities or intent, will instead escalate to armed conflict.

I've previously read a history of Ancient Greece, but it had covered the second Peleponnesian War fairly quickly and I'd forgotten most of it. I really enjoyed the coverage of the two ancient wars. The book seemed well researched and well put together. It demonstrated clearly the necessities of Sparta and Athens as they moved reluctantly but inevitably toward war, each trying mostly to avoid it but each drawn in by either the careless actions of an ally or a political action gone wrong.

I read this book for fiction-writing purposes, to better understand how wars are started. Overall, I enjoyed it and thought it was an insightful look at the often nebulous origins of large-scale conflicts. By boiling motivations down to Thucydides ancient premise, it changed my outlook on war in general.
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on August 27, 2011
I really respect the author Prof. Kagan and feel he is one of the best modern historians in regards to the ancient classical world.

The book is generally very good and I learned a lot from reading it.

The book first juxtaposes the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens to the more recent conflict of World War 1 comparing Britain and Germany. This is not a linear comparison where one nation is like a corresponding one from the other conflict, but instead how aspects of the conflict make the modern nations comparable to one of the nations in certain aspects and to the other in other aspects.

The book then juxtaposes the Second Punic War to the Second World War. Here the comparison is a little more linear, but still not a straight forward one modern nation is analogous to one ancient nation.

The book then discusses the Cuban missile crisis and uses ideas discussed from the other sections of the book to explain why the events took the course they did.

Overall a good book.

However there are two faults:
1. The sections become way out of balance when the ancient wars get kind of a quick over view and then the text becomes bogged down in the fine details of the modern war. A little more info on the ancient and a little more discussion comparing the ancient and modern conflicts would have helped.
2. The book feels a little incomplete from its over all ending conclusion. You can definitely draw conclusions from it, I just wish the author discussed his philosophical views and reasons for them a little bit more.
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