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  • The Arc of War: Origins, Escalation, and Transformation by Jack S. Levy and William R. Thompson
  • Kevin W. Farrell
The Arc of War: Origins, Escalation, and Transformation. By Jack S. Levy and William R. Thompson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. 280 pp. $90.00 (cloth); $27.00 (paper); $7.00–27.00 (e-book).

Although it is somewhat of a cliché, it is nonetheless true: war and its study are as old as civilization itself. A leading historian on the topic, John France, has aptly described war as “one of the most ancient and most universal of human activities which was so important that it stamped itself upon literature almost as soon as writing began.”1 Making sense of war has occupied the consciousness of the most impressive historians and philosophers throughout the ages, ranging from Thucydides to Carl von Clausewitz, while the works of popular writers on the [End Page 179] topic fill the shelves of local bookstores throughout much of the world. Two leading political scientists and respected authors, Jack. S. Levy and William R. Thompson, have undertaken an ambitious and rather novel effort to add to our understanding of war in their latest collaboration, The Arc of War: Origins, Escalation, and Transformation. Their stated “and admittedly immodest aim” is “to explain the origins, escalation, and transformation of warfare” (p. 1). Obviously the authors have set their sights very high indeed.

Vast in scope, The Arc of War attempts to examine warfare as a distinct entity from the earliest period of civilization up to the present era across the globe and to do so in a relatively compact volume of 280 pages. Within the confines of their own definitions and the goals they establish for themselves, the authors largely succeed. Why and how humans have fought through the ages is the organizing theme of the book, and its main thesis is that war has “coevolved” with other factors—political and military organization, threat environment, political economy, and weaponry. Defining war as “sustained coordinated violence between political organizations” (p. 3), the authors identify six distinct arguments that explore and explain the arc of war. Without belaboring a complex and somewhat jargon-laden framework, the six arguments are: (1) war emerged differently throughout history because of critical factors, (2) war developed in conjunction with other developing human activities, (3) warfare was transformed by changes in political and economic complexity, (4) there have been three significant accelerations in the transformation of warfare (the late fourth to early third millennium b.c.e., the last half of the first millennium b.c.e., and finally in the second half of the second millennium c.e.), (5) attempts to centralize regional political-military power have been major drivers in the acceleration and transformation of warfare, and (6) much of the world did not experience the final acceleration directly but rather had it inflicted upon it. These areas are explored in dedicated chapters, while a concluding chapter summarizes the work and briefly discusses where warfare might be headed in the future.

The authors readily acknowledge that their work stands in contrast to numerous military histories that examine the evolution of warfare. In defense they state, “Our approach is more analytic. Rather than simply describe the changes in warfare over time, we construct a relatively simple and overarching theoretical framework” (p. 54). Unfortunately this approach will not satisfy most students of history because the work chooses only a limited number of concrete historical examples that are selected precisely because they support the arguments of the book, whereas opposing examples or those that do not fit within the frame-work [End Page 180] are neglected. In anticipation of the inevitable criticism from historical circles, Professors Levy and Thompson declare, “We are not interested in tracing the history of conflict over many millennia—that is in writing a military history” (p. 11), although they acknowledge the importance of the genre in informing their work. Thus The Arc of War is not so much a work of history but rather political theory and therefore more properly belongs in the realm of the social sciences. However, its appeal and utility would be to a broader audience...


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