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Literary Man of War

John Keegan: an appreciation.

Mar 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 24 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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It is unlikely that any debut in the field of military history will rival that of John Keegan’s masterpiece The Face of Battle (1976) nearly four decades ago. It was not his first book, or even his first good one. But it was, and remains, definitively brilliant and original. 

‘Battle of Waterloo’ by William Sadler II (ca. 1830)

‘Battle of Waterloo’ by William Sadler II (ca. 1830)

John Keegan (1934-2012) would have turned 80 this year, and though he is gone, his books live on—none more permanently than The Face of Battle, as inventive and influential today as it was on first reading. And its continuing celebrity is the more remarkable, given the author’s assertion that he, of all writers, was least qualified to write it. 

“I have not been in a battle,” he writes in his opening sentence, “not near one nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath.” That admission is as rare as it is pertinent, since most historians in most eras—Thucydides being the ancient exception, Winston Churchill the modern one—never heard a shot fired (or saw a sword raised) in anger. Keegan did not lack professional credentials: He was a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and a defense correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. So why make an issue of his lack of combat experience?

Here is one considered theory, with some personal resonance: Keegan and his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic experienced a certain chronological deprivation. As we (he and I were born in the same year) came to historical consciousness in the 1940s, the greatest of wars was raging afar. We were too young to fight in it and would be too old for service when the Vietnam misadventure came along. Many of us served in peacetime reserves, and a few went to Korea; but that brief and bloody conflict doesn’t alter the rule. We were prone to share a powerful curiosity about a missing experience, and John Keegan was determined to come as close as study and eloquence could bring him to the explication of what was once deemed, in Western society, one of the great rites of passage. 

Those who passed from boyhood to youth in the 1940s will respond with a sense of shared familiarity to his memories of Taunton in the West Country, whither his father, a school inspector, moved the family. The young Keegan viewed Hitler as a deluded amateur who had foolishly challenged the might of the mightiest of modern empires. 

I knew, with an unshakable moral and intellectual certainty that Britain could not lose. .  .  . If only, I used to muse, I could get [Hitler] to myself for a moment or two .  .  . open his eyes, he’d have to see that there was no point in going on.

For him, there was a physical deficit as well. In childhood, he suffered from a rare form of tuberculosis that left him with a limping gait; and perhaps that accounts for a compensatory interest in mountaineering. “Mountains,” he writes, “like battlefields, are places inherently dangerous to inhabit .  .  . and numbers of climbers are killed on every major range every year.”

Keegan, in fact, had much in common with that other great writer on battle who never witnessed one: Stephen Crane. There may be another clue in a little book that many were reading during Keegan’s years at Oxford: Isaiah Berlin’s reflection on Tolstoy’s view of history, entitled The Hedgehog and the Fox. According to Berlin’s typology, the hedgehog (who “knows one big thing”) and the fox (“who knows many things”) stand for fundamentally different views of the past and of war. John Keegan was a fox among foxes, at ease with variety and paradox in human experience.

But it is as a skeptic of traditional battle narratives that Keegan made his lasting mark. Stately, heroic, orderly, sometimes even bloodless, accounts of war aroused his doubts. War, he argued, is disorderly and sometimes—as he writes in his portrait of the Duke of Wellington in The Mask of Command (1987)—“anti-heroic.” What eye-witnesses believe they have seen is often implausible, given the exhausting marches, the fear, hunger, exposure, and fatigue—and yes, the disease, drunkenness, desertion, and straggling rates that often as not precede and accompany battle. J. G. Randall said much the same in his famous essay on the “blundering generation” of American Civil War origins. But none before Keegan carried it to the utmost conclusion.

Three of Keegan’s books—I would include Six Armies in Normandy (1982) along with The Face of Battle and The Mask of Command—reinforce his idea that battle is often other than as reported. Tanks, for instance, “should be thought of not so much as weapons but as theatrical devices, dei ex machina, by the maneuvering of which a general is enabled to manipulate the emotions” of foes. Battle itself is “essentially a moral conflict [requiring] a mutual and sustained act of will .  .  . and if it is to result in a decision, the moral collapse of one of [the sides].” It is “necessarily a social and psychological study,” though obviously it is much else. 

The Face of Battle permanently changed the way historians think and write about war. If the casual reader reads only one of Keegan’s books, it should be this one. He addresses three memorable English battles—Agincourt (1415), Waterloo (1815), and the Somme (1916)—and the essential thesis is the transition from “edged” weapons that permitted hand-to-hand fighting and heroic styles of command through to the erraticisms of musketry in Napoleonic warfare that still allowed commanders to lead from the front of formations to the deadly rifled and machine-gun fire of World War I, which raised the human cost exponentially and moved command miles from the front, leading to the “impersonalization” of battle that, as of Keegan’s time of writing, heralded its end. 

I write here on the limited authority of having reread Keegan’s three classics on battle and a modest personal acquaintance. He was a man of erudition and charm, master of all he chose to survey. But even a master nods. He once wrote that, in April 1865, “Jefferson Davis .  .  . lost all hope of heroic epitaph when he cravenly fled from Richmond .  .  . at the appearance of Grant’s army.” Even an amateur student of the Confederacy’s last act rubs his eyes at this. There is (as I wrote at the time) no evidence that Davis’s departure from Richmond, however hurried, was “craven.” On the advice of General Lee, whose front was collapsing, the Rebel president was trying to preserve a semblance of authority; and the immediate need was a retreat southward. Grant’s army had been at Richmond’s doorstep for months. 

Such slips were few, and Keegan invariably greeted a friendly correction with receptivity and kindness. I last saw him at a small Washington dinner party a few days after the revelation of the so-called Hitler diaries. I had filed a skeptical column that went pretty far out on a limb and was eager to hear an expert’s view. Given Keegan’s encyclopedic knowledge of the Hitler era, the modesty with which he considered the issue of authenticity offered a good lesson for a rash journalist. 

That evening he signed my copy of Six Armies in Normandy, “Ed, in friendship.” I think he meant it; and I treasure that autograph still.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure

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