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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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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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