After reading the article The Face of Battle, by John Keegan you should craft your paper to answer the following questions: -Why does Keegan focus on the "ordinary" soldiers point of view?...

After reading the article The Face of Battle, by John Keegan you should craft your paper to answer the following questions:

-Why does Keegan focus on the "ordinary" soldiers point of view?

-Because of the technology/tactics used, does the battle of Agincourt seem more brutal, more Humane, More courageous than modern warfare? How would you compare this battle to warfare of the last 100 years?

-What images/episodes stand out as particularly vivid and memorable to you and why?

Based on the readings in Golden pp 199-218

Expert Answers
kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Most military history books take a broad, sweeping look at particular wars or battles, or at the political and military calculations that were involved in their conduct.  John Keegan, in his 1976 book The Face of Battle, chose a different approach.  The Face of Battle is a far more personal examination of the effects of military combat on the individual soldiers sent to fight the wars started by the political, whether democratically-elected or reigning monarchs, elites who govern their countries. 

“I have not been in a battle; not near one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath. . .I have read about battles, of course, have talked about battles, have been lectured about battles and, in the last four or five years, have watched battles in progress, or apparently in progress, on the television screen. . .But I have never been in a battle.  And I grow increasingly convinced that I have very little idea of what a battle can be like.”

Keegan’s quest to ‘fill in the gaps’ in his knowledge and understanding of military history, then, took him into what he called “the face of battle”: the effects of combat and of military campaigns on the psychological framework of the individual soldier.  Sweeping histories of wars are vitally important, but too-often neglected in the scholarship surrounding military history was the view of combat from the eyes of individual human beings.  That was Keegan’s goal in writing The Face of Battle, and the fact that his book continues to be studied in military colleges, in civilian academic institutions, and among the public forty years after its publication speaks to his success in capturing the trauma as well as the exhilaration that are companion emotions of those who fight in wars. 

Chapter Two of Keegan’s study focuses on the 1415 Battle of Agincourt, the brutal confrontation between England and France in the latter’s northern region during the Hundred Years War.  As with most military historians – and Keegan is considered among the most important – the author details the implications on the field of battle of the introduction of the latest technological and tactical innovations, noting, for instance, the effects on the colliding armies of the English introduction of the longbow, its range providing archers the ability to kill the horses of the opposing French cavalry, thereby negating the latter’s effectiveness.  Keegan was fascinated with the Battle of Agincourt, which featured Henry V in direct battle against the armies of Charles VI, the physical beauty of its landscape contrasted with the slaughter that close-combat inevitably entails.  One of the more telling details of Keegan’s history involves his descriptions of the attitudes of various military occupational specialties within each side’s army.  Knights thought it beneath them to engage in direct combat with English infantrymen, and, in his section in Chapter Two on the handling of prisoners-of-war, he writes:

“The chroniclers also make clear that, in the heat of combat, and during the more leisurely taking of prisoners after the rout of the French Second Division, there had been a good deal of killing, principally by the archers, of those too poor or two badly hurt to be taken captive.”

Such class consciousness on the part of soldiers engaged in brutal combat was a major characteristic of the English and French armies that fought in the battle of Agincourt, and Keegan’s reportage of that phenomenon contributes to his, and to our understanding of the human element in an endeavor too often obscured by the bigger picture of nations and large armies that dominate most military history.  Keegan would revisit this theme in his 1982 study Six Armies at Normandy, which focused again on the human element within the broader endeavor.

Was the Battle of Agincourt characterized by levels of brutality, bloodshed and courage distinct from those battles and wars that preceded and succeeded it?  No, it was not.  As current news reports illustrate on a daily basis, the brutality and inhumanity prevalent in modern conflicts is sufficiently barbaric as to compare unfavorably with the battles of earlier times when certain codes of conduct – codes that primarily favored officers, the social and economic elites of their societies – could usually be counted upon to protect against the worst instincts of mankind.  In fact, the tactics and treatment of prisoners-of-war represented in today’s conflicts in Syria and Iraq involving the Islamic State are more medieval than most of what actually occurred in medieval times.  Courage, similarly, was as present then as now, but less-well documented. 

Contrasting the Battle of Agincourt with conflicts of the past 100 years involves primarily the enormous advances in technology during this more recent period of time.  The development and perfection of automatic weapons and of long-range artillery, the development of aerial bombardment and of ballistic and cruise missiles all contribute to the evolution of a battlefield vastly different from that in 1415.  The levels of slaughter have increased with the development of these types of weapons and with the conduct of modern warfare, but the destruction of villages and cities that occurred five hundred years ago is little different to the victims than the destruction of villages and cities in today’s wars.  Just as the destruction of Seoul, South Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953) was indecipherable from the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weaponry, so the perceptions of warfare prevalent then remain similar to those today.  This is not to suggest that atomic or nuclear weapons have not changed the nature of war; they have insofar as they have allowed for levels of mutual deterrence heretofore absent.  And the suddenness with which vast destruction can be inflicted in the nuclear age relative to the time it would take to inflict similar levels of damage with conventional or ancient weaponry should not be minimized as an important consideration.  The point, though, is that warfare has always entailed enormous death and destruction, and apparently always will.

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