Why does John Keegan focus on the ordinary soldier's point of view in The Face of Battle?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The major reason why John Keegan focuses on the point of view of the individual soldier is because he feels that it is important to acknowledge the role played by such soldiers.  In doing this, Keegan was anticipating the sort of history that many historians have started to write in the past few decades.  Recent historians have tended to look more at history as experienced by the “little people” than historians did in the past.

In the past, history tended to be all about “great men” and the big picture.  Historians looked at presidents and kings and other leaders.  When historians wrote about war, they looked at the choices made by the generals.  They looked at major decisions of strategy made by leaders such as Winston Churchill or Franklin D. Roosevelt.  As Keegan says, one set of historians of World War I

achieved the remarkable feat of writing an exhaustive account of one of the world's greatest tragedies without the display of any emotion at all.

Keegan’s book is an example of a new school of historiography that evolved as a reaction to this kind of thinking.  In this new historiography, historians look at the experiences of the “little people” more than they previously did.  They want to acknowledge that historical events were experienced by ordinary people in particular ways.  They want to recognize that those people’s lives and experiences were important to them and, therefore, should be important to us as well.  By looking at the lives and experiences of the little people, we understand more about our fellow human beings.  This gives us a broader perspective on the past than we would get if we only looked at the actions of the “great men.”

In The Face of Battle, Keegan is trying to get us to understand that battles do not just consist of the choices made by presidents, kings, generals, and other high-level leaders.  Instead, battles are something that are, at their heart, made up of the personal experiences of the men (and now women) who actually do the fighting.  It is for this  reason that Keegan focuses on the experience of the ordinary soldier in this book.

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