John Keegan is the premier military historian of the second half of the twentieth century. He has a sure command of both the broad concepts of strategy and the intricate nuances of tactics; his appreciation of the essential role of logistics and supply is keen and incisive; and his understanding of the psychology of the individual fighting man, whether general or private, is as acute and penetrating as that of any novelist. Uniting all this is Keegan’s unsurpassed talent in presenting the terrible facts of war to his reader clearly and vividly, without false glory or cheap sentiment.
In his stunning and original study of men at war, The Face of Battle (1976), Keegan introduced to the general public (and even to many military historians and their more specialized readership) an entirely new way of looking at warfare. Instead of the traditional battle piece, which presents armies as massive, homogeneous units moving and wheeling obediently to their generals’ commands,The Face of Battle took a commonsense look at the common soldier and his leaders, in order to reconstruct what must have been possible in the actual chaos of battle.
Two examples illustrate Keegan’s technique. The famous English victory at Agin-court was caused by many factors, but the French knights in the front ranks were so tightly packed and strongly pushed forward by their comrades behind that they could neither fight nor flee—and that was just as important as the bravery of Henry V and his band of brothers who fought together on St. Crispin’s Day. In much the same way, the fabled British squares at Waterloo were not broken by the French cavalry charges partially because of the discipline of Wellington’s troops, but also because horses will almost never run headlong into human bodies if they can possibly avoid doing so. Keegan’s underlying theme is clear: There is more to battle than many historians have considered and much of it is mundane—except that it causes unimaginable pain, suffering, and death, as well as the famous victories and defeats which are the stuff of most military history.
There have been other studies of individual fighting men in the cauldron of battle, most notably those done by the United States Army examining the dynamics of small groups in combat, but none had shown the breadth and insight of Keegan’s book. The Face of Battle was a truly original synthesis that presented, in a sharp and unforgettable style, the closest approach the average reader can make to the experience of combat. It also reminded the student of a fact that more traditional military history tends to forget: In a very real sense, it is men, and not armies, which fight battles, and win or lose them.
Keegan’s examination of battle on the front lines was counterpointed in 1987 with another, equally impressive book, The Mask of Command, in which he turned his gaze on those who lead others into war. Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Adolf Hitler were his chosen examples, and he deftly moved among them, highlighting the different aspects of command which make not only for military but—in certain men—moral greatness. Keegan went beyond the conventional criteria used to judge a successful war leader, simply that of winning battles, to standards more intangible but perhaps more important: why a commander chose to fight at a certain place and at a certain time, for what reasons, and what casualties he was willing to endure.
In Keegan’s hands, these are subtle and telling guides, and they lead his readers to understand why Wellington avoided more battles than he fought, and why Grant believed that both the military situation and national goals of his war demanded his dogged, apparently callous hammer blows of attack. On the other hand, Keegan reveals that Alexander was probably incapable, culturally and psychologically, of refusing battle, while Hitler justified worldwide war and the death of millions solely in terms of himself.
Keegan has thus reintroduced into the study of warfare a long neglected aspect, that of morality. It is not a simple or easy morality—such as all war is bad, all warriors evil—but a careful and discriminating one, which recognizes that so long as war remains a part of the human condition, there are standards by which it should be waged, and limits which must be observed. Given the inherently terrible nature of war—and Keegan never glorifies, never romanticizes its intractable brutality—the truly great commander is the one who adheres to those elusive but essential standards, and still wins battles.
These are the two aspects of war: the common soldier and his commander; how they interact in actual combat is the core of Keegan’s impressive study of the Allied invasion of France in 1944,Six Armies in Normandy (1984), and now his most ambitious work to date, The Second World War, a sweeping study that covers the whole of that global conflict. These are works that show Keegan operating brilliantly as a practicing historian:...
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