When John Keegan died on August 2, 2012, it escaped me — I’m embarrassed to admit that I was unaware of his existence. Keegan, a lecturer in military history of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and later military affairs editor at the Telegraph, wrote influential books on military history designed to appeal to the public, as well as historians. An obituary in the Washington Post spoke of Keegan, “whose groundbreaking book ‘The Face of Battle’ cast a fresh look at warfare, capturing the fears, anxiety and heroism of the front-line soldier.”
In a 1994 interview with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN, he speculated on his popularity in the United States.
I think Americans like — they like the practical; they like the human. And I like both those things myself, and I try and put them into my books. I like to try and pick problems to pieces in a practical way and also pick them to pieces in a human way. And I think that’s perhaps — it’s not a deliberate formula, but it may be the formula that appeals to American readers.
This was exactly the approach Keegan took in The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme (Viking, first edition 1976), which I read recently. He quickly dispenses with the military command’s planning to focus on both the soldier’s experience on the battlefield and the details — such as equipment and positioning — which may play an even larger role in determining victory than the overarching strategy.
It’s as if Keegan transports readers to the battlefield in a helicopter where they can hover and observe in detail the myriad linchpins on which the outcome of the battle turns. I fail, however, to do him justice. An excerpt might help.
For example, at Agincourt in 1415 during the Hundred Years War, the French forces vastly outnumbered the British. But that advantage worked against them. Why? The “enormous press of the numbers,” Keegan writes. At a critical point, the French (emphasis added)
… numbering some 5,000 in all, those in the base a shapeless and unordered mass amounting to, perhaps, another 3,000 — and all of them, except for the seven or eight hundred in the leading ranks, unable to see or hear what was happening, yet certain that the English were done for [because they were outnumbered — RW], and anxious to take a hand in finishing them off.
No one … had overall authority in this press [the operative word here — RW], nor a chain of command through which to impose it. The consequence was inevitable: the development of an unrelenting pressure from the rear on the backs of those in the line of battle, driving them steadily into the weapon-strokes of the English, or at least denying them that margin of room for individual manoeuvre which is essential if men are to defend themselves — or attack — effectively. This was disastrous, for it is vital to recognize, if we are to understand Agincourt, that all infantry actions, even those fought in the closest of close order, are not, in the last resort, combats of mass against mass, but the sum of many combats of individuals — one against one, one against two, three against five. … At Agincourt, where the man-at-arms bore lance, sword, dagger, mace or battleaxe, his ability to kill or wound was restricted to the circle centred on his own body, within which his reach allowed him to club, slash or stab. Prevented by the throng at their backs from dodging, side-stepping or retreating from the blows and thrusts directed at them by their English opponents, the individual French men-at-arms must shortly have begun to lose their man-to-man fights, collecting blows on the head or limbs which, even through armour, were sufficiently bruising or stunning to make them drop their weapons or lose their balance or footing. Within minutes, perhaps seconds, of hand-to-hand fighting being joined, some of them would have fallen their bodies lying at the feet of their comrades, further impeding the movement of individuals and thus offering an obstacle to the advance of the whole column.
In the C-SPAN interview, Lamb posed a provocative question to Keegan.
LAMB: Are you a pacifist?
KEEGAN: Ninety five percent.
LAMB: What’s the 5 percent?
KEEGAN: There are certain wicked people in the world that you can’t deal with except by force.
LAMB: That 5 percent, then, allows what?
KEEGAN: It allows the use of extreme force in a measured way — if possible, in a measured way in order to curtail or extinguish the activities of these wicked men we’re talking about.
His definition of pacifism grew even broader.
KEEGAN: … I will never oppose the Vietnam War. I thought that the Americans were right to do it. I think they fought it in the wrong way, but I think that they were right to oppose the attempts by Ho Chi Minh and Giap to make the whole of Vietnam into a Marxist society.
LAMB: Let me go back to your thing about being a pacifist. Is that your 5 percent coming out?
KEEGAN: Yes. I wouldn’t have felt it was the end of the world if the Vietnam War hadn’t been fought. It’s not that kind of war. I don’t think it’s a war like fighting Hitler, but I think it was a correct war, a right war, and it had indirect effects of the greatest importance as well. …
LAMB: Does that make you a conservative?
KEEGAN: I did vote conservative in the last two or three elections. …
LAMB: With American conservatives hearing you say, “How could he be a pacifist, almost, and be a conservative at the same time?”
KEEGAN: No difficulty at all. Even a pacifist, I think, should admire the military virtues. And, indeed, the best pacifists have those virtues themselves: self abdication and willingness, if necessary, to sacrifice their lives for what they believe. … I would say a soldier has mortgaged his life. He said, “Here is my life, and I can only have it back again when the end of my service comes and I salute for the last time and take my pension.” I think a pacifist is the same, except, perhaps, his willingness to sacrifice his life never goes.
Whichever the case, Keegan was concerned with how the risk to troops increased in rough proportion to how technological the military was becoming. He was also troubled by the gap between how civilized peacetime society — we’ll put aside mass murder in the United States for the moment! — has become compared to war’s increasing lethality (the ability of military medicine to snatch soldiers from the jaws of death notwithstanding). From The Face of Battle again:
The modern Western state accepts the responsibility not merely to protect the individual’s life and property, traditionally the legal minima, but to educate and heal him, support him in old age and when unemployed, and increasingly to guarantee his prosperity. [Remember: This is 1976. — RW] Might the modern conscript [again, remember that this is 1976] not well think, at first acquaintance with the weapons the state foists on him, that its humanitarian code is evidence either of a nauseating hypocrisy or of a psychotic inability to connect actions with their results?
A final note on Keegan: he was a literary stylist of the first order.