Exclusive online content

The Prolific John Keegan

By: Patrick J. Garrity
November 19, 2012

"I have not been in a battle; not near one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath." Thus John Keegan, later Sir John, began his landmark book, The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, published in 1976. Despite this bit of caution Keegan's book was immediately hailed as a classic, one that conveyed what the experiences of combat were like for the participants, above all the common soldier. The Face of Battle kicked off a distinguished public writing career for Keegan, whose death in August 2012 at 78 generated many tributes to the man who was, as Princeton University's James M. McPherson noted, widely recognized as "our generation's foremost military historian."

Keegan, among other things of note, took the United States, its people, and its wars seriously. "America...saved my world, the European world threatened by two pitiless dictatorships which overshadowed my childhood and growing up.... I think of America always with admiration and heartfelt gratitude." In a 1994 interview, he remarked, "I will never oppose the Vietnam War. Americans were right to do it. I think they fought it in the wrong way. I don't think it's a war like fighting Hitler, but I think it was a right war, a correct war." He had good words to say about President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and supported the first and second Gulf Wars, as well as Britain's campaign to recover the Falkland Islands in 1982 (after some initial reservations).

And yet: Keegan once described himself as "95 percent pacifist." He never served in the military, having contracted orthopedic tuberculosis as a child. He taught for years at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst where, as it was said, he developed an admiration for soldiers and a hatred of war. The Daily Telegraph (for which he was to become the highly influential defense editor in 1986) provided him the opportunity to encounter the face of battle, at least indirectly, when it sent him to Beirut to cover the Lebanese Civil War in 1984. That experience did nothing more to endear him to human conflict.

* * *

Keegan offered no grand, overarching theme of military theory, such as that advanced by B.H. Liddell Hart. Distressed by the carnage of trench warfare in World War I, Liddell Hart expounded the superiority of what he called the indirect approach—the longest way around is often the shortest route to success. The prudent commander avoids direct offensives against an enemy firmly in position, which typically serves to exhaust the attacker, and seeks instead to upset the equilibrium of his adversary by striking at unexpected locations in unexpected ways.

Keegan, if anything, was anti-theory. To summarize his many writings and insights is beyond the scope of this modest essay, but we might say that he found war—really, battle—to be a terrible thing. But battle is a human thing and history teaches that the use of violence in human affairs has been inevitable and sometimes necessary. Whether it can continue so is another matter. Keegan was not obsessed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, as we would characterize it today, although he was well aware of the psychological effects of combat. What concerned him most were the potentially catastrophic societal consequences of war, especially in an age of utopian ideologies and massively destructive technology. This caused him to reject one of the fundamental tenets of Western thinking about the relationship between politics and war, most famously expressed by Carl von Clausewitz. Keegan feared that there were no inherent limits to modern war short of its abolition, but despite some modest suggestions in that direction, he had no master plan to do so. This tragic, although debatable, insight ran throughout his writings, but it did not prevent him from teaching many important things to audiences of a different persuasion.

* * *

Let us begin with the beginning. The Face of Battle brought war down from the abstract heights of history—"Haig's army was exhausted"; "the French got their second wind"—to the sights (horrible), smells (god-awful), sounds (often deafening), and raw emotion experienced by those actually engaged in combat. He relied on contemporary eyewitness accounts, questionnaires, letters, and poetry as well as official reports, while trying to avoid the trap of retelling old war stories and relying on the victors' histories. It is not a pretty sight. Agincourt was chaotic; many if not all of the soldiers were drunk. At Waterloo, Wellington's troops, having spent the night lying on mud in wet uniforms, faced volleys of musket fire from mere yards away in what must have been an unbelievable din. In the first hour, perhaps the first minutes, of the battle of the Somme, the British Army suffered 21,000 deaths, as "long docile lines of young men, shoddily uniformed, heavily burdened, numbered about their necks, [plodded] forward across a featureless landscape to their own extermination"—something that Keegan could only compare to the death camp at Auschwitz.

In each of these battles, whether fought with arrows, muskets, or massed artillery and machine guns, soldiers struggled "to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation, their sense of honor and the achievement of some aim over which other men are ready to kill them." Technology, troop formation and spacing, and topography mattered, too, in deciding how soldiers behaved and why battles were won and lost. Keegan went into great detail about these factors, dispelling many myths in the process, such as the role of medieval cavalry and the effectiveness of mounted horses altogether.

In The Price of Admiralty (1988), Keegan used similar techniques to tell the human story of war at sea by analyzing four landmark battles, each featuring a different type of naval technology: the Battle of Trafalgar, the Battle of Jutland, the Battle of Midway, and the World War II Battle of the Atlantic. In each of these battles sailors were dismembered in the most horrible way. They were burned, suffocated, and trapped below deck with the water rising inexorably. They were caught in machinery and flayed alive by boiling steam. In wooden ships, the decks were sluiced with water against fire, with sand sprinkled on top, partly to give better grip to the bare-footed gun crews, partly to absorb the inevitable rivers of blood. Loose timber was secured or tossed over the side because solid-shot cannon balls, hitting the wood, created razor-sharp shrapnel.

At a higher level of analysis, Keegan used these battles to trace the technical and operational evolution of naval warfare, from wooden ships through dreadnaughts (armor-plated steam-driven gunships), aircraft carriers, and submarines. He concluded that particular sea battles rarely prove decisive—advantages tend to accrue incrementally, with the winner often determined by an accumulation of marginal strategic gains. He speculated that the submarine was the weapon of the future, the "ultimate capital ship" contesting command of a three-dimensional sea. Ballistic missile submarines, meanwhile, had the potential to be "war-decisive," and not necessarily in a good way.

* * *

In Mask of Command (1987), Keegan attempted to come to grips with the special psychological circumstances and pressures of military leadership at the highest level, by studying four commanders who profoundly affected the course of history: Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Adolph Hitler. These were men capable of inspiring soldiers and nations to follow them to victory—or to defeat and death. Keegan explained much about the particular methods and strategies used by each leader but his principal insight was that they were quintessential actors: "The leader of men in warfare can show himself to his followers only through a mask, a mask that he must make for himself, but a mask made in such a form as will mark him to men of his time and place as the leader they want and need." They revealed only as much of themselves as was necessary to sustain faith in their leadership, which was heroic in style if not necessarily in substance—"aggressive, invasive, exemplary, risk-taking"—while concealing what others did not need to know.

The mask of command fit vastly different personality types, from Alexander (the showman), to Wellington (the aristocratic gentleman), to Grant (the casual and taciturn Westerner), to Hitler (the charismatic megalomaniac). Which is not to say that Keegan had equal moral or strategic esteem for his cast of commanders: Hitler and Alexander attempted to combine supreme political and military power in order to achieve world conquest, and in doing so they destroyed much but achieved little.

Keegan concluded The Mask of Command by arguing that the heroic style of leadership has passed us by—we are now in a post-heroic era (something that was already beginning to become evident in Grant's time) as the battlefield becomes larger, automation more pervasive, the pace of events dramatically quicker, and destructiveness ever greater. The man with his finger on the button, as it were, should be inactive—modest, prudent, rational, silent.

* * *

Moving from commanders to their instruments, Keegan observed that

armies are universal institutions which, in the dimension of purpose and authority, closely resemble each other. Yet each is also a mirror of its own society and its values: in some places and at some times an agent of national pride or a bulwark against national fears, or perhaps even the last symbol of the nation itself; elsewhere and otherwise an instrument of national power deprecated, disregarded and of very last resort. It seemed to me worth finding some episode through which the varying status of national armies might be exemplified. And in the Normandy campaign of 1944 I believed that I had stumbled upon it.


The result was Six Armies in Normandy (1982), which examined selected experiences of the American, Canadian, British, German, Polish, and French forces during the period from D-Day to the liberation of Paris.

In selecting his case studies, Keegan began with the observation that battles are not fought by masses: "Armies appear masslike, but their effective parts, the fighting units, are quite small." He examined American airborne divisions' parachute infantry battalions in their first chaotic hours on French soil; the landing of Canadian infantry under the guns of German beach defenses; the Highland and Lowland infantry who punched open the first corridor out of the bridgehead through stiff defenses; the English and Scottish armored cavalry regiments that broke out of the German encirclement of Caen in July; the German panzer battalions which Hitler sent to their destruction in August; the Polish Dragoons and Riflemen who faced near-certain destruction to stem the German evacuation across France; and the Free French 2nd Armored Division in its triumphant liberation of Paris.

As to what characterized the U.S. Army—represented by elements of the All American Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne—Keegan wrote:

For all its wastefulness, the airborne descent on the margin of the Utah Beach was a success. The very extent of its scatter, for all that it was unintended, had multiplied the effect of confusion in the German high command, preventing it from offering any organized riposte. It was appropriate and characteristic that the effect should have been produced by Americans. Like pioneers in an unknown land, ignorant of its language and landmarks, uncertain of what danger the next thicket or stream-bottom might hold, confident only in themselves and their mastery of the weapons in their hands, the best and bravest among them had stifled their fears, marched forth and planted the roots of settlement in the soil that was there for the taking.


* * * 

STARKeegan later took on the task of writing single volume histories of World War I (1998) and World War II (1990). We will pass over the details of these volumes, which were generally well received, although Keegan was frequently criticized for his British and land-centric focuses. We will note that The First World War figuratively picked up where The Faces of Battle left off, at the Somme, which for Keegan represented the breaking point between what could be demanded of men and their society and what warfare now required. With "battle-altering resources" like armored vehicles and portable two-way radios not yet fully developed, Keegan observed, "the generals were trapped within the iron fetters of a technology all too adequate for mass destruction of life but quite inadequate to restore to them the flexibilities of control that would have kept destruction of life within bearable limits." (Some generals, notably Sir Douglas Haig, never even tried.) Of course, when these capabilities did come on line two decades later, the ever-expanding scope and scale of war and ever-more destructive technologies made things even worse, especially for non-combatants, even if trench warfare did not return.

As Keegan saw it, World War I was both tragic and unnecessary—"unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common good will found a voice." He pointed to the role that "entangling alliances" and deterministic military plans of "menacing simultaneity" played in the outbreak of fighting, and he regretted that there was no "permanent medium of negotiation between the European powers"—summit conferences, ‘hot lines', and the like—to counteract the rush to war. (Along these lines, during the Cold War, Keegan supported SDI, not as an instrument of traditional military defense against attack, but as a possible means of slowing down an accidental or ill-judged launch of ballistic missiles, giving time for communication and for cooler heads to prevail.)

* * *

Keegan's understanding of military geography, the factor he called the "Rosetta Stone of all great battles," was profound. It was fully on display in Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America (1996). North America's geography—its vast interior spaces, forbidding mountain ranges with a few critical passes, and extensive river systems—set the stage for each conflict for control of the continent. "It is not accidental that Champlain, the founder of French Canada, was a skilled mapmaker or that George Washington, the victor of the War of American Independence, was by profession a surveyor who had recorded the topography of wide areas of the back country over which he was later to campaign." Geography explained not only how specific battles were fought but why, in war after war, battles were fought in much the same places: for example, along the water route linking the Hudson and St. Lawrence Rivers via Lake Champlain, or near the Chesapeake Bay. North American geography created natural choke points and central lines of communication, which led to the construction of forts for the purposes of defense and expansion. By 1763, Keegan noted, "North America was one of the most heavily fortified regions of the world." Keegan took the reader on a tour of those fortification and scenes of battle in North America—Yorktown, Gettysburg, Bull Run—from the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century to the final defeat of the Indian tribes in the 19th.

Keegan's sense of military geography and strategy was not always spot-on. Naval War College Professor Mackubin T. Owens concluded that Keegan's The American Civil War: A Military History (2009) substantially missed the mark ("The Fog of War," CRB, Summer 2010). For instance, Keegan's grasp of the geography of the British-French-Indians wars of the 17th and 18th century did not translate into an understanding of the American "West"—the "heartland" between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River—which proved essential for Union victory. The Tennessee River in particular served as the gateway to that heartland. The control of the Tennessee allowed Union armies sequentially to outflank Confederate forces on the Mississippi and in Kentucky and to seize the critical rail junction at Corinth, Mississippi. They were thus able to penetrate the Appalachian barrier in the direction of Atlanta and to move west to Memphis and southwest toward Vicksburg. According to Owens, Keegan persisted "in conflating battles with campaigns," and thus failed "to demonstrate the thread linking both to strategy and the political goals of war."

* * *

When one encounters any serious thinker, a particular insight or argument often stands out. For me, it was Keegan's argument in A History of Warfare (1993) that the great Prussian military writer, Carl von Clausewitz, had gotten something fundamentally and perniciously wrong. "Der Krieg ist nichts anderes als eine Fortsetzung des politischen Verkehrs mit Einmischung anderer Mittel." Even the most casual student of strategy knows that famous aphorism, commonly translated as: "War is merely the continuation of policy by other means." (In Keegan's rendering, "war is the continuation of political intercourse with the intermixing of other means.") Keegan argued that, to the contrary, his own studies of anthropology, ethnology, psychology, and history pointed to the conclusion that war in its essence should be understood properly as a cultural, not a political, exercise in violence.

What does that mean? far from being a rational instrument of state policy, according to Keegan, war has been, for most of human history, a non-rational phenomenon. It has ritualistic significance, that of defending a particular society, or groups within that society, from the "Other," by strengthening the cultural bonds among the warriors and particular peoples. Keegan cited, for example, the peoples of Polynesia, but his account brought to my mind the ways of Native Americans. The Indian way of warfare was a constant puzzle to the rational Europeans and white colonialists. The native warriors seemed to be savage in the extreme, especially against "civilians," yet treacherous and cowardly because they often switched sides or simply went home when the fighting started. Yet the familiar traits of Indian warfare—scalping, counting coup, torture, kidnapping enemy women and children to bring them into the tribe, hit and run tactics (mainly run)—made perfect sense when seen as rituals designed to reinforce the unity of the tribe while holding manpower losses to a minimum, and even increasing the size of the tribe.

Nor, according to Keegan, was this a purely "aboriginal" phenomenon. As an instructor at Sandhurst, Keegan developed a close association with regiments of the British Army. He found these units best understood as warrior tribes, with their own distinct rituals and rewards. Their ideal life was that of the barracks and the exercise ground, interrupted by occasional brief, limited campaigns that allowed them to display their courage and skill on the battlefield and to claim appropriate honors. Death or dismemberment was a necessary risk but the chances of those were acceptably low. The regiment also inflicted relatively few casualties on its enemy (at least if the enemy was similarly "civilized") and, within reason, was respectful of the life and property of non-combatants.

* * *

All of this went out the window with the total war of the sort practiced in the 19th and particularly the 20th century, which was not only antithetical to the warrior ethos, rightly understood, but which also no longer distinguished so neatly between soldier and civilian. Keegan, as we noted, saw World War I—and its second (necessary) act, World War II—as the logical conclusion of this senseless escalation of violence, with nuclear weapons potentially taking things completely over the top. Although he acknowledged that the vector towards total war was driven in part by ever-more deadly military technologies, Keegan placed the greatest blame on the Clausewitzian thesis that war was a "political" enterprise that could achieve "political" objectives. This perspective encouraged civilian leaders, particularly those of the technologically superior West, to believe that violence could be harnessed—controlled—to good purpose. The effect was to militarize politics, not to politicize warfare, and to make war less rather than more discriminate.

Politics encouraged war without limits, overriding the restraints that culture might impose in its own self-defense, because the side that is prepared to wage total war will always have an advantage over the side that does not. (There were, to be sure, pre—and non—Western Clausewitzians who also rebelled against cultural controls on violence, especially during transitional periods of technology, which explained for Keegan why things sometimes got completely out of hand throughout human history.) Wisdom, concluded Keegan, now consisted in "the denial that politics and war belong within the same continuum."

This interpretation of Clausewitz and modern warfare raised not a few distinguished eyebrows, including those of Sir Michael Howard, who judged that "much of what he does say is, in my view, profoundly mistaken." Keegan, according to Howard, offered

an idiosyncratic interpretation of what Clausewitz actually wrote. But even if Mr. Keegan's interpretation of Clausewitz were correct, to attribute to him such a degree of influence is to indulge in the hubris by which military intellectuals assign far too much importance to other military intellectuals. Even if Clausewitz had never written a line, war would have become ‘total' in the 20th century for a whole complex of reasons, political, technical and sociological, some of which Clausewitz actually foresaw.


* * * 

I have necessarily simplified Keegan's complex and learned argument about war and politics in order to put my own gloss upon it. I would interpret Clausewitz in a more simple and conventional vein. "Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult," Clausewitz wrote. "The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war." These difficulties include, perhaps first and foremost, the ability to realize political objectives under violent and unpredictable circumstances. There is no simple transmission belt between politics and war: there is fog and friction in high-level strategy and diplomacy as well as in combat, as we saw in full force during the Second Gulf War and its aftermath. A quick and relatively easy military run to Baghdad and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime masked an entire set of emerging problems that required major adjustments in tactics and strategy as well as in political objectives. In retrospect, and perhaps in prospect, we might have walked a different path. My simple reading of Clausewitz is that he teaches humility, caution and restraint, not hubris. That is one of the things that "politics," rightly understood, contributes to the conduct of war.

To be sure, this conclusion is not a counsel for inaction, or for relying on the impersonal forces of history, or for new modes of international cooperation, to bail us out of our strategic problems. In one of Clausewitz's many paradoxes, military boldness sometimes serves the cause of political restraint, and political boldness sometimes makes war unnecessary. When push came to shove, Keegan himself, as we have observed, favored the resort to force—not only in World War II but in Vietnam, in the Falklands, and yes, in Iraq. Walking a path other than war, or even fighting those wars differently, would have led to its own set of problems and, quite conceivably, to a worse world. The greatest of strategists and statesmen—one thinks of Washington, Wellington and Grant, and Lincoln and Churchill—grasped the essential political objective of their wars as well as the material conditions at hand. They designed their strategies accordingly, while being prepared to adapt to changing circumstances. There is no reason to think that such skill has been made obsolete.

* * *

We in the west may all be Clausewitzians now, even those who believe that nuclear weapons or globalization or some such thing has severed the link between policy and war. But the Western way of warfare, going back to the ancient Greeks, with its heavy political emphasis and its preference for decisive battle, is not universally admired or shared. Keegan's analysis usefully points to other ways of war, whether tribal (Iraq, Afghanistan) or eastern-imperial (the heirs of Sun Tzu in China), which more closely matches his "cultural" analysis. Without taking this too far and denying altogether the universal nature of war, we should understand that its character may differ vastly as we consider how to fight—or deter or conciliate—such peoples.

A wise professor once posed this examination question to me: "To what extent is it fair to say that Aristotle and Hobbes battled in vain for the control of the soul of Henry Kissinger?" My initial thought was that this was a pretty high-class battle, one above the rank of us poor soldiers in the intellectual trenches. There was also a high-class battle in the soul of John Keegan over the nature of war and over the fate of the soldiers in the real trenches—a battle we can observe with great profit through his prolific writings.