Good short biographies serve two purposes. The first is to provide the basic facts of a famous life to those who have little or no knowledge of the subject. The secondif the author is skilled enough and the subject serious enoughis to challenge those who think themselves expert.
John Keegan competently outlines the essentials of Winston Churchill in his recent contribution to the Penguin Lives Series. One can recommend it without hesitation to someone who is not already a Churchill-phile. At initial reading, however, the book seems a little disappointing to those looking for a challenge. Keegan is perhaps the best contemporary student of military history, yet he offers relatively few considered judgments about Churchill's particular approach to military strategy.
But Keegan's introductory and concluding sections, upon reflection, do achieve that higher standard. He addresses Churchill as military leader rather than as military commanderas the man who (as President John F. Kennedy famously said) mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. Keegan does not attempt a rhetorical analysis of Churchill's great wartime speeches and writings; rather, he shows how Churchill's approach to war and his understanding of the great political ideas underlying Western civilization were consciously melded to create a force unto itself.
The physical bravery that Churchill discovered while serving on the Indian subcontinent and in Africa was the starting point. This did much to restore the self-confidence damaged by his father's coldness and schoolboy failures. As Keegan details, the young Churchill's courage was remarkable and would help later to underpin the moral courage that was also a central trait of his character. Churchill never abandoned his love affair with war. At an early age, however, he came to see that there was an ethical dilemma in the military life, to be resolved only if it were dedicated to a higher good. Victory mattered only if it served moral as well as material ends. He had seen what death meant and he never lost sight of its tragedy despite the seduction of its glory.
What set Churchill aside from most men of war, Keegan writes, was his early decision to transform, by self-education, his romantic vision of soldiering as a means of service to his country into a broader conception of public service. Churchill's conception was based on deep reading in history and political theory, although he was not a theoretical man. He came to understand Britain's great military accomplishments throughout its historythe defeat of Continental imperialists, the foundation of its own Empire, victory over European warlords and dictatorsas the process by which its constitutional principles were enforced in the international arena and transmitted to the wider world. Those principles and practicesits championship of democracy, personal liberty, and the rule of lawmade Britain superior to the regimes it opposed on the battlefield.
As Churchill wrote his great war speeches he drew upon the version of British history he had constructed in his head while serving as a subaltern in India; upon the lessons taken from the biography of his ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough, and his victory over Britain's continental enemies; and upon Churchill's own retelling of the story of World War I as an epic of world crisis and eventual triumph. In 1940 events offered him the greatest opportunity to make the present itself into an epic. Keegan concludes that, through his extraordinary oratory, Churchill set the moral as well as strategic course for victory over the greatest threat his country had every faced; and over the consequent threat to the idea of freedom in the Cold War that followed. Churchill believed, and through his rhetoric inspired others to believe, in the greatness of his country and in the universal validity of its principlesabove all that of individual freedomthat it had come to represent.
But freedom was not merely a preserve of his own country. Churchill's strategy in World War II, Keegan points out, depended above all on the United States coming in, at a time when most Americans did not want to come in. His wartime oratory had been aimed as much at the American people as his own. His ultimate literary project, begun in the 1930s A History of the English-Speaking Peoplesshowed that Churchill was thinking of the historical processes that had formed not only his own country, but also his mother's American homeland, in the widest terms. He constructed his own version of American history as an equal epic to Britain's in championship of liberty. He saw them as intimately intertwined. What had been severed in one war, the American Revolution, would be finally healed through common action in two great wars in the 20th century.
One might reasonably conclude from Keegan's study thatbesides reaching a better understanding of our special relationship with the British, which Churchill in the profoundest sense recreatedwe need a still larger story with which to understand and defend civilization against today's and tomorrow's violent threats. Individual freedom must have a convincing story to tell for peoples everywhere if, as Churchill dreamed, we are ever to reach the sunny uplands of peace, prosperity, and justice.