John Keegan: Requiescat in Pace
“Now tell us what ’twas all about,
“Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
“Now tell us all about the war,
And what they fought each other for.”
“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
“Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for
I could not well make out;
But everybody said,” quoth he,
“That ’twas a famous victory.”
Robert Southey, The Battle of Blenheim
One of my favorite military historians died today, John Keegan. A Brit, Keegan wrote with skill about the history of war, and never forgot the human element, as he demonstrated in his magisterial The Face of Battle, which looked at conflict through the ages from the point of view of the common soldiers at the sharp end of the spear.
He firmly believed that different nations viewed military history from different perspectives depending upon how they had fared in their recent wars:
It is really only in the English-speaking countries, whose land campaigns, with the exception of those of the American Civil War, have all been waged outside the national territory, that military history has been able to acquire the status of a humane study with a wide, general readership among informed minds. The reasons for that are obvious; our defeats have never threatened our national survival, our wars in consequence have never deeply divided our countries (Vietnam may — but probably will not — prove a lasting exception) and we have never therefore demanded scapegoats or Titans. In that vein, it is significant that the only cult general in the English-speaking world — Robert E Lee — was the paladin of its only component community ever to suffer military catastrophe, the Confederacy.
For the privileged majority of our world, land warfare during the last hundred and fifty years — the period which coincides with the emergence of modern historical scholarship — has been in the last resort a spectator activity. Hence our demand for, and pleasure in, well-written and intelligent commentary. Hence too our limited conception of military-historical controversy… It does not comprehend questions about whether or not, by better military judgment, we might still govern ourselves from our national capital — as it does for the Germans; whether or not we might have avoided four years of foreign occupation — as it does for the French; whether or not we might have saved the lives of 20 millions of our fellow countrymen — as it does for the Russians. Had we to face questions like that, were military history not for us a success story, our military historiography would doubtless bear all the marks of circumscription, over-technicality, bombast, personal vilification, narrow xenophobia and inelegant style which, separately or in combination, disfigure — to our eyes — the work of French, German and Russian writers.
In the highly militarized German Second Reich, anything to do with war was so intertwined with national policy and national myth that no study of it could reasonably hope to achieve either the autonomy of an academic discipline or the aesthetic freedom of genuine literature. Military history was too loaded a subject, loaded with questions of national unity, of national survival, of dynastic prestige, for any German to feel ultimate detachment about it; and without a measure of intellectual detachment, of course, any historian is bound to become either an obscurantist or a publicist.
The great 19th century school of French historians fails equally to yield us an example of a seminal mind. In that often defeated country, too, a genuinely objective approach to military history always risked incurring the slur of carrying comfort to the enemy, and its development was further hindered by the endemic national neurosis of Napoleon-worship.
The difference between Roman and Greek historiography, in the words of Professor Michael Grant, is that the former “began with politics and the state”, while the latter “sprang from geography and human behaviour”. It was appropriate, therefore, that the Greek historians should have begun to make their influence felt on European historiography at the precise moment when an interest in “geography and human behaviour” was replacing a dry-as-dust legalistic conern with “politics and the state” as the motive force of historical inquiry… The foremost practitioner of the new history, Leopold von Ranke, insisted on regarding Thucydides as the greatest of all historians, living or dead… Because of his championship of the Greeks, something of their spirit — practical, realistic, speculative, wotty, humane — made its way through his into the work of lesser, often unacademic historians, some of whom were no doubt quite ignorant of the debt they owed him.
Throughout his works there breathed the spirit of a humane man looking at the most inhumane of pursuits. A faithful Catholic, Keegan hoped for a world free of the scourge of war but realized this very old truth:
There are certain wicked people in the world that you can’t deal with except by force.
Keegan loved America and visited here frequently. I will miss him and his graceful books on war. May he now be enjoying the Beatific Vision in that Kingdom from which war and all strife is absent.