John Keegan: “I have not been in a battle…”

There aren’t many historians whose deaths would occasion a lengthy obituary linked at the top of that section on the New York Times website. But there haven’t been many historians like John Keegan, widely regarded as the greatest military historian of his time (1934-2012).

As it happened, when I saw the news of Keegan’s death this morning (he actually passed away yesterday), I had just finished my annual project of reorganizing office bookshelves and — as always — struggled to know what to do with one of my three Keegan books. The most recent (Intelligence in War) is the least essential and, honestly, the least read; I don’t care too much where it ends up in my collection. Next is his magisterial history of The First World War, which nestles logically with at least ten other books by the same title (or something very similar). I use it as a reference, and suggest it to students in my sophomore-level WWI course who aren’t happy that I spend little time dissecting battles. Hardest to place, and by far the most important to read every so often, is The Face of Battle, the 1976 comparative study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and The Somme that is mentioned at least four times in the Times obit.

Keegan, The Face of BattleThe title comes from the last lines of an opening essay on the nature of military history, in which Keegan proclaims his

purpose to demonstrate, as exactly as possible, what the warfare, respectively, of hand, single-missile and multiple-missile weapons was (and is) like, and to suggest how and why the men who have had (and do have) to face these weapons control their fears, staunch their wounds, go to their deaths. It is a personal attempt to catch a glimpse of the face of battle. (p. 77)

He accomplishes both purposes brilliantly well, though I have to admit to being relatively disinterested in part 1A (not really being a military historian myself, though I sham my way through multiple courses on war) but utterly fascinated by 1B: how soldiers, in the heat (or chill) of combat, “control their fears, staunch their wounds, go to their deaths.”

As Keegan thoroughly explains in that opening chapter, military historians have not always been so concerned with common soldiers and what they experienced and felt in battle. After all, Keegan hints, some historians are so obsessed with causes and results (“the ‘outcome’ approach to military history”) that they might ask why “trouble to provide any sort of narrative at all?” (p. 45) Particularly when one encounters acts of ‘improper violence,’ such as (to cite one of Keegan’s favorite examples) the execution of prisoners, such historians would

find it most convenient, from every point of view, to ignore them. Like a man who finds himself left with a collection of screws and cogs after he has made a watch ‘work’ again, he can tell himself that they are clearly not essential components and slide them into his miscellaneous tray. (p. 50)

Keegan acknowledges earlier that all historians make choices about what and what not to include, “for sacrifice is a necessary exercise for the historian, who would befuddle himself and his audience if he tried to write down everything he could find out about an episode from the past” (p. 44). But ultimately, he finds it impossible to sacrifice

an element compounded of affection for the soldiers he knows, a perception of the hostilities as well as the loyalties which animate a society founded on comradeship, some appreciation of the limits of leadership and obedience, a glimpse of the far shores of courage, a recognition of the principle of self-preservation ever present in even the best soldier’s nature, incredulity that flesh and blood can stand the fears with which battle will confront it and which his own deeply felt timidity will highlight — if, in short, he can learn to make up his mind about the facts of the battle in the light of what all, and not merely some, of the participants felt about their predicament, then he will have taken the first and most important step in understanding battle ‘as it actually was’. (pp. 33-34)

I’m the process of editing, for our department’s blog, an interview with one of our current students, spending the summer as an intern at a financial services company. Asked why he thought a History major was good preparation for such work, he stressed the ability of history to shed light on human nature.

John KeeganI think John Keegan would appreciate that answer, since the “value added” in his approach is not merely that we can document more and more minutes and seconds of history — what happened, and when and where, and with what result — but that we know what moved its participants. For, in the end, “to propagate understanding of, not merely knowledge about, the past is the historian’s highest duty…” (p. 34, my italics). And while Keegan attached special importance to military history, and in particular to studying the experience and sensation of pitched battle, I think his point is broadly true for all sub-disciplines. It is not enough to know that the Industrial Revolution, for example, happened, or even the reasons why. We should seek to understand what its diverse participants felt about their sundry predicaments.

Of course, this is no easy task, and Keegan recognizes that there are good reasons why other military historians steer clear of researching and writing this kind of narrative. For one, “Imagination and sentiment, which quite properly delimit the dimensions of the novelist’s realm, are a dangerous medium, however, through which to approach the subject of battle.” Lamenting the ‘pornography of violence’ in some literatures pretending to tell of combat, Keegan acknowledged that “Historians, traditionally and rightly, are expected to ride their feelings on a tighter rein than the man of letters can allow himself” (p. 29). At the same time, he pointed to the extraordinarily detached, clinical British History of the First World War as an example of taking that justifiable tradition too far, and deemed “some exploration of the combatants’ emotions, if not the indulgence of our own” to be “essential to the truthful writing of military history…” (p. 31).

The far greater problem is stated memorably at the outset of this first chapter of Face of Battle (“Old, Unhappy, Far-off Things” — a crib from Wordsworth). It’s one of the most remarkable first paragraphs in any work of scholarship:

I have not been in a battle; not near one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath. I have questioned people who have been in battle… have walked over battlefields… have often turned up small relics of the fighting… and have sometimes brought my more portable finds home with me…. I have read about battles, of course, have talked about battles, have been lectured about battles and, in the last four or five years, have watched battles in progress, or apparently in progress, on the television screen. I have seen a good deal of other, earlier battles of this century on newsreel, some of them convincingly authentic, as well as much dramatized feature film and countless static images of battle: photographs and paintings and sculpture of a varying degree of realism. But I have never been in a battle. And I grow increasingly convinced that I have very little idea of what a battle can be like. (p. 13)

And yet Keegan not only wrote books about battle for academic and popular audiences, but spent much of his professional life teaching military history to students who were preparing to enter combat! (When he finished The Face of Battle in December 1974, Keegan had been a lecturer at Sandhurst, Britain’s prestigious military academy, for nearly fifteen years, and would stay there another decade.)

So that paragraph about never having been in a battle constitutes an astonishing admission from such a renowned scholar — not merely honest, but humble.

And profoundly wise.

After all, though most historians study activities in which they have never or minimally engaged (I noted this problem about this time last year, in a post on farming), it’s particularly notable for a military historian to acknowledge such a lack of experience, since it echoes one of the major themes of modern (and perhaps pre-modern) warfare: that soldiers believe civilians don’t — and perhaps can’t — understand what they’ve gone through.

That suspicion is expressed in my favorite account of World War I — Ernst Jünger‘s Storm of Steel — but even more explicitly in a German memoir (or novel — people disagree) of World War II, Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier. Writing early in the book about warfare on the Eastern Front, Sajer pauses:

Sajer, The Forgotten SoldierI should perhaps end my account here, because my powers are inadequate for what I have to tell. Those who haven’t lived through the experience may sympathize as they read, the way one sympathizes with the hero of a novel or a play, but they certainly will never understand, as one cannot understand the unexplainable. This stammering outpouring may be without interest to the sector of the world to which I now belong. However, I shall try to let my memory speak as clearly as possible…. I shall try to reach and translate the deepest level of human aberration, which I never could have imagined, which I never would have thought possible, if I hadn’t known it firsthand. (p. 48)

I wouldn’t dare to explain something like a Keegan Method for getting readers to “understand the unexplainable”; read Face of Battle or his other books to see it for yourself. But I’ll close with two observations:

First, in a way, Keegan does think that his lack of combat experience serves him well. He implicitly draws a contrast with his friendly rival for title of world’s greatest military historian, Michael Howard, who won the Military Cross fighting in World War II. Quoting from Howard’s coverage of a rare French triumph against Prussian infantry during The Franco-Prussian War, Keegan notes that the other historian’s “straightforward description of a straightforward massacre” makes no attempt to ask “Why?”, or to answer it:

Why did the [Prussian] Guard not turn and flee before that terrible fire? [Howard], having himself been decorated for bravery in leading Guardsmen of his own against the enemy… may feel no need to ask himself that question and in consequence does not seek to answer it for the reader. (pp. 43-44)

Whereas Keegan, one of a generation of Britons who grew up (thankfully) not knowing combat, could not help but wonder how fear, courage, self-preservation, and loyalty keep company in the soldier’s heart and mind.

In the end, Keegan remains conscious that his own understanding — and so his ability to improve ours — of battle is limited, so the chapter closes with that line, “It is a personal attempt to catch a glimpse of the face of battle.” But if we “know in part” and “see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor 13: 9, 12), I’m not sure there’s any higher ambition for historians than “to catch a glimpse” of the past. Nor that any historian has understood more about their subject from such glimpses than the late John Keegan. Peace be to his memory.

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