|John Keegan, Historian Who Put a Face on War, Dies at 78 |
By DAVID BINDER
New York Times
August 2, 2012
John Keegan, an Englishman widely considered to be the pre-eminent military historian of his era and the author of more than 20 books, including the masterwork “The Face of Battle,” died Thursday at his home in Kilmington, England. He was 78.
His death was announced in The Telegraph, where he had served as the military affairs editor. No cause of death was given, though Con Coughlin, the paper’s executive foreign editor, said in an e-mail that Mr. Keegan had died after a long illness.
Mr. Keegan never served in the military. At 13, he contracted orthopedic tuberculosis and spent the next nine years being treated for it, five of them in a hospital, where he used the time to learn Latin and Greek from a chaplain. As he acknowledged in the introduction to “The Face of Battle,” he had “not been in a battle, nor near one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath.”
But he said he learned in 1984 “how physically disgusting battlefields are” and “what it feels like to be frightened” when The Telegraph sent him to Beirut, Lebanon, to write about the civil war there.
Mr. Keegan’s body of work ranged across centuries and continents and, as a whole, traced the evolution of warfare and its destructive technology while acknowledging its constants: the terrors of combat and the psychological toll that soldiers have endured.
He had a keen interest in the United States, receiving a visiting fellowship at Princeton, writing meditations on North American wars and briefing President Bill Clinton in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion in 1994.
Mr. Keegan was particularly concerned with the cultural roots of war, asking, “Why do men fight?” In his classic 1993 study “A History of Warfare,” he argued that military conflict was a cultural ritual from which the modern notion of total war, like in World War I, had been an aberration.
His topics included King Henry V of England, Napoleon and the military machine of Hitler, but he also grappled with warfare in the nuclear age, concluding in “The Face of Battle” that total war was now almost unthinkable. “The suspicion grows that battle has already abolished itself,” he wrote.
In “The Iraq War,” published in 2004, he followed the technological revolution in warfare with the introduction of computer-guided “smart” weapons. He also rendered a political judgment, concluding — with the war still new and yet to be transformed by sectarian conflict and the surge of American troops — that the invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein was justified.
Probably none of his books was more admired than the “The Face of Battle,” which was published in 1976. The Cambridge historian J. H. Plumb called it “so creative, so original” and a “brilliant achievement.” A huge publishing success, it launched Mr. Keegan’s career as a popular historian.
He examined three battles in the book: Agincourt in 1415, Waterloo in 1815 and the Somme in 1916, all in the northeast corner of France and all involving the English. His tale was somber and compelling about what happens in the heat of battle, including the execution of prisoners.
He was not above a personal note. Describing the horrors at the Somme, where his father was gassed, he appears to grow melancholy, pausing to reflect on how the war’s shadow lingered even 70 years later.
He speaks of “the military historian, on whom, as he recounts the extinction of this brave effort or that, falls an awful lethargy, his typewriter keys tapping leadenly on the paper to drive the lines of print, like the waves of a Kitchener battalion failing to take its objective, more and more slowly toward the foot of the page.”
John Desmond Patrick Keegan was born on May 15, 1934, in London. During the German blitz in 1940, he was evacuated with other children to Taunton, England, far from the targets of the Luftwaffe bombers. “I had a good war,” he wrote, “of a small boy whisked from London at the first wail of sirens.”
Taunton became the staging ground for American troops preparing for the invasion of Normandy, and young John became fascinated with the scene. He later wrote of hearing the roar of warplanes in a “great migratory flight” carrying troops to parachute or glide into France on the eve of the attack.
Besides the Latin and Greek lessons he received in the hospital, he also found time to learn French and, after his recovery, enrolled at Oxford, where he majored in history. After graduating, he went to the United States on a grant to study the Civil War.
Returning to London, he wrote political reports for the United States Embassy and was later appointed as a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, England, a post he held for 25 years.
Beetle-browed and strong-jawed, Mr. Keegan limped all his adult life. He composed his works for years on a typewriter, but after developing back pains, he wrote with a fountain pen on lined paper.
In all his books Mr. Keegan proved a master at organization. In “A History of Warfare” he divides the evolution of combat into stages: stone, flesh, iron and fire. (In “flesh,” he explores, among other things, the role of horses.)
At times, he was called presumptuous. In one instance he purported to understand the thinking of Alexander the Great on the basis of histories written hundreds of years after his death. Alexander’s legacy, he wrote was, “to ennoble savagery.”
He could be opinionated. Reviewing Mr. Keegan’s book “The American Civil War” in 2009, Dwight Garner wrote in The New York Times: “He writes about Southern women as if he is commenting on the Westminster dog show: ‘Southern women are a distinctive breed even today, admired for their femininity and outward-going personality.’ ”
He could be didactic. In “The Mask of Command,” a 1987 book on generalship, he proposed that the art of successfully commanding armies should be analyzed in terms of the imperatives of “kinship” (creating a bond between leader and followers), “prescription” (how to give orders), “sanction” (reward and punishment) and “action.”
But he was also highly perceptive, proposing in the same book that “the mask of command” involved a “theatrical impulse.”
“The leader of men in warfare can show himself to his followers only through a mask,” he wrote, “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.”
Mr. Keegan was adept at making historical comparisons. In “Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris, June 6th-August 25th, 1944,” he noted that an American paratrooper carrying gear that was the equivalent of his weight “required for assumption something like the assistance a knight in armor received from his esquires.”
Having written at length about Ulysses S. Grant and other American military commanders in “Mask of Command” and “Six Armies,” Mr. Keegan turned his full attention to the role of warfare in the development of the United States in his 1996 volume “Fields of Battle: The Wars of North America.” One of his insights was that the continent’s military history was defined by the construction of forts, both to defend it from foreign powers and to assist in its conquest. By 1763, he wrote, “North America was one of the most heavily fortified regions of the world.”
In “The American Civil War,” he found that geography had a profound but seldom-examined influence on the war. “The territory of the 11 seceding states,” he wrote, “forms a rough quadrilateral of nearly a million square miles’ extent.”
He also defied assumptions about the war, arguing that its seminal battles were not the storied ones of Gettysburg, Pa., and Vicksburg, Miss., but those of less heralded places like Wilson’s Creek, Mo., and Perryville, Ky.
Some critics found Mr. Keegan to be overly Anglo-centric. He asserted, for example, that the Normandy invasion “ranked as the greatest military disaster Hitler had yet suffered in the field,” surpassing that of his defeat by the Soviets at Stalingrad in 1942 and the collapse of the Eastern Front. Few German historians would have agreed.
Indeed, Mr. Keegan saw the cultural transformations of Britain through the prism of war. In “The First World War” (1999), he returned to the battle of the Somme — the scene of “the greatest loss of life in British military history” — concluding, “The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.”
The World War I book also sparked debate in British historical circles about the author’s contention that the conflict was “unnecessary.” His critics countered that the war was inevitable.
As a journalist Mr. Keegan wrote copious military analyses for newspapers and magazines as well as a weekly column in The Telegraph Magazine about rural affairs as observed from his house in Wiltshire, often with a footnote about his cat, Edgar.
In 1960, he married Susanne Ingeborg, who survives him, as do his daughters, Lucy and Rose, and his sons, Thomas and Matthew. He was knighted in 2000.
In a 1994 interview with Brian Lamb on C-Span, Mr. Keegan acknowledged that the Duke of Wellington and Dwight D. Eisenhower were among his favorite military figures.
“If Wellington epitomizes the sort of English gentleman, Eisenhower epitomizes the natural American gentleman,” Mr. Keegan said, “a deeply good man.”
Asked about Vietnam, he said: “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.”
Was he a pacifist? Mr. Lamb asked.
Margalit Fox contributed reporting.