The great John Keegan has died. His book The Face Of Battle revolutionized serious writing about war, because it concentrated on the dynamics of combat, on why men actually risk their lives in battle, without sentiment or euphemism.
The answers Keegan offered were startling, but shouldn’t have been. The factors that make men fight include alcohol, fear of letting down a comrade, the guys standing next to them in the line, and the practical difficulties of running away. Patriotism, idealism, gallantry hardly figure at all in the calculations a man makes in his “crowded hour”.
Keegan reminded us that most writing about war has been fraudulent, or at the very least misleading. Concentrating on grand strategy, national pride, personal inspiration have been ways of disguising the unspeakable, soul-shattering horror of what happens on a battlefield.
Sickly for most of his life, Keegan never served in the military, though he did teach military history at Sandhurst, the British army’s equivalent of West Point. He also served as a military journalist for newspapers like The Telegraph. Visiting modern battlefields, even he, after all his research, was startled by how “disgusting” they were. Although he had great admiration for soldiers and the military, and considered many wars justified, he described himself as “95 per cent pacifist”.