John Keegan

Daniel Snowman talks to Britain’s most distinguished military historian and the Defence Editor of the Daily Telegraph.

In and all around his desk piles of books jostle for space with as yet unanswered letters of congratulation. John Keegan was knighted in the Millennium honours and is still not quite used to the idea. We were sitting in Keegan’s office in the large manor house in rural Wiltshire that he and his wife Susanne (author of books on Alma Mahler and Kokoschka) acquired fifteen years ago. 

Maybe it was the West Country air. Or the fact that, shortly after the house move, Keegan quit his job lecturing at Sandhurst and joined the Daily Telegraph. Whatever the cause, the effects were a cascade of major works: The Mask of Command (a study of generalship), substantial military histories of both world wars, an elegant peregrination around the battlefields of North America, the colossally ambitious History of Warfare and the BBC’s 1998 Reith Lectures, War and Our World. All these (not to mention an anthology of ‘great military writing’) constitute an astonishing efflorescence of talent that, by Keegan’s own admission, remained many years in the bud. 

Born in 1934, Keegan is of Irish Catholic extraction on both sides. His father was a schools inspector in Clapham whose district was evacuated during the war to the Dorset-Somerset borders, where Keegan still remembers seeing US troops mobilising for D-Day. Struck down by tuberculosis as an adolescent, Keegan spent his mid-teens in hospital beds just when other boys were learning the rituals of emerging masculinity. A pair of kindly teachers in the hospital school, followed by two years at Wimbledon College, a Jesuit school, helped equip the boy to get into Oxford in 1953.

At Balliol, Keegan, walking painfully with a stick, was surrounded by robust, self-assured young men, most of them just out of National Service. They were a bright lot and included a future Lord Chief Justice (Bingham), two Northern Ireland Secretaries (Peter Brooke and Patrick Mayhew), the writer Ved Mehta and the historians Keith Thomas and Maurice Keen. Keegan read history at Balliol, learning about the Middle Ages from Richard Southern and the seventeenth century from Christopher Hill, and chose as his special subject ‘Military History and the Theory of War’. After a six-month trip through the USA with Maurice Keen (later a brother-in-law), Keegan worked for a couple of years at the American Embassy in London. He was nearly twenty-six when, in 1960, his first ‘proper’ job materialised; he was to keep it for the next twenty-six.   

In many ways Keegan found the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, to be like an Oxford college, with beautiful grounds and buildings and the camaraderie of intelligent and motivated young men. But there was a fundamental difference. At Oxford, the intellectual ethos had encouraged the dialectic of debate, dispute and disagreement and the active entertaining of alternative hypotheses; at Sandhurst, Keegan lectured on military history to officer cadets who were training to become part of a chain of command in which you learned to accept, not argue with, the instructions of superiors. As Keegan acknowledged in the opening pages of his first important book, The Face of Battle, published in 1976: ‘the atmosphere and surroundings of Sandhurst are not conducive to a realistic treatment of war’. So how did this Balliol-trained historian adjust to what he called the ‘stern, professional, monocular outlook’ of the student-officer? The answer is that Keegan loved Sandhurst and Sandhurst evidently loved him. The company was congenial, the library well stocked, the institution endowed with a sense of purpose. ‘The British army,’ Keegan maintains, ‘is a remarkably liberal and open-minded organisation in which there is great freedom of discussion - so long as you don’t undermine or condemn its central values.’ Like a Jesuit college perhaps.      

In The Face of Battle, Keegan addresses what he calls ‘the central question’: what it is like being in a battle - something none of his young charges at Sandhurst could have known and which he himself, because of his disability, would never experience. Concentrating on three very different confrontations – Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme – Keegan begins with an elegant historiographical essay on the nature of military history. He reflects on why military history tends be written by victors, or at least from territories that have not hosted great wars, and whether this has to be the case, and he pays homage to predecessors from Thucydides to Ranke to Michael Howard.

In this most humane of battle books, Keegan calls upon a wide range of data: priests who wrote eye-witness accounts of Agincourt, William Siborne who sent a questionnaire (possibly the first in history) to surviving British officers who fought at Waterloo, official reports, letters, memoirs, anecdotes and poetic recreations. Not for Keegan a simple tactics-and-triumph approach. The battles he describes unleash the deepest fears and most violent passions, and Keegan reflects on what leads men to expose themselves to the possibility of severe pain and death. In the final chapter he attempts the bold task of comparing the three battles as to severity, length, danger to participants, technical difficulty and so on, and drawing broad conclusions. Keegan – writing at the height of the cold war – concludes that, whatever the soldiers and politicians might say, ‘the suspicion grows that battle has already abolished itself’.   

This was not Keegan’s first book; there had been half-a-dozen pot-boilers in the 1960s for ‘Ballantine’s Illustrated History of the Violent Century’ (where fellow toilers included Paul Kennedy, Roger Manvell, Noble Frankland, Nicolai Tolstoy and Christopher Hibbert). But The Face of Battle was the work that catapulted him to fame. And once adopted as the US Book of the Month Club choice, it brought John and Susanne a welcome burst of unaccustomed wealth as they raised their four children.

Over the next decade, Keegan worked on a number of writing projects. He conceived the idea of a military equivalent of Jane’s Fighting Ships, an encyclopaedia of the world’s armies which, naturally, he would have to update each year. It lasted for two editions. He wrote a book about Normandy and the bulk of  John Gau’s TV series Soldiers (with his Sandhurst colleague Richard Holmes). 

By now, the love affair with Sandhurst was cooling. Keegan had been there for a quarter of a century, was himself over 50 and felt he still had a lot more ‘proper’ books in him. Few people keen to write learned tomes leave an academic environment for a newspaper. But Keegan had already acquired a taste for journalism, notably when he wrote on the Falklands War for The Spectator (under an assumed name), and he joined the Daily Telegraph in 1986 as Defence Correspondent (later restyled Defence ‘Editor’, which meant more think pieces and less travelling).  

He celebrated his change of life with the publication of The Mask of Command (1987), a counterpart to The Face of Battle. Each studied a variety of military confrontations from different times and places and drew general conclusions. But while the earlier book had examined the experience of battle for ordinary participants, The Mask of Command reversed the telescope and looked at military leaders: Alexander, Wellington (the only point of overlap between the two books), Grant and Hitler. As before, Keegan starts and ends with speculative chapters, this time reflecting on the heroic – or ‘anti-heroic’ – nature of generalship. Throughout he is concerned to identify the nature of the mask that all leaders, especially perhaps military leaders, are required to wear if they are to be effective.

What comes across is the energy, tenacity, stamina – and ruthlessness – of military leaders. Alexander ‘moved with ferocious rapidity’ to quell plots against him; Wellington at Waterloo slept nine hours in ninety. The general must show himself to his followers and create a bond of kinship between himself and them – perhaps (like Alexander) by seeming godlike and invincible, or else (like Grant ‘galloping from place to place … to rally shaken regiments, encourage subordinates and send reinforcements to the front’) by seeming to be one of them. The military leader who loses the confidence of his followers, as Hitler did even before the military tide had begun to turn against him, is lost.

The parallels with politics are close and it is striking that all the commanders Keegan considers – like Caesar, Napoleon and Eisenhower – exercised political as well as military power. Keegan is much concerned throughout his writing with the relationship between the two. War, he starkly asserts at the outset of his History of Warfare (1993), ‘is not the continuation of politics by other means’. He hastens to explain that what Clausewitz actually wrote (that war is the continuation of ‘political intercourse with the intermixing of other means’) was subtler and threw useful light on warfare in an age of nation-states. But he feels that the Clausewitzian analysis had little relevance to pre- and non-state conflict. The Prussian sage was useful, but primarily about his own time and place. 

The History of Warfare stretches the parameters of military history (and one senses it probably stretched its author) to the limits. It certainly takes the subject way beyond Clausewitz. Chronologically Keegan covers four thousand years of history and geographically the entire world. In the course of a dazzling survey, we visit places as far apart as Easter Island, Ancient China, imperial Rome and the Aztecs of Mexico and encounter Attila, Genghis Khan, Muslim Mamelukes and Japanese samurai, in addition to the great landmarks of European and American military history that more commonly delineate Keegan’s chosen territory. The book is structured around the great technological developments in military history from stones to swords, forts to horses and guns to bombs, but Keegan also considers social and economic influences upon warfare, psychological and anthropological drives and factors such as climate and terrain. The plot is complex but the conclusion simple: politics must continue, but war cannot.   

Many historical surveys fatten out as they approach modern times. A History of Warfare tapers off once it enters the nineteenth century. Keegan had after all already written about Wellington and Grant, the Somme, the armies of Normandy and Hitler. For those who wanted more, he had recently completed a military history of the Second World War (1989) and was soon to publish one on the First (1998). Between times he had also managed to produce an excursus on the military sites of North America (Warpaths, 1995) that cleverly married theme and chronology. Keegan has a big following in the USA and was invited to advise President Clinton on what he should say at the D-Day fiftieth anniversary celebrations. (His advice, which Clinton took, was not to forget the contribution of the Canadians.)

As he looks back over his furious productivity these past fifteen years, Keegan remains passionately convinced of the importance of military history. Yet he manages to retain a healthy distance from its idiosyncrasies. He laughs in hearty agreement when, with apologies to Joseph Heller, I suggest that in order to want to become a soldier you must be a bit mad – but that anybody who is mad isn’t allowed to be one. Is there something hidden away deep inside his own constitution that would love to have been a soldier, perhaps one of the great generals he admires? ‘No, never, never, never,’ he repeats with staccato emphasis. ‘I’m quite unsuited to being a soldier.’ Why? ‘Oh, I’m the wrong temperament. I’m very rebellious by nature,’ he asserts and, spotting my scepticism, adds: ‘I know I don’t appear to be but I am. I fly off the handle very quickly. I’m super-critical.’ One can see why he and Sandhurst finally parted company.    

Keegan fell to musing on further paradoxes, catches and misconceptions of military life. Armchair strategists love to talk of ‘decisive’ battles; but few battles are truly decisive in the sense of solving the problem that stimulated them. Easy victories may cause temporary exultation among the victors (e.g. Israel in 1967), but the results rarely stick. Nor do conflicts where the vanquished do not believe they were fairly defeated (the French in 1870, the Germans in 1918). The ‘ideal’ war, or battle, is a struggle such as Waterloo between two more or less equal sides in which one eventually suffers collapse and both accept the result and agree to move on. Such conflicts may be conclusive, Keegan says, but they are rare. People also talk glibly about military strategy; yet Keegan has found that, time and again, extrinsic events rather than strategic intent determine the outcome of a military campaign. In his book on the First World War, Keegan shows how the Schlieffen Plan, a formula for ‘quick victory in a short war’, directed Germany towards an unachievable strategy, thus helping plunge Europe into a four-year conflict no one wanted. Indeed, since the Second World War was in many ways an outcome of the First, he suggests that the Plan was arguably ‘the most important official document of the last hundred years, for what it caused to ensue on the field of battle, the hopes it inspired, the hopes it dashed, were to have consequences that persist to this day’. 

Keegan is no peacenik, and he claims that the Gulf War, for example, was a classic ‘Just War’ as defined by Grotius. But he has no love of war or illusions about its nature. Every day of his life, he says, he wrestles with the further paradox that, among those who have chosen to confront and if necessary commit the most appallingly inhumane actions, he has encountered some of the most charming, civilised and high-minded people one could ever hope to meet. Nobody, says Keegan, is more disgusted by the horror of war than the generals who, in the last resort, are called upon to fight it. It was a point he reiterated at the culmination of his 1998 Reith Lectures, War And Our World. 

Recorded in a variety of locations before invited audiences, Keegan’s lectures received extraordinarily réclame. ‘Give War A Chance!’ said the Sunday Times headline over an article commending the series; the Guardian’s Anne Karpf, expecting to scoff, was held rapt. Keegan used the BBC’s prestigious platform to present his distillation of a lifetime’s learning. He placed war in the context of history’s other apocalyptic scourges, painted a poignant portrait of the delivery and receipt of bereavement messages from the front, asked whether a state is defined by its capacity to make war (and was rude again to Clausewitz) and pointed to the ‘non-state’ wars that have increasingly characterised the post-Cold War era. 

How does Keegan see the future of warfare? He senses that major wars have become impossible and that the great military powers seem increasingly prepared to try to contain the smaller-scale local conflicts that currently afflict the world. He cites the way the Russians, the traditional protectors of Serbia, behaved with restraint and maturity in their dealings with NATO over the crisis in Kosovo. We are not there yet, of course. A world besmirched by the bloodshed of Grozny and Dili, Eritrea and Angola, can hardly be regarded as free of warfare. Keegan argues for greater restrictions on the production and international distribution of cheap armaments, and urges that the peace-keeping and peace-making activities of the United Nations be strengthened. But when pressed, he admits to being guardedly optimistic about the future. And that, from our newest historical knight, is source for comfort.

  • Daniel Snowman’s most recent book (with Asa Briggs) was about ends of centuries. He is currently writing a book about the impact on British cultural history of the ‘Hitler émigrés’.