While I have spent a lifetime reading, only a handful of authors can claim they influenced my life. John Keegan can claim that influence. Having learned of his passing on August 2, I began reflecting on how much his work affected my life over the past seven years.
My knowledge and appreciation of Keegan came in an odd way. In my mid-twenties, I had a strong interest in history, especially warfare. However, after realizing I knew loads about World War II and very little about virtually every other war, I searched on Amazon for “history of warfare” and Keegan’s seminal work, A History of Warfare, came up.
I bought it used for $0.01 plus shipping.
In the first chapter “What is War?” Keegan started boldly, “War is not the continuation of policy by other means.” Those who are not familiar with the inside baseball of military theorists would be unfamiliar with such a statement, let alone the nineteenth-century mind who coined it, Clausewitz. Keegan attempted to break warfare down to its roots, asking tough questions such as whether it was instinctual to man or if it was a cultural creation, which we could eradicate somehow. Interspersed with the anthropological and archeological scholars and their arguments were glimpses of how men fought wars. These included so-called primitive groups like the Zulus, as well as warrior societies like the Mamelukes and Samurai. The book eventually settled into a chronological account of warfare, starting with the ancient period all the way up to modern times. What was most remarkable was Keegan spent the least amount of pages on modern warfare, the era that people are more familiar with. This allowed someone like me, green to the topic of warfare, to absorb and learn abundantly.
The book challenged me. Aside from the numerous topics, theories, and events I had little to no familiarity with, Keegan had a prose that challenged the bulleted, numbered lists that seem to dominate much of military history, especially in magazines and documentaries. He often went on tangents spread across several pages. Other times, he would go on a tangent within a sentence. After I closed the book, I realized my education was lacking. I immediately started reading the book over again. The second time was much easier and I grew to appreciate his style. Once you reach the attention span required of his writing style, it pulls you in. The book also inspired me to research other topics and authors, such as Clausewitz and Victor Davis Hanson. Rather than turning me away from Clausewitz, I bought a copy of On War because of Keegan’s criticism and I turn to it often.
Eventually, I got a copy of The Face of Battle, Keegan’s most popular work. The opening words spoke to me, “I have not been in a battle; nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath.” As I was pondering a degree in military history, I felt a strong stigma around not serving in the military. I enjoyed sharing the history of warfare with others, but I had never been in a battle (I would later discover that most soldiers had not seen battle either). Keegan was the first to remove that stigma for me.
I was not able to read the whole thing at first. I read the lengthy introduction about the state of military history during the 1970s, as well as the chapter on Agincourt. I found that I needed to digest what I read and never returned to the book until last year when I was planning a day trip to Waterloo. After reading a book on Waterloo that was almost entirely about everything but the soldiers’ experience, I picked up Keegan’s work again and read the chapter on Waterloo. The battle came alive to me, as he put me in the boots of the French and British infantrymen.
Keegan left a lot of himself in his works. While he was writing history, he often told of his experiences in life, as he interacted with other cultures or traveled to battlefields. There were always personal anecdotes sprinkled throughout his writings whether he was explaining how impactful World War I is to the British people even today or whether he was describing his trek to Montana to visit the Little Big Horn. I recall him commenting on how remarkable the National Parks Service was in America and how something similar was needed in Britain. Last year in Scotland, I realized how right he was, as every Scottish battlefield was managed (or mismanaged) by different groups with varying levels of professionalism.
Although I never interacted with Keegan, I got the sense that he was indeed a British gentlemen. I watched about a half dozen lengthy interviews on C-SPAN dating back to the early 1990s. He was always dignified in his answers, respectful of other historians, and he treated caller questions with grace. The closest he came to harshly criticizing another historian was describing him as “being rather naughty” with a heavy British accent and a shy smile. There was humility in him. When an interviewer asked why he did not titled his book The History of Warfare instead A History of Warfare, Keegan responded with a smile, “Because there will never be just one” (paraphrasing).
As I am wrapping up my last few courses in a bachelor’s degree in military history, I recall turning to Keegan often in my research. His work was assigned reading on at least two occasions. One of the best aspects of Keegan was he was opinionated and an undergraduate needs bold opinions to critique, confirm, and tweak. Keegan often provided fodder in my research. As such, A History of Warfare has been one of those books always on my desk during my journey in higher education. I will likely keep there for years to come.