Reader’s Corner: John Keegan (1934-2012)

Another passing of a literary great was reported Friday. In short, John Keegan was the preeminent military historian of the modern era.

A believer in writing for the popular audience, Keegan bore some comparison to Niall Ferguson, particularly in staking out contentious theories, such as his support for the Iraq and Vietnam wars (thinking both were the least bad option) and his dismissal of the classic Clausewitzian definition of war as “politics by other means.” He was also a consummate gentleman to any who were lucky enough to hear him read.

Starting with his 1976 classic, The Face of Battle, Keegan helped turn the discipline from one that cared only about mass troop movements and the decisions of great generals to one that embraced a more holistic view of conflict, in particular how it affected the individual soldiers on the ground.

In this typically vivid scene from The Face of Battle, which studied the day-to-day experiences of British soldiers in three battles: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, Keegan wrote about an officer who fell asleep the minute the march was halted:

…[he] did not think of food until later in the night, when he woke to eat some chops cooked in the breastplate of a dead cuirassier (meat fried in a breastplate was very much à la mode in the Waterloo campaign, rather as rats spitted on a bayonet were to be in 1871 or champagne exhumed from chateau gardens in 1914).

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