I recently taught a course on “War and Conflict” at the Centre for Talented Youth, Ireland (CTYI) as part of their Centre for Academic Talent (CAT) program. The two week course was a stimulating and gratifying experience, and I can only than k my students and superiors for their kind words.
I choose to finish that course with a catalogue of books that went beyond your typical reading list. I had already provided a general one based expressly on the topics that we had covered, but I wanted to do something more. I wanted to recommend books that really taught me a lot about war, in a general and over-arching sense, away from the minutia of tactics, strategy, personalities and battles.
To that extent, I found myself asking “What books have taught you more about war than any other?” Several obvious answers came to mind, a bit of soul-searching found others. I conferred with friends of a like-minded nature, and they came up with their own answers. Some were obscure, some were well-known, some were non-fiction, some were fiction, some were military history, some were strategic study.
But they all resonated very highly with the people who picked them, which led to me recommending them to my students if they wanted to learn something important about the nature of war and conflict.
One of the friends I asked suggested that such a compilation could make a good blog-post. I concurred, and set to work on a single article to cover them all, when I realised that this was a disservice: that these books were important enough to warrant individual attention over the course of a longer period.
So, I introduce “The NFB Reading List”. This series will take the books I came up with and was recommended one at a time, and through short review pieces, explain what they are, who wrote them and what they taught those that they inspired. I hope I can get a few of the aforementioned friends to offer their own thoughts, but for the moment, we shall begin with one of my choices.
The Face of Battle – John Keegan (1976)
From a casual glance, this is merely an analysis of three different battles – the Battle of Agincourt, the Battle of Waterloo and the first day of the Somme.
But Keegan’s great work is so much more than that.
He begins by acknowledging something that shapes the vast majority of academic study into war and conflict: that he himself has never been in a battle. He goes on to embolden the work of the military historian by describing why he seeks to become on authority on an activity he has never seen directly – because the utter confusion in most battlefield accounts must be looked at from a distance and detachment that only a well-versed academic historian can provide, before collating, extrapolating and providing clear analysis and recordings.
In essence, his apparent question when it comes to Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme, “What were these battles like?” becomes “How would I have acted at these battles?” – a query ingrained in many military historians – and it is from there that The Face of Battle enfolds. Keegan seeks to answer his question by altering it one more time, so it becomes “How did people act in these battles?”
Keegan strips away the focus on traditionally dominant details of what we call “battle study” – the grand strategy, the generals, the build-up and the aftermath – and chooses instead to make the crux of his work about the soldiers and the psychology at play when the troops of Henry V, the Duke of Wellesley and Douglas Haig took to the field. Commanders are not ignored, but where the tradition has been to frame battle study through their actions and inactions before taking the common soldiers experience into account, Keegan instead reverses this trend.
How did they operate as individuals on the battlefield? How did their psyche react when facing different threats? Why did troops march into machine gun fire at the Somme, how did they stand against cavalry at Waterloo and Agincourt? What went through their minds when the clash of arms came?
Keegan delves into these questions to paint a portrait of the soldier throughout history, accounting for the passage of time and the changes in circumstance, to leave the reader with a more complete picture of what it is to be in a military and face the terror of combat on the battlefield. His research into the lives of these men, how their war experience was shaped by the society they were part of, is brilliantly thorough.
Keegan also expertly demonstrates the changes in warfare through the ages and how these changes – from bows to bullets – have altered what war is and the effect that it has had on soldiers. Of particular note are simple maps , which place Agincourt within Waterloo and Waterloo within the Somme, to demonstrate how much battle has expanded. You could fit a 100 Agincourt’s in the Somme battlefield. Keegan expertly presents and elaborates on such points.
But Keegan does much more in this, his standout work. He discusses the dangers of limited sources for older battles like Agincourt, and the equally problematic issue of numerous, but conflicting ones for later fights like Waterloo. He focuses on the ebb and flow of religion as a comfort and motivator for the common solder. He offers unique insights and posited theories that go against the grain of military history – like the over-emphasis placed on cavalry at Agincourt, or how the Somme was really just a contest of artillery versus machine gunners.
His last chapter, where he waxes unconvincingly on a future without war, is perhaps the only drawback of an otherwise stupendous book. Keegan was influenced by the time he wrote in – the mid-point of the nuclear standoff between the superpowers – and states more in hope than in conviction that such potential horrors could make the very idea of battle obsolete. But one can forgive such a conclusion given the marvellous work that came before.
What did I learn about war from Keegan? I learned how to approach battle study. I learned how aspects of war change through time, but how other aspects stay the same. I learned that the experiences of the lowliest warrior do not pale next to those of the highest general.
But most of all, I learned much about the mindset of the soldier – what drives him forward to face the possibility of death, and what goes through his head as he does so. Such knowledge lies at the very heart of war, and why humanity does it.
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