Military historian Sir John Keegan has died. I never met the man, though I did once see him speak at the 92nd Street Y. Personally and intellectually Keegan was a significant influence in my life. The first book of Keegan’s I read was A History of Warfare, which he released in 1993. After receiving my bachelors degree at the University of Houston in May of that year I spent most of that summer hanging out with friends, playing wiffle ball, and watching the Astros. As summer gave way to fall we turned our attention to the Oilers. Yes, the Houston Oilers, that’s how far back this story goes. In the latter part of the year, after this extended period of laziness and general goofing around, I stumbled upon A History of Warfare in my local bookstore during the holidays, became entranced, and found my intellectual juices stimulated again.
A history of warfare was something of a misnomer; really it was an anthropology of warfare. It may not seem like much two decades on, but Keegan’s book taught many people the importance of taking an interdisciplinary approach to their scholarship. In Warfare, Keegan famously, or infamously, concluded that Clauswitz’s maxim that “warfare is politics by other means” is only partially correct. Keegan discussed the reasons men–and it is almost always men–have gone to war over the centuries and found parallels across cultures and millennia that went beyond the Prussian officer’s penetrating but more limited analysis. I always liked that the book was a history of warfare, and not the history of warfare. With the indefinite article Keegan acknowledged that even his own interpretations, however learned, were not final judgements. A History of Warfare, at least to me, was an invitation to join the conversation. It was in large part because of this book that I majored in interdisciplinary studies when I went back for my second masters degree a decade later in 2003.
Keegan was in the news a great deal in 1993 and 1994, plugging his book on the circuit and serving as a talking head in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. I remember him tutoring Bill Clinton about D-Day before the president went to France for the commemoration.
He played a role in my personal life as well. In 2008, fifteen years after Warfare’s release, yours truly was in a Brooklyn bookstore with the woman who would eventually become my wife. Still in the “getting to know each other” phase, we were browsing the shelves, occasionally pulling books we had read off the shelves and showing them to each other to give each other a sense of who we were. You are what you read. When I pulled Warfare off the shelf, I was surprised to discover that the Woman Who Became the Hayfoot was already well schooled in the works of Sir John Keegan. I only became more entranced. (That I had read almost the complete works of V.S. Naipaul had the same effect on her.)
Keegan’s observations often sprung up at unexpected times and in unexpected places. My eventual wife and I were in the medieval wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at the swords, armor, and other objects one day when I remembered an anecdote of his: Keegan was once touring a similar museum with a friend when the acquaintance mentioned the beauty of the objects on display. When Keegan mentioned the purposes of the military accoutrements they were looking at, and what they were capable of doing to the human body, his companion suddenly became filled with revulsion. It had never occurred to him that what he had always seen as works of art were once something else entirely. The story is a helpful reminder that military history is not–or at least should not–be something that exists for our pleasure and edification.
Keegan continued writing, often well and with great insight, in his later years. He never managed, however, to rise quite to the levels he did in Warfare or in earlier efforts such as The Face of Battle (1976) and The Mask of Command (1987). Like Stephen Ambrose, he became a little too famous and spread a little too thin. The books were published too often and too hastily, and the observations not quite as sharp. Perhaps this is inevitable with any famous person. Become too famous and you eventually loose control of even your own narrative. His 2009 book The American Civil War: A Military History was one of weakest efforts.
Still, Keegan had reached that point in his career where he had earned the right to have his voice heard. Sadly, it is a voice we will no longer hear.
(image from the Roger Mansell collection, published in A History of Warfare)