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When faced with cold steel
on February 18, 2003
Someone had to write this book - interesting that it was John Keegan.
War may be about great leadership, and Keegan has a book like that, or it may be about feints and flanking maneuvers, and Keegan has handfuls like that, but at some point someone has to pull all the statue-builders and map-gazers off their seats and remind them that war, throughout history, has always come down to an actual living, breathing human being facing a charging sword inches away or a raking machine gun, heard but never seen.
What is going on when a man stands to face a charging horseman or goes over the top from a muddy trench to a likely death? Would a horse, no matter how trained, charge directly into a mass of armed men? Would they flinch? Would the horse turn? Could they really be routed in ways so colorfully portrayed in paintings of war when it seems simply impossible to fit so many horses or men into so small a space, to leap through the mass of other flesh? What did it really mean to be struck a sword's blow or a by musket's ball? What became of a man wounded in no man's land, or captive, or a slaughterer of captives. Keegan's questions range from the deepest questions of humans facing death to the pragmatic problems of daily needs and mud and dirt and flesh. This book is apparently unique among military histories in raising and contemplating them.
Keegan offers an oddly heightened awareness of these questions by noting right at the beginning that he has not, in fact, ever been a soldier. He has been called upon to teach and to mentor them as one of the most esteemed military historians of our era but he has not stood in those boots. But much more so than any foot soldier or general he has studied "battle" enough to understand that the confusion that underlies these encounters can only be distilled from a distant perspective. Although he honors and acknowledges the first-hand accounts of participants, by simply noting the level of confusion, the restrictions and overload on sensory input, and the inevitable role of the survivor's ego, he reminds us that much more is happening than personal viewpoint or formalist analysis could describe.
Keegan chooses to look at three battles from history: Agincourt, Waterloo and The Somme. All three are what historians apparently term "set battles" but each called upon its participants to face death, or glory, or simply the esteem of their neighbor, in different ways. While he maintains his focus on the individual soldier, Keegan does a fine job of making each of these three historically momentous battles come to life in full scale.
Written in a style that is relaxed but incisive, "The Face of Battle" is a fascinating work.