Friday, May 17, 2013
The Face of Battle
by John Keegan
"When John Keegan died last year [15 May 1934 – 2 August 2012], the world lost a groundbreaking military historian."
'Of course, killing people never bothered me,' I remember a grey-haired infantry officer saying to me, by way of explaining how he had three times won the Military Cross in the Second World War. In black and white it looks a horrifying remark; but to the ear his tone implied, as it was meant to imply, not merely that the act of killing people might legitimately be expected to upset others but that it ought also to have upset him; that, through his failure to suffer immediate shock or lasting trauma, he was forced to recognize some deficiency in his own character or, if not that, then, regrettably, in human nature itself.
In that vein, it is significant that the only cult general in the English-speaking world - Robert E. Lee - was the paladin of its only component community ever to suffer military catastrophe, the Confederacy.
Agincourt is ... a victory of the weak over the strong, of the common soldier over the mounted knight.... It is a school outing to the Old Vic, Shakespeare is fun, ... Laurence Olivier in armour battle; it is an episode to quicken the interest of any schoolboy every bored by a history lesson... It is also a story of slaughter-yard behaviour and of outright atrocity.
Waterloo, it seemed to contemporaries, had reversed the tide of European history and almost anyone who had taken part in the battle and could still hold a pen found a word-hungry readership.
.... Wellington had forbidden his gunners to fight artillery duels).
Ponsonby, the Brigade Commander, ... lost his life because of a false economy. He had left his best charger, worth far more than the government compensation fund would pay if it were killed, behind the lines and chosen to ride instead and inferior hack. The French Lancers caught him struggling to safety over heavy ground, easily rode him down, and speared him to death.
The second generation of mass political parties, populist and anti-Marxist, like the German Nazis and the Italian Fascists, would actually adopt the structure and dress of armies .... and, in Germany at least, eventually precipitate the most fundamental of political crises by demanding that the army transfer its functions to the party-in-uniform.
We cannot yet imply, as we can of the officer a hundred years later, that he thought killing almost degrading of his rank. But it is significant that he had begun to carry weapons of very little lethal value; and the infantry officer at least seems to have looked on himself as a director rather than agent of violence.
...the impulsion which drove a pre-war civilian to join up for ... seven years with the colours, five on the reserve -- was most often that of simple poverty.
Battle, therefore ..... is essentially a moral conflict. It requires, if it is to take place, a mutual and sustained act of will by two contending parties and, if it is to result in a decision, the moral collapse of one of them.
It must be counted as one of the particular cruelties of modern warfare that, by inducing even in the fit and willing soldier a sense of his unimportance, it encouraged his treating the lives of disarmed or demoralized opponents as equally unimportant.
The liberal state likes to believe that it works by consent and persuasion, that compulsion is a method of dealing with citizens to which only the lower forms of polity have resort.
The young have already made their decision. They are increasingly unwilling to serve as conscripts in armies they see as ornamental.