Thursday, August 2, 2007


A reader writes

I don't know if you've ever come across Sir John Keegan, but he wrote a remarkable book called "The Face of Battle" in the mid-1970s, which I had long heard about but never read. I normally hate it when people talk about "paradigm shifts", because I have reservations about that whole Kuhnian model of science, and also because people use the term in so sloppy a fashion. But it is probably as applicable here as anywhere, because Keegan, as far as I can see, did genuinely, and more or less single-handedly, change the entire discipline of military history - literally it seems to be impossible to write military history now without referencing him. His basic argument is that you can't make sense of a battle merely from a commander's-eye or strategic point of view: that you have to reduce it to the level of the individual participants and understand their motivations and the constraints on them, and one has to understand the result of a battle as the aggregate of that. It doesn't now look quite as revolutionary as it must have been when it came out, precisely because his methodology has swept the board so comprehensively, but it is still fascinating to read.

I've also read various other things: at the moment I'm reading a book on military strategy by Colin Gray called Strategies for Chaos, arguing against a widespread model of military change called the model of Revolutions in Military Affairs, or RMA, which has apparently been very influential in the US - that there are ground-breaking periods where the whole of warfare changes as a result of some technological development, and strategic thinking has to undergo a total shift accordingly. Gray argues that basic strategic thinking never changes, and that there are no single big technological shifts, but rather constant developments and changes which commanders have to work with.

It is interesting reading all of this, particularly since military history and theory is so closely connected with real-world military thinking: most of these writers teach at military academies and so on. Gray's book came out in 2002, so a bit before the invasion of Iraq, but it did occur to me that the failures in Iraq bear out his thesis all too well. Donald Rumsfeld was apparently convinced that there was an entirely new way of fighting (an RMA) which would enable Iraq to be conquered comprehensively with few ground troops; but in practice the US has found itself tied down in Iraq in all too familiar a way. If only Donald Rumsfeld had read and absorbed the lessons of Colin Gray - or indeed of Clausewitz, whom Gray acknowledges as his intellectual inspiration. But presumably someone who believes in RMAs would regard Clausewitz as no longer appropriate to modern war.


derek said...

Readers interested in contemporary military theory (and literary theory, and architecture theory) should also read Eyal Weizman's writings on Israeli military strategy, especially the pieces in recent issues of the architecture journal Log. Who thought military operations would be theorized in Deleuzian terms?

Saif said...

I read the book in 1980 and was thrilled to hear Keegan speak at Sandhurst two years later.
He is lame and as he made his way to the podium he explained how his very inability to do military service had given him an unusual perspective on matters military.

SC said...

"The Face of Battle" is a terrific book, and Keegan maybe gets the credit for introducing the idea into military history.

But the idea that "that you have to reduce [a battle] to the level of the individual participants and understand their motivations and the constraints on them, and one has to understand the result of a battle as the aggregate of that" is laid out pretty thoroughly and explicitly by Tolstoy in "War and Peace."