After a long, as-of-yet unspecified illness, British historian and knight John Keegan died Thursday at his home in Kilmington, England. He was 78 years old. A civilian witness to modern battles and a diligent scholar of the ones gone by, Keegan authored his first smash hit, "The Face of Battle," in 1976. The scrutinizing tale of three battles across three centuries launched his career as writer of military history and analysis for the masses. He went on to complete twenty books, including the 2007 biography "Winston Churchill: A Life," and countless newspaper and magazine articles throughout his lifetime.
Not yet ten years old when Hitler’s planes began bombing London, Keegan was safely whisked away from the action. Soon after, a long childhood bout with tuberculosis left him with a lifelong limp, which prevented him from serving in the British military. In 1984, however, the now Telegraph reporter was sent to document the fighting in Lebanon, and Keegan finally got a firsthand look at wartime. Both the horror and the dynamics of men in battle made an instant impact on him -- and, unexpectedly, a kind of systematic sense as well. Those days were to inform his view of war as culture for the rest of his life. He filled military tomes such as "The Mask of Command" and "A History of Warfare" with facts, exposition, instruction, and context: How geography impacts military action, what a military leader must become in order to command forces, that the notion of total war may include the seeds of the end of warfare are all crucial parts of Keegan’s martial storytelling.
Keegan, sometimes fingered as an Anglophile, also took great interest in the United States’ many military campaigns. Describing himself as ninety-five percent pacifist, Keegan thumbs-upped both the Vietnam War and the American invasion of Iraq. But like his authoritatively detailed and exploratory "The First World War," works like "The Iraq War" and "The American Civil War: A Military History" take somber, personalized looks at each conflict, noting the ties between war and theater, battle and trade, and reaching robustly supported conclusions, if not agreement among his readers.
Wars are strategic and political affairs. They are also -- being orchestrated and fought by human beings -- loaded with the psychology, culture, and history of their participants. Keegan possessed clear insight into both facets and, luckily for all of us struggling to make sense of wartime chaos, documented what he saw in an enthralling collection crafted in clear, strong prose.