The Face of Battle
On the Psychology of Military Incompetence
The Social History of the Machine Gun
How could men fight in battles? What sort of human beings are generals, who deliberately bring them about? It is good that so many people in Britain and America do not know the answers to these questions and now—to judge by recent writing on the topic—are fascinated by almost any explanation. Good, but strange in the American case where so many thousands of still young men who fought in Vietnam could provide their own experiences. Most people, however, watched the war on television and are still mystified. Less strange in Britain. It is twenty years since Suez, and in that time the British have at last grown out of that extraordinary fatalism which saw “wartime” and “peacetime” as night and day, a natural alternation in which every generation must expect the call to “do its bit.” The very word “peacetime,” with its seasonal implication, has vanished from the language.
The heroes are not just tired: they are retired. In the rainy cabbage-plains of Westphalia, young British soldiers drowse in the same Nazi barracks that their fathers and in some cases their grandfathers drowsed in after 1945. The other day, I found myself in one of the largest US air bases in southern Germany. Of the old glamor and opulence of the GI, in European eyes, nothing remained: shabbiness, dirt, and lethargy (cracked roads, stained walls) contrasted with the prosperous market town a few miles away. In the latrines, graffiti about the presidential candidates were overshadowed by a huge chart of homosexual activities and preferences, industriously filled in by platoons of visitors.
Alfred de Vigny wrote in Servitude et grandeur militaires that the soldier’s character was simple, kindly, and patient. “There is something childlike about it because life in a regiment is somewhat like life in a boarding school. Its coarse and sardonic features are imposed upon it partly by boredom, but primarily by its permanently false relationship to the nation and by the artificiality inherent in the exercise of authority.” Vigny, a “peacetime” soldier who never saw a battle, no doubt overdid things by going on to argue that boredom and authority contributed to his concept of the “Abnegation of the Warrior.” Generally, though, he saw armies much as we see them now.
John Keegan is a brother to him. He even writes like Vigny, appreciating similar ironies. “I have not been in a battle; not near one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath,” his book begins. He is a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, he confesses, who has spent fourteen years “describing and analyzing battles to officer cadets under training…all of whom stand a much better chance than I do of finding out whether what I have to say on the subject is or is not true.” Keegan could stand this particular irony no longer. Class after cadet class asked themselves and him what it was like to be in a battle. He decided to find out. The result …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.