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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

“Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America”, by John Keegan

348 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN13: 978-0679424130

In Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America, John Keegan covers notable conflicts on North American shores, interspersing his narrative with tales of his own travels in the U.S. and Canada. Keegan’s focus throughout is on landscape and geography: how the land has shaped the wars and influenced the location of forts and key battles and their outcomes. He also touches on how landscape is an essential element of national character and affects the way people think about time and space.

The first chapter is a personal history of Keegan’s relationship with America, starting with the American GIs who arrived in England during WWII, when Keegan was a young boy. He recounts his first long journey through the U.S., and his many trips afterwards, which took him to numerous cities, towns, battle sites, military academies, and academic campuses. Even as he moves on in later chapters to describe the major conflicts in Quebec between the French and English colonial powers, or the American War of Independence, Civil War, Native American wars in the west, and the invention of the airplane, he inserts his own recollections and personal observations of these places. I rather liked this element of Fields of Battle – the modern traveler walking on or through centuries of history. He likes to point out modern highways and bridges for instance that were once routes for whole armies and to describe what has changed or remained the same in certain places. He’s quite good at creating atmosphere for the battles he describes, though I wish he'd also included more maps in the book of the battle sites and fortifications in particular; his descriptions could benefit from detailed visuals.

Keegan is engaged and delighted with his subject matter. He conveys an understanding of war and a good grasp of the major military figures and their characters. Before reading this book I hadn't closely considered the connections between war and the details of landscape – particularly how certain sites kept cropping up as arenas of battle in a few wars decades or centuries apart, and why they did so. The book has given me a greater awareness of the history that exists in even the most ordinary or out of the way places.

A great book for anyone who enjoys reading about historical perspectives and interpretations, but not too much on the tactics. The title might lead you to think the book is all about the X’s and O’s and troop movements that took place in the US and Canada over the last 300 years, but really it is about linking key battles together and how they relate to the geography of the country. It’s can be rather puzzling, trying to figure out why certain battles take place where they do, and the author uses his knowledge of geography and to explain precisely why. For instance, he explains what brought about the battle of Yorktown in the Revolutionary War and then connects it to why the same exact land was fought over in the Civil War. In another chapter, the author gives a build-up to the Battle at Little Big Horn and the death of Custer without tracing over every single step of the process. Instead, he tells it as a story, as one would experience walking over the battlefield as it sits today. Few Americans could have written such a work and so it is our great fortune as Americans to have Mr. Keegan to tell the story with such style and readability.

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