354 pages, Viking Press, ISBN-13: 978-0670304325
One of the greatest aspects of John Keegan’s impeccable writing style is that it is always used in service to the telling the story at hand – in this case, a quite unique and fascinating look at the literal face of battle itself, that is, at the nature of the experience of combat from the common grunt’s perspective. Of course, since in most of his other tomes he argues masterfully about the integrating elements of warfare regarding set campaigns and battles in a specific conflict, here he focuses brilliantly on the nature of organized violence itself and how it is perceived and witnessed by the men who are so engaged. In a very real sense, he has reversed the usual logic about conducting war from the overall perspective and strategies of the generals and admirals overseeing the engagement of forces to, instead, focus on the horrific and mind-boggling perspective of the soldier on the ground – the “cipher” so often taken for granted and ignored in historical treatments. For this reason alone any serious student of military history should enthusiastically devour this book.
Yet, of course, as we devotees of Keegan’s works have come to expect and admire, there is much more of value in this thin but provocative volume. Keegan memorably details and describes the horror, pain, and confusion of the battlefield and redefines our understanding of what it means to be a soldier – from the nature of a soldier’s fears to the physical and emotional assault on his person, covering everything from wounds to trauma to shell shock. He accurately and articulately describes the operation of everything from field hospitals to makeshift prisoner of war camps, and the atrocious realities involved in experiencing either. Similarly, he briefly explores the nature of leading men into combat, and the qualities of personality that make one a leader under such traumatic circumstances – how it is that some men can make his fellows stand their ground when everything around them screams for them to flee.
Combat is surely one of the most extreme of human experiences, and as Keegan so deftly demonstrates, it is also one of the least understood, for whether Keegan is describing the terror of the archer attack at Agincourt, the ball and musket charges at point blank range at Waterloo, or the hailstorm of rapid-fire machine guns used to such horrific effect against the trench charges in the First World War, he has captured the insanity, bravery, and futility of the experience of war better than anyone else to date. I highly recommend this book to any student of war or military history.