CD 's Reviews > The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme

The Face of Battle by John Keegan
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Sep 16, 12

bookshelves: sociology, psychology, war, millitary-history
Read from August 29 to September 16, 2012

The book that is complimentary to author John Keegan's The Mask of Command examining the experience of the participants in the battle 'royale'. Examination of the actions of individuals as can best be done in three great battles, Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme extends the range of the classification of 'military history' in ways that require that parts of this work be evaluated as other disciplines.

Psychological reaction, though always a concern for military leaders, is given added twists and importance in this work. Sociological behaviors too play a role in Keegan's writings on Battle. These each are part of his carefully defined and structure oriented definition of battle and when it has and has not occurred.

The psychology of why people will go into battle and perhaps more to the point, why they stay is one of the topics examined. Is it a group dynamic? Is it a personal glory and self testing? Students of this author at Sandhurst one can almost see hanging on his words as the lectures continue. Though many things can point to this being a distillation of an academic approach to young future military leaders, this is anything but a simplistic psych 101 adjunct course.

Groups of people behave differently both willingly and subconsciously during a stress filled time. There is a subtle introduction to group dynamics included in this work. The subjugation of individual will through conscription and related training produced a very different corp during 20th Century wars than training of the individual combatant of the middle-ages. Different requirements and goals. Survival versus glory and profit. Yet both willingly to a greater degree engaged in the ultimate risk behavior by putting their life at peril for a common goal. Victory in battle.

Battle. Keegan states clearly his purely academic expertise in never having personally experienced battle. This is quite important to the work in avoiding hero worship of certain individuals. This too adds to and is equally important to the companion work, The Mask of Command(see above for links) as this military expert is viewing the analysis from at least an arm's length and is not bound by the fog of command, battle, and war. Most importantly Keegan establishes a definition of what is and is not battle. He separates combat and hostility, which many military people will experience, from the grand battle fields of history.

This work breaks up the generations and numbers who have experienced battle into distinct groupings. In doing so he illustrates the changing approach to active hostility and its needs in a way that is prescient of the current non-linear and asymmetrical warfare that is todays reality. Post WWII fewer and fewer individuals will engage in Battle. Of course the Korean War and Vietnam had battles and invasions, but the number of Westerners involved was probably at the lowest total both numerically and in percentage that had been part of the general population, for centuries! It changes everything about the approach to military analysis. As with the Mask of Command, this book The Face of Battle's analytic end goal and conclusion is summed up best by its own closing sentence: "But the suspicion grows that battle has already abolished itself."


Keegan writes a far more complex, but as always elegant, book than this or the 'paired' book at first reveal. On further careful review there is a tremendous amount of vital information contained within. This work has some inconsistencies in the analysis of each of the three case studies which lowers the overall rating to 3, but nearly 4, stars at this time. It remains even at a slightly lower rating an important work for anyone reading history military or otherwise.
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