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The Mask of Command

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  2,539 ratings  ·  72 reviews
John Keegan’s brilliant look at the meaning of leadership
In The Mask of Command, John Keegan asks us to consider questions that are seldom asked: What is the definition of leadership? What makes a great military leader? Why is it that men, indeed sometimes entire nations, follow a single leader, often to victory, but with equal dedication also to defeat?

Dozens of names com
Paperback, 400 pages
Published October 4th 1988 by Penguin Books (first published 1987)
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Average rating 4.12  · 
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Mar 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: war, favorites
“Where to stand, how often to be seen? In front always, sometimes or never?” Keegan puts these questions to the warmakers of the West, from the Iliad to NORAD, from the hacking and thrusting of the Greeks' "toil of war" to Armageddonite button-pushing in air-conditioned underground silos, and pays extended individual attention to Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Adolf Hitler, their command styles and cultural assumptions. The middle two are among my favorite peo ...more
Overall this was a good military leadership discussion. I enjoyed the comparison of Alexander, Wellington, Grant, and of course, even Adolf Hitler. The historical discussion and comparison of the leadership styles with the modes of warfare technology provide an interesting discussion of leadership changes. Alexander from the front, always victorious. Wellington not so close, but in the thick of bullets whizzing about. Grant, always everywhere on the battlefield but in artillery range of the Conf ...more
Aug 26, 2008 rated it really liked it
4.0 stars. Terrific book that analyzes and explores what it takes to be an effective and capable commander in light of the ever changing nature of the war. The book looks at four leaders that had vastly different styles but were aall extremely effective commanders in their own right: Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant and Adolf Hitler. A terrific read.

Jul 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
There are two books by author John Keegan that need to be read together or one after the other. The Mask of Command is one and The Face of Battle is the other. Neither series nor followup work(s) these two books are complimentary and cover similar territory, but from different angles.

The Mask of Command examines in a unique fashion what great commanders did and did not do. Keegan does not seek to forcibly find the similarities as much as the unique capabilities that each of his four chosen subje
Jul 05, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: bio-history
3.5 stars

My brother in law is a huge Keegan fan and loaned me this book but it never really struck a chord with me and at times it was a bit dry. I know this was written in the late 80's but his statement from the conclusion concerning the nuclear age made me shudder

Mankind, if it is to survive, must choose its leaders by the test of their intellectuality; and, contrarily, leadership must justify itself by its detachment, moderation and power of analysis.

I haven't seen leaders on either side of
Feb 18, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, war
I read this while I was working on my dissertation, along with several other books by John Keegan. He really is the best military historian writing in English right now. He makes military matters comprehensible to people who are neither military buffs nor militarists (I'm neither, and much military history is written for people who are). He starts with a brief discussion of pre-heroic military leadership, then traces the changing nature of both war and our notions of leadership and heroism throu ...more
Tony Taylor
Jan 22, 2010 rated it it was ok
John Keegan asks us to consider questions that are seldom asked: What makes a great military leader? Why is it that men, indeed sometimes entire nations, follow a single leader, often to victory, but with equal dedication also to defeat?
Dozens of names come to mind...Napoleon, Lee, Charlemagne, Hannibal, Castro, Hussein. From a wide array, Keegan chooses four commanders who profoundly influenced the course of history: Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant and Adolph Hitle
Aug 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: military-history
Analyzes Alexander, Wellington, Grant, and Hitler as well as their place in the history of military leadership. The logical companion to "The Face of Battle", this is amazing and bound to shatter a lot of presumptions you may already have on the subject. ...more
Jan 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
The Mask Of Command — book review
Today’s book review is for “The Mask Of Command” (1987©), written by John Keegan. Sir John Desmond Patrick Keegan OBE (Order of the British Empire) and FRSL (Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature) was an English military historian, lecturer (at Sandhurst – the English equivalent of West Point) and writer. Keegan is considered (in my opinion) one of the “modern” expert military historians. I understand his basic premise to be that conflict in general and war i
Jul 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
I read this book at airborne school on the weekend and enjoyed it
Arjun Ravichandran

An examination of the changing essence of (military) leadership through the profiling of 4 military leaders operating at different points in history, this book can more accurately be termed as the rise and fall of the hero archetype.

The author begins by noting that a society's army is a reflection of that society, and so too is the nature of generalship. He then begins to adumbrate the rise of generalship and the heroic archetype from the prehistoric indistinguishability of combat and ritualist
Aug 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a very enjoyable and informative book. There are four commanders whose profiles are contrasted with the same questions of leadership. The repetition of each questions and the historical events from the professional life of each commander informs the definition and function of a successful heroic commander.

In the book, the description of each commander's profile was very opinionated and although I think that there were all well-informed, I believe that the judgement that was made about th
Rachael Hewison
Feb 06, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: history-war
I had a bit of a love/hate relationship with this book. Some chapters I found fascinating, others I found were a real struggle to get through.

Keegan chose four brilliantly contrasting people to concentrate on; all with completely different leadership styles in four very different theatres of war. I was particularly fascinated by the chapters concerning Grant since he is not someone I know much about at all. The Alexander section I found the hardest to read, particularly the descriptions of his
Jun 15, 2019 rated it liked it
It's a fun read that answers the question: Should the commander never, sometimes or always place himself among his troops? What are his views on the military-political relationship? What were his ambitions? 

Yet, for me, it falls short of my expectations, since it interprets 'command' more in a strategic sense than the 'leadership' ring it has developed over the last years. Another sign of the time, 1987, is the last chapter of 'nuclear command' that is supposed to be the modern conclusio
Nick Monfries
Jan 21, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Keegan clearly knew his stuff, and he could certainly write very well. A fresh perspective on those who are burdened with command, the way that they exercised it a convincing and well persecuted argument between always, sometimes and never.
Quinn Selby
Jan 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: war, leadership
Incisive and thought provoking. The simple compare and contrast technique of history's great leaders. Great in the sense that these individuals were historically significant.

Well done, Mr. Keegan.
MacWithBooksonMountains Marcus
Sep 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
Read this around 2007. Still remember it pretty well. Wellington got away pretty well in Keegan’s book.
Chris Hall
Dec 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book drawing upon very different personalities and command styles to draw conclusions about the requirements of modern command. The final chapter covering civilian command of nuclear forces may be dated, but Keegan makes a compelling argument for post-heroic command at the highest levels. Best read after Keegan's The Face of Battle to see continuing themes in the battles discussed. ...more
Heather Stein
Apr 22, 2009 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone interested in military history or biography
Recommended to Heather by: Arieh
Shelves: non-fiction
In my last year of high school, Mr. Goodman, my world history teacher, organized a formal debate lasting a fortnight in order to assess which countries were most responsible for the outbreak of WWI. Were it not for that experience and Keegan's The First World War, i would probably not be where i am today. I've since moved away from military history as a field of study, focusing more on political theory and transgression in the late medieval era, but it remains a passion of mine. So, when a frien ...more
Reader Variety
Had to go with a 5 star review as this study of leadership had an impact on me personally, and on many of the military leaders of my generation.

On Alexander's Companion Cavalry: "Men whose worth in their own eyes and those of their equals was determined by disregard for danger and contempt for the future. To do the right thing in the present moment, and to suffer the consequences as they might be."

The changes in heroic leadership were driven by bigger armies, with the need to delegate, and also
Simon Mcleish
Jun 27, 2012 rated it really liked it
Originally published on my blog here in March 2000.

The Mask of Command is a companion to Keegan's earlier book The Face of Battle, published just over a decade beforehand. That book dealt with battle as experienced by the common soldier, while The Mask of Command is about the nature of military leadership. They have the same structure, a general introduction and conclusion framing some case studies, here Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Adolf Hitler. The title i
Jan 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Another excellent study from John Keegan with deep dives into Alexander the Great, Wellington and Grant, then follows with the false heroics of Hitler.

He wraps up the book with a prescription for military leadership in the nuclear age.

if you like military history, this is a must read.
Sean Chick
Aug 12, 2011 rated it liked it
I found the part on Alexander to be good, and Hitler analysis dead on. However, the Wellington and Grant parts can only be considered redundant and shallow. In Wellington's case, it begins well enough, with a superb rendering of his experiences at Waterloo. After this it falls apart into claptrap and the usual Anglo hero-worship. Wellington was a great general, but Keegan does not take time to discuss his shortcomings in maneuver warfare, charismatic leadership, and personnel management. Keegan ...more
Feb 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
If I were to recommend one military history to someone.
Alex Irwin
Oct 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
This brilliant leadership novel explains a few leaders of the past, how they got there, what they did and why they did it. John wrote about Alexander the Great, Wellington, Ulysses Grant, and Adolf Hitler. Keegan went into great detail explaining how they become such powerful leaders and why they did those things. This is a very good Historical Non-fiction novel that contained tremendous amounts of details and information. I learned very much reading this book, it goes into details that most cla ...more
Jan 01, 2015 rated it really liked it
This is a meditation on the nature of command, and therefore the nature of war. Keegan explores manner in which four famous military figures exercised command, and how the technological and social backgrounds of the wars in which they exercised command shaped their manner of command. Alexander the Great exemplifies the heroic mode of command, in which the leader exercises authority through personal charisma and by example. The Duke of Wellington is a post-heroic commander, guiding his troops ra ...more
Robert Krenzel
Apr 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-military
John Keegan wrote several books that I enjoy dusting off and re-reading from time to time, and The Mask of Command is among them.

Keegan explores generalship in the Western World as it evolved over the centuries, using four historical figures: Alexander, Wellington, Grant, and Hitler.

He explores how these men commanded; how they imposed their will on their followers, and how they portrayed themselves to their men. Alexander was the prototypical heroic leader, who always led from the front, but w
Oct 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I really liked this book. It was my initial introduction to Alexander, within the context of the evolution of generalship since his life 2,500 years ago. In addition to Wellington and Grant, the book also covers Adolf Hitler under the chapter heading 'False Hero' and shows what a deluded putz he actually was in WWII. There have more 'false heroes' since. They start violent wars.

The book is, in my opinion, missing a chapter. It kind of ends in the nuclear age, admonishing modern leaders to tend
Bas Kreuger
Feb 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
Intriguing book on command, focused on military command, but in my opinion just as applicable on command (ehhh, management) in the non-military world.
"Command at the front: always, sometimes, never" is one of the questions Keegan poses and the answer is that it depends on the circumstances. Alexander the Great was always at the front, Hitler never. The same goes for civilian command. I think it is worthwhile when managers take the pulse of their companies by visiting the battefield now and then.
May 30, 2015 rated it liked it
Reading John Keegan is like sitting down with an old friend, a very smart and interesting old friend. He contrasts styles of military leadership. Alexander the Great is the heroic leader on the front lines fighting with his men, risking his life, leading the way. He then contrasts Wellington and Grant who put on few airs but largely kept off the front lines. He disparages the chateau generals in the First World War who blandly sent men to their death but were estranged from the front living live ...more
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topics  posts  views  last activity   
Marine Corps L.E....: Do you believe the nuclear age will end? If so, how? If not, why not? 1 1 Jan 26, 2015 11:34AM  
Marine Corps L.E....: Are our leaders today better at listening to their citizens? Can communication be improved between U.S. leaders and citizens as well as between world leaders? If so, how? If not, why not? 1 1 Jan 26, 2015 11:33AM  
Marine Corps L.E....: How have we come to live in the nuclear age? Do you believe this could have been predicted one hundred years ago? Why or why not? 1 1 Jan 26, 2015 11:33AM  
Marine Corps L.E....: Do you believe that by listening to the citizens, a leader could make better decisions regarding the nation as a whole? Why or why not? 1 1 Jan 26, 2015 11:32AM  
Marine Corps L.E....: Why does the author believe the view of the leader should change in the nuclear age? If it were not the nuclear age, does the author believe there would be nothing wrong with a leader coming in and taking charge? Explain. 1 1 Jan 26, 2015 11:30AM  
Marine Corps L.E....: The author believes it is not desirable for a leader to storm in and take command, at least not without the acceptance of his or her people. Do you agree with him? Why or why not? Did citizens in the past want their leaders to take control? Why or why not? 1 1 Jan 26, 2015 11:30AM  
Marine Corps L.E....: Do you agree with the author that leaders in the nuclear age must not be affected by the heroic ethic? Why or why not? How might our country change if leaders were not influenced by heroism or the lack of heroism? 1 1 Jan 26, 2015 11:29AM  

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Sir John Desmond Patrick Keegan, OBE, FRSL was a British military historian, lecturer and journalist. He published many works on the nature of combat between the 14th and 21st centuries concerning land, air, maritime and intelligence warfare as well as the psychology of battle.

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