Facing up to the Face of Battle, Pt. II

Continued thoughts on Keegan’s Face of Battle and its influence on recent early modern military history.

Why so little influence?

Additional examples of early modern Keeganesque publications could undoutedly be unearthed, but I believe the overall disparity between FoB‘s reputation and its imitators is real. So now we need an explanation or two. I think the muted interest in Keegan’s “rhetoric of battle history,” and even of his social history of battle, says more about the discipline of military history than of the irrelevance of Keegan’s idea.

  1. Military historians are, by-and-large, still a traditional bunch. We still tend to impose universalistic (i.e. Western), modern professional models of decision-making on military actors (e.g. Alfred Burne’s Inherent Military Probability), and only recently have we started seriously considering other motives for action. Assuming that a field general would act as a modern general might make sense for 19C America, but whether it applies to 17C aristocratic France is another question altogether. Probably the most ‘impactful’ contribution to this discussion in EMEMH would be the various scholars working on the history of the military book, such as Mark Danley and David Lawrence and Ira Gruber. Even here, however, military historians seem to be more interested in how the practices they describe differ from the real battlefield as the rhetorical strategies used in the manuals.
  2. I think Keegan’s discussion of rhetoric and even of the battlefield experience itself is historiographically out-of-tune with what Anglo military historians of the late 20C/early 21C are interested in. Its reception, if not its foundation, was undoubtedly driven not only by Keegan’s interest in what battle is really like, but also by the mid-20C century fashion for social history, telling the history of those who had no voice. In our case, the grunt in the mud. Importantly, many other exemplars of this ‘new military history’ were rejected by many traditional military historians – if anything, their claim to be the new-and-improved study of war led to a backlash among military historians, particularly when ‘war and society’ works rarely studied the actual fighting. (Check out the various articles and prefaces of traditional military history and war and society works published in the 1980s and 1990s for a flavor of how each side viewed the other.) Admittedly, Keegan’s social history of war didn’t leave the fighting out, but that doesn’t mean we’ve assimilated his conceptual framework, or even his subject matter. We continue to focus on tactics, nodding towards the soldier’s experience, but not putting it at the center of our work. I think we still tend to follow the other rhetorical features of the battle piece as well, when we think of morale in the singular – at most unit-wide, and when battlefield studies still operate on the assumption that leadership is a (if not the) key ingredient in success. Military historians want to explain success after all, a point explicitly made in K. Kagan’s The Eye of Command riposte. A social history of combat starts with a different goal. Contrast the top-down approach of your average battlefield study – even one that notes how command decisions and tactical realities influence the individual soldier’s experience – with the perspective taken by social history, which emphasizes the importance of agency for even low-status individuals. Early modern European military history still has extremely few studies of the voices from the ranks, compared with commander biographies; the Tolstoyian view of battle was long ago dismissed by most military historians. While military history’s top-down perspective is certainly reinforced by the lack of individual soldier accounts, this same lacunae didn’t prevent social historians of past generations from unearthing unorthodox sources – trial transcripts, wills and testaments, economic documents – and developing new methodologies in order to get a glimpse of how the subjects sought to understand their experience on their own terms (or as close to unmediated as is possible). I think the archetypical case study for a social military history would be mutinies (agency and all that), yet I know of only one work that takes this approach head on, an edited collection at that: Jane Hathaway, ed., Rebellion, Repression, Reinvention: Mutiny in Comparative Perspective (Westport, CT, 2001). Considering the volume of existing courts martial records, that no one has done a serious study is indicative of the difference in outlook between the two fields. This may also be a particularly-Anglo tendency: the French have spent decades writing about military-civilian interactions (Corvisier on soldier statistics, J-P Bois on veterans…), while the Germans have written many books and articles on the interaction between garrisons and townspeople, for example. (I don’t know if alltagsgeschichte – everyday history – has made its way to early modern German military history or not.) But perhaps we shouldn’t be that surprised about our lack of interest in the social history of battle: how important was Keegan’s ‘social history of warfare’ approach (i.e. military history from below) to his own, later works? I can’t answer that question very well since I’ve only read a couple of his post-FoB works, but what I have read seems to easily fit within traditional military history pre-FoB, with the exception of his book Soldiers.
  3. Keegan’s battle history rhetoric was also a perfect fit with the cultural history wave of the 1990s, but most military historians have been equally hesitant to jump on that bandwagon, particularly with its whiff of postmodernism. To the extent that military historians are comfortable with culture, they use it as an explanatory variable rather than a method: culture expressed either in terms of a ‘clash of civilizations’ model (Keegan’s A History of Warfare, Hanson’s Western Way of War, Parker’s Military Revolution), or else by the application of a period’s zeitgeist to military matters (Gat’s Origins of Military Thought, Lynn’s Battle). The first of these two schools has found itself under unremitting attack, while the second tends to be a boring yet widely-accepted default on a far smaller scale (Re: the Military Enlightenment). Fundamentally, military historians want to know the answer to a very practical question: why did one side win and the other lose? When the answer doesn’t involve tactical advantages and military leadership, the most popular response in the Anglo historiography is a focus on military administration and finance – check out the Bibliography tag for my overview of monographs from the 2000s. Anglo military historians are likely to explain the practical question of military victory with one or more equally practical answers. But there is a whiff of change in the air. The new Warfare and Culture series from NYU Press encourages the combination of the traditional and the cultural, so hopefully we’ll see more exploration of the intersection of these two approaches.
  4. One aspect of this traditionalism is the lack of comfort with theory and even method. The military historiography’s reaction against the cultural turn in the mid-1990s, and John Lynn’s attempt to co-opt its sexiness while refusing to surrender to its silliness, is interesting reading if you haven’t read it already. In some respects I share this discomfort, but this influences how we interpret sources and how we think and talk about historical arguments. One result of the traditional military history mindset is a focus on the real and a dismissal of the imagined as irrelevant – as we see in the lack of traction Lynn’s distinction between real and imagined war has received thus far (from his Battle book). We read the sources to find the nuggets of truth within them; we care less about what their phrasings tell us about how contemporaries thought, their mentalité. (If you rolled your eyes as you read my smidgen of French vocabulary, you’ve proven my point.) Military historians are much less interested in descriptions of reality than uncovering the reality itself: constructed identities and ‘weapons of the weak’ account for little with a bayonet sticking in your guts, they would say. All this means that we might understand and even agree with Keegan’s diagnosis of the rhetoric of battle history, but we are not surprised, nor our interest piqued, nor are we eager to show off our methodological sophistication by parroting it to our colleagues (except me apparently). We skip over it because that’s not what we’re looking for: we want the answer to the question of what battle is like, not what’s standing in our way. Even for Keegan, I get the sense that the “rhetoric of battle history” is a problem, not an analytical structure to be applied widely. Once you are aware of the rhetoric of battle history, you can overcome it and get to the Truth. Problematizing the battlefield experience is the last thing military historians want. Military historiography prefers the direct approach.
  5. Answering the more specific question of why Keegan’s rhetoric of battle history idea hasn’t been explored, more mundane disciplinary practices also play a role. One concrete product of our apathy towards theoretical approaches is that we military historians don’t, for example, use shorthand phrases for different methodological approaches or concepts, whether it’s close reading or thick description or agency or what have you. Clausewitz’s “friction” and his “trinity” are about as close as we come to buzzwords, and often those are only trotted out in passing, as a necessary kowtow to the Great Clausewitz. We tend not to talk like other socially/culturally-minded historians do. If we did talk like those other historians, I would bet money that we would talk more about Keegan’s “rhetoric of battle history” idea rather than just latch onto his generic metaphor of the “face of battle” – he served the former term up on a platter after all, with quotes and everything, at the very beginning of his section on the ‘Battle Piece’ (p. 36).  But we just don’t talk about our history that way. Lynn’s “battle culture of forbearance” is one of the most commonly used examples of a conceptual category of tactical military analysis, but it sees little use despite its utility, even though Lynn has used the term in a whole variety of publications.
  6. As a concrete example, it’s worth noting that Keegan’s phrase didn’t resonate for me until long after I had read it the first few times: it required several convergent trends from both teaching and research, combined with a serendipitous rereading. The idea of a rhetoric of siege history didn’t appear in my dissertation, and I was only reminded of the phrase when I taught the chapter for my first ‘European Warfare 1337-1815’ course: thinking about it from a student’s perspective, I realized that this was a useful term that encompasses the idea that how we talk about things shapes how we think about them (an insight not original to Keegan I know). My insistence that students pay careful attention to the argument being made by an author was reinforced by my authoring an introduction to argument mapping, a reading approach which emphasized paying close attention to the language used by scholars (you sometimes have to try several different wordings before you figure out the phrasing that best represents the author’s argument). Further, having students analyze primary sources from early modern Europe semester-after-semester also forced me to alert students to the slipperiness of early modern English, which heightens one’s sensitivity to meaning. A new-found attention to argumentation and a sustained focus on primary source analysis in the teaching realm also coincided with my revisions to the dissertation manuscript. I had just recently finished writing about how historians always describe early modern sieges as scientific, predictable and ritualized, which leads to all sorts of misconceptions about siegecraft. Plus, I was trying to come up with a more ‘meta’ argument about siege and battle for my book, to find an equivalent to engineering efficiency, when I realized with embarrassment that the English had been using the term “vigor” everywhere and I hadn’t even noticed it before. An emerging attention to language and an emphasis on method (I had just finished the appendices in VuS) primed me to latch onto Keegan’s rhetoric of battle history. My attention to language has been further reinforced of late by the need to identify productive search terms when mining large corpora of digitized sources, and I’d guess this will be more and more common as the digital humanities spread beyond the digerati. I have no idea if this is a unique set of experiences or not, but I am certain that far too few EMEMHians explicitly talk about methods. That’s one of the reasons such discussions are a mainstay of this blog.
  7. There are other possible reasons why the FoB hasn’t led to an avalanche of works, at least for the early modern world. Most practically, there aren’t a ton of sources available “from below.” So it’s no surprise that those few works on the subject have involved well-sourced wars: Carlton’s Going to the Wars for the English Civil Wars, Spring’s With Zeal and Bayonets Only for the American Revolution, and Muir’s Tactics and the Experience of Battle for the Napoleonic era. A few war and society surveys have also included sections on the subject. As discussed in #2 above, however, this doesn’t explain why military historians haven’t attempted to adopt methods or source genres used by social history. Perhaps, as I speculated at one conference, it seems weird for military historians to ignore the 95% of the sources (written by officers, planners, diplomats…) and just focus on the 5% written by those in the ranks, especially when early modern bureaucracies created SO MANY detailed sources to explore.
  8. Another possible practical explanation is that once someone’s written a book on the battlefield experience in the American Revolution, for example, there probably isn’t much need for a second. Assuming that there are a limited number of primary sources to begin with, they’ll likely get used up in the first book on the subject. So unless an argument emerges from the original work, we really only ‘need’ one work for each period, or at most each war. This explanation, however, assumes that arguing about the soldiers isn’t as important as arguing about why commander X won battle Y – if it’s considered important enough, an argument will ensue regardless of the availability of evidence. This explanation further relies on the fact that military historians are far less willing to apply broad theoretical models to the past: have any military historians written a Foucauldian or Saidian analysis of early modern military discipline?

Those are my thoughts on why Keegan’s FoB is far less influential than one might expect.

I won’t end these posts with a call to arms – it really is intended merely as my self-reflective description of recent military historiography. And I should add a mea culpa that I am personally far less interested in researching the experience of the individual soldier than answering many of the traditional questions asked by military historians: why did one side win and another lose? But I think it’s useful to occasionally step back and take stock of our field, of its varying schools and debates. And the death of one of its major figures provides a good catalyst to do so.

I would make one plea, however. Even if we don’t think a social history of battle is the most important subject to study, I think we need to pay more attention to how contemporaries (and historians) talk about battle and its siblings, and how these rhetorical choices influence our (and their) perception of the reality of combat, in the army, and on the home front. The cultural ‘discourse’ of war and combat deserves a lot more attention than it’s received thus far, a fact Keegan recognized 35 years ago.




3 responses to “Facing up to the Face of Battle, Pt. II”

  1. Gavin Robinson says :

    I think you’re right that FoB is too radical for a lot of traditional military historians, but at the same time it could have been much more radical than it was. Literary theory is highly relevant to the analysis of any kind of rhetoric, and there was a lot of it about in the early 70s, even if some of it is now obsolete. Keegan could have brought narratology, semiotics or deconstruction into military history, but he didn’t. Gender is also likely to be relevant to battle rhetoric, and feminism definitely existed when he was writing, but I don’t think he had much to say about that. His focus on soldiers’ minds seems to me to be of its time. I suspect that it’s at least indirectly influenced by Collingwood’s idealism (another obsolete theory to add to the list).

  2. Erik Lund says :

    My own sense is that if battle is a social experience, narratively constructed by its participants, than we can analyse it politically. So where do we go from there? The reductively cynical take on a political event is that we break it down in terms of benefits to participants.

    And that’s where, I think, military history hits a road block. It’s all very well to talk about generals in this light, but what about the guy who gets bayonetted? It is very difficult to recast our analysis from talking about people who risk dying for the good of us all, per our narrative of soldier as sacrificial victim, to people who are talking up the favour they’re about to cash in. Really, who wants to see some sad victim of PTSD or worse, like today’s example in that light?

    • jostwald says :

      On the one hand, ‘every soldier a hero’ is still extremely powerful here in the US. On the other hand, it should be a bit easier to separate actions from motivations since:

        we’ve had a rash of people cashing in on their pretended status as vets, sometimes claiming medals. In fact, I recall several years back a prof was busted after regaling his students with made-up tales of his military service.
        Many servicemen and women clearly enlist for financial reasons, whether it’s to get job skills, or a college education.
        Not to mention the fact that so few of our congressmen and women have had military service (or at least service in theater) – even our recent presidents.

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