Obituary: John Keegan / Historian who put a face on war

May 15, 1934 - Aug. 2, 2012

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Sir John Keegan, an Englishman widely considered to be the pre-eminent military historian of his era and the author of more than 20 books, including the masterwork "The Face of Battle," died Thursday at his home in Kilmington, England. He was 78.

His death was announced in The Telegraph, where he had served as the defense editor. No cause of death was given, though Con Coughlin, the paper's executive foreign editor, said in an email that Mr. Keegan had died after a long illness.

Mr. Keegan never served in the military. At 13 he contracted orthopedic tuberculosis and spent the next nine years being treated for it, five of them in a hospital, where he used the time to learn Latin and Greek from a chaplain. As he acknowledged in the introduction to "The Face of Battle," he had "not been in a battle, nor near one, nor heard one from afar, nor seen the aftermath."

But he said he learned in 1984 "how physically disgusting battlefields are" and "what it feels like to be frightened" when The Telegraph sent him to Beirut to observe the civil war in Lebanon.

Mr. Keegan's body of work ranged across centuries and continents and, as a whole, traced the evolution of warfare and its destructive technology while acknowledging its constants: the terrors of combat and the psychological toll that soldiers have endured.

He had a keen interest in the United States, receiving a visiting fellowship at Princeton, writing meditations on North American wars and briefing President Bill Clinton in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion in 1994.

Mr. Keegan was particularly concerned with the cultural roots of war, asking, "Why do men fight?" In his classic 1993 study, "A History of Warfare," he argued that military conflict was a cultural ritual from which the modern notion of total war, like in World War I, had been an aberration.

His topics included King Henry V of England, Napoleon and the military machine of Hitler, but he also grappled with warfare in the nuclear age, concluding in "The Face of Battle" that total war was now almost unthinkable. "The suspicion grows that battle has already abolished itself," he wrote.

In "The Iraq War," published in 2004, he followed the technological revolution in warfare with the introduction of computer-guided "smart" weapons. He also rendered a political judgment, concluding -- with the war still new and yet to be transformed by sectarian conflict and the surge of U.S. troops -- that the invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein was justified.

Probably none of his books was more admired than "The Face of Battle." The Cambridge historian J.H. Plumb called it "so creative, so original" and a "brilliant achievement." A huge publishing success, it launched Mr. Keegan's career as a popular historian.

He examined three battles in the book: Agincourt in 1415, Waterloo in 1815 and the Somme in 1916, all in the northeast corner of France and all involving the English. His tale was somber and compelling on what happens in the heat of battle, including the execution of prisoners.

He was not above a personal note. Describing the horrors at the Somme, where his father was gassed, he appears to grow downhearted, pausing to reflect on how the war's shadow lingers even 70 years later.

John Desmond Patrick Keegan was born on May 15, 1934, in London. During the German blitz in 1940, he was evacuated with other children to Taunton, England, far from the targets of the Luftwaffe bombers. "I had a good war," he wrote, "of a small boy whisked from London at the first wail of sirens."

Taunton became the staging ground for U.S. troops preparing for the invasion of Normandy, and young John became fascinated with the scene. He later wrote of hearing the roar of warplanes in a "great migratory flight" carrying troops to parachute or glide into France on the eve of the attack.

Besides Latin and Greek, he also found time to learn French and, after his recovery, enrolled at Oxford, where he majored in history. After graduating, he went to the United States on a grant to study the Civil War.

Returning to London, he wrote political reports for the U.S. Embassy and was later appointed as a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, England, a post he held for 25 years.

In all his books Sir John proved a master at organization. In "A History of Warfare" he divides the evolution of combat into stages: stone, flesh, iron and fire.

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