Face Of Battle

John Keegan

Created on Friday, May 3, 2013.
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An examination of the act of warfighting and its effect on people, and how the act and those effects have changed (or not changed) over time.

 

[…] it is possible to argue that while the mechanization of armies has produced a revolution in warfare, the real consequence, its effective potential for change, is not material but psychological; that tanks, in short, should be thought of not so much as weapons but as theatrical devices, dei ex machina, by the manoeuvring of which a General is enabled so to manipulate the emotions, so to stimulate the responses of his army that its resistance to movement is overcome, its tendency to self-protection transcended and its normal rhythm of campaigning shattered by the imposition of a higher object than that of holding one’s ground, driving the enemy off one’s front or even registering an incontestable victory. That higher object is the rescue of comrades in danger.

 

The armoured thrust, on the other hand, offers a general the chance both to titillate his soldiers’ sense of solidarity with comrades at risk and to control the degree of risk to which they are exposed.

 

]…] it is possible to say that the tank, though it has transformed the pace and appearance of modern campaigning, has not changed the nature of battle. The focus of fighting may be shifted twenty miles in a single day by an armoured thrust but wherever it comes to rest there must take place exactly the same sort of struggle between man and man which battle-fields have seen since armies came into being.

 

What battles have in common is human: the behaviour of men struggling to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation, their sense of honour and the achievement of some aim over which other men are ready to kill them.

 

The longbows of the Agincourt archers, the muskets of the Waterloo infantrymen were very effective agents for the temporary transformation of an airspace of modest dimensions into an atmosphere of high lethality. But modest and temporary are the important qualifications. By the beginning of the First World War, soldiers possessed the means to maintain a lethal environment over wide areas for sutained periods. Hence the titles of some of the wars most deeply felt novels, Le Feu (Under Fire) by Henri Barbusse, A Man Could Stand Up by Ford Madox Ford and In Stahlgewittern (Storm of Steel) by Ernst Jünger, through which each of these soldier-authors sought to convey in a phrase to their readers what it was about the new warfare which made it different from all other warfare men had hitherto experienced: that it marooned them, as it were, on an undiscovered continent, where one layer of the air on which they depended for life was charged with lethal metallic particles, where man in consequence was forced to adopt a subterranean dwelling and an abject posture, where the use of day and night were reversed and where, by a bizarre modification of Erewhonian logic, good health was regarded as a burden, but wounds as a benefaction to be sought and enjoyed. It was as if the arms-manufacturers had succeeded in introducing a new element into the atmosphere, compounded of fire and steel, whose presence rendered battlefields uninhabitable (giving them that eerily empty look which, to an experienced twentieth-century soldier, is a prime indicator that danger lies all about).

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