This week, Michael Taylor, Associate Professor of History at SUNY Albany, returns to offer a continuation of his look at the work of British military historian John Keegan. Last time, he discussed Keegan’s most famous work, The Face of Battle, while this week Michael turns to discuss what he argues is one of Keegan’s best works, The Mask of Command. We discussed in the past the non-universality of the battle experience, but as Keegan argued and Michael discusses here, command too was non-universal, shaped not only by what we might term ‘archtypes’ of command, but within those archetypes shaped by cultural expectations and technological realities.
And with that, over to Michael…
John Keegan achieved widespread prominence with his The Face of Battle, and he capitalized on his academic fame by publishing a series of books, aimed at a wide reading audience. The quality of these books was mixed. His History of Warfare fails in no small part because his personal breadth of knowledge fell short of the encyclopedic breadth that such a project required. His treatment of the American Civil War was so riddled with basic errors that it suffered a polite if subtly scathing review from James McPherson, a professed admirer of Keegan. Some of these failures stem from the hazards of Keegan’s scholarly profile as a general military historian, not embedded in any particular temporal specialization. The Face of Battle saunters over 400 years of history between Agincourt and the Somme. This formula worked well for him again with his Mask of Command, which ranks among Keegan’s best works. Keegan’s topic was military leadership, which was arguably the author’s vocation: he was until 1986 (at which point he retired to pursue a career as a writer and journalist) a professor at the British military academy at Sandhurst, teaching future UK military officers.
Even if few people actually serve in the army, and only a very small portion of these achieve positions of high command, many people find themselves in leadership positions of one sort or another. Far more people have aspirations to hold positions of authority. Consequently, books on military leadership are a dime a dozen, and most of them are terrible. This is particularly true for books that claim to mobilize historic leaders as models for the present, drek with titles like The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun (yes, this is a book you can actually buy). There is also a robust cottage industry specifically focused on “leadership lessons of Alexander the Great,” generally by authors who are not experts in ancient Greek, Macedonian and Achaemenid history.
Keegan’s book is a rare exception, profitably read by military historians and ambitious assistants to the regional manager. The key insight of Keegan’s work, however, is that the leadership lessons of great commanders are not easily replicated because leadership is highly contextual. The parameters of successful leadership are shaped not only by political, social and cultural expectations, but also by material ones: Keegan is very interested in the book about the technologies leaders have to process information and communicate their orders, as well as the lethality of of the battlefield that determines how worthwhile it is for them to make a personal appearance on the front line. One cannot just practice the leadership lessons of Alexander the Great unless your followers are fourth century BC Macedonians and you are operating in a fourth century BC battlespace.
Keegan, as with The Face of Battle, was reacting against several intellectual trends in the field of military history and strategic studies, which he felt had decentered leadership. Firstly, he argued the social sciences, interested in macro-trends, devalued leadership in grand historical narratives. Indeed, by the late 20th century it was difficult to speak about a decisive or effective leader without being accused of falling into a discredited “Great Man” theory of history. But Keegan also believed that the field of strategic studies, one heavily informed by the social sciences, had discounted generalship in favor of viewing wars around the sterile deployment of societal resources, unmoored from the touch of human leaders. On such a theory, one should be able to simply tally up the resources of two powers and predict which would win the war, just as one might predict the outcome of a sports game by compiling the stats of the two teams. But sports fans know the decisions of coaches and quarterbacks count for a great deal, even if baseline prowess is far from meaningless. The United States had far more resources at every level than the rebellious Confederate States, in terms of demography, agriculture, and industrial output. But it is also impossible to think of these resources being deployed to their maximum effect without first the Presidential leadership of Abraham Lincoln; on the battlefield the Union war effort reached its devastating crescendo with the appointment of Grant as Lieutenant General.1
Focusing on the variable of personal courage and exposure to battlefield danger, Keegan produced four types: the heroic leader, the anti-heroic leader, the un-heroic leader and the false heroic leader. He then pigeon-holed each of the four profiles into this schema: Alexander the Great is the classic heroic case. The Duke of Wellington is presented as anti-heroic, whose exposure to danger, while sometimes quite stark, was incidental to the activities necessary to command and control. Ulysses S. Grant is presented as the un-heroic leader, a technocrat deliberately operating in the rear, whose exposure to fire was occasional and accidental. Finally, Keegan ends on a study in failure: Adolf Hitler as the false heroic leader, who presented himself as the fearless avatar of his people, even as he cowered in his bunker while leading his nation to utter ruin.
I first read Keegan’s book as an undergraduate in the early 2000s, when the 9/11 attacks had prompted a renewed interest in military history, and Keegan as one of the most respected established experts. Re-reading it since becoming a specialist in ancient history, it is fair to say his chapter on Alexander the Great is the weakest. Keegan has the rather annoying tendency to fill in many of the gaps in our knowledge with florid prose. He under-estimated the impact of Macedonian heavy cavalry due to the now widely discredited notion that they were ineffective without stirrups. These make lance wielding cavalry more effective, but it is clear from experimental archaeology that skilled riders on ancient saddles could wield cavalry lances (xystoi) to deadly effect.
Quibbles aside, the basic argument that Keegan makes about Alexander is correct. Alexander practiced “heroic” mode of leadership where after setting up a carefully considered battle plan, he then charged forward and spent most of the battle personally fighting and killing, and in many instances coming damn close to getting killed himself. This risky plan worked for Alexander because his personal combat fulfilled the social and cultural expectations of the Macedonians, especially Alexander’s elite hetairoi (Companions). The aristocrats, as their name implied, were close peers of the king. Many had been raised alongside Alexander, and drank, ate, slept, hunted alongside him, a relationship that was close and extremely competitive. The hetairoi themselves expected Alexander to lead by example at the point of maximum danger. If Alexander charged into the fray, he could expect his hetairoi to follow close behind, a fact that allowed Alexander to steer his broader army: his charge brought the hammer blow of the Macedonian cavalry down precisely where he wanted it to fall. Alexander to his credit did not pursue random combats, but rather plunged head first into the vulnerable point in the shifting Persian line, which he had a rather preternatural talent in identifying. As John Ma has noted, Alexander’s heroic leadership worked because of his ability to catalyze the complicated combined arms force that he led into a well-coordinated battle plan.2 Alexander charged; his hyper-elite bodyguards (somatophylakes) followed to try and keep him alive best they could; his hetairoi cavalry cavalry followed; the hypaspists (“shield bearers) tied the phalanx into the cavalry, and the phalanx fixed the main Persian force long enough for Alexander to identify a promising gap and plunge into it. Alexander’s personal verve and royal charisma focused the entire tactical system.
Keegan ultimately takes a dim view of Alexander, a destroyer with little political vision beyond his own aggrandizement. And Keegan notes that because Alexander’s heroic style of leadership worked well for him within a very specific social, cultural, and tactical context, it was widely imitated throughout history, but to far less effect. Indeed, while Keegan does not indulge in further discussion of Hellenistic history (that is, Greek history after Alexander), it is worth noting that attempts by Alexander’s successors to imitate Alexander’s heroics on the battlefield consistently proved disastrous. Demetrius Poliorcetes led an Alexander style cavalry charge at the battle of Ipsus (301 BC) and became over absorbed in the pursuit of the fleeing enemy. Behind him, his main phalanx was overwhelmed, and his own father, Antigonus One-Eyed, was killed. The Seleucid king Antiochus the Great made the same mistake twice in his career, once at the battle of Raphia (217) and again at the Battle of Magnesia (190); in both instances becoming so involved in his personally led cavalry charge that he was oblivious to the collapse of the rest of his line. Alexander’s heroic mask worked for him alone.3
Leaving behind the ancient world, Keegan hits his stride returning to a topic he knows very well, the Napoleonic Wars: the Battle of Waterloo had been the first case study in The Face of Battle. Keegan characterized Wellington’s leadership style as “anti-heroic.” Since Keegan wrote in 1986, the term “anti-hero,” thanks to the Golden Age of Television, has taken on the connotation of “sympathetic even fascinating character who nonetheless does very bad things,” as in Tony Soprano or Walter White. This is not what Keegan has in mind with the moniker. Rather, the terms points towards the notion that Wellington often took considerable risk on the battlefield, exposing himself to enemy fire, but did not do so out of any heroic performance, but rather because such risks and dangers were incidental to his role as a battle manager.4
In Keegan’s telling, Wellington was an effective battle manager largely because he was a micromanager. Keegan describes Wellington’s cognitive ability to quickly process information and generate plans and orders. Like Alexander, he had an excellent sense for the kairos, the right moment to attack when the enemy accidentally opened a gap in its line. Micromanaging might not work for every leader, but it worked well for Wellington. And it could be very dangerous, as he routinely conducted leader’s recons close to the enemy, and during the heat of battle moved from crisis point to crisis point, shoring up troops and deploying reserves. The nature of late-18th communications meant that Wellington often had to get close to the fighting indeed to control events and cut through the fog of war. Keegan rather deprecates the value of the telescope, as field telescopes only had a magnification of 3x or 4x, although throughout the chapter we find Wellington often staring through his. Keegan largely ignores another information technology available to Wellington that Alexander lacked: the map, such as the one he borrowed from his host when he learned of Napoleon’s approach before Waterloo.
But there was a key difference from Alexander: when the Macedonian king risked his life in combat, he lost control of events, and had to hope that his pre-arranged battle plan would function. Wellington risked his life in order to maintain control of events as contingencies arose. Keegan does not think Wellington was trying to show off, as Alexander undoubtedly was, and identifies a telling difference: Alexander’s reckless courage extended to sieges; he was nearly killed in India when the ladder broke behind him leaving him isolated inside the city’s battlements. Wellington abstained from personal involvement in sieges, where the general’s personal exposure made no difference in the brutal and chaotic combat involved in storming through a breach.
Keegan shifts forward some fifty years to Ulysses S. Grant, whose leadership style Keegan dubs the “Un-Heroic.” He does not imply Grant was a coward, but rather that circumstances had changed in a way that did not reward the exposed battle micromanagement Wellington had engaged in. The increased range and accuracy of the rifled musket made the front far more dangerous to generals, as the death of so many high ranking commanders in the conflict demonstrated. Furthermore, new technologies allowed war to be scaled up. The telegraph allowed for orders to be transmitted quickly over distances, while the railroad and steamboat opened both logistical possibilities but also required new echelons of strategic management.
Grant began the war as an operational commander in Tennessee. Here, like Wellington, he sometimes came under fire while managing his forces, including at the Battle of Shiloh, where he personally led regiments forward under fire. Throughout the war he was often close enough to the front that shells exploded dangerously close to him on several occasions, but by and large, Grant led from the rear.
Grant was effective at his task in part because he was adept at using a staff; he encouraged a casual atmosphere in his headquarters where his staff freely conversed with and around him: this allowed him to communicate his expectations in detail, but also allowed him to casually collect knowledge from his staff, both about operational elements as well as the mood of the army. Importantly, Grant knew his place: he served the President of the United States. The excellent working relationship Grant had with Abraham Lincoln was a critical aspect of the “Un-Heroic” mode. Grant knew that at the end of the day, he was a subordinate with a job to do.
Keegan ends on a note of horrific failure: Adolf Hitler, “the False Heroic” leader, who cowered in his bunker as the tide of war turned badly against him, all the while presenting himself as the intrepid personification of the German nation. The paradox of Hitler’s false-heroic mask was that Hitler had displayed very real personal courage during the First World War. He had been awarded the Iron Cross, suffered a shrapnel wound, and been gassed. Keegan cannot resist a bit of psychoanalysis on Hitler, noting that the Austrian outcast had briefly found social acceptance and belonging in a regiment mostly manned by members of the German upper middle class, before they were shot to pieces, reducing him after the war to a socially isolated survivor. Regardless, Hitler could claim real acts of valor in his youth, and in theory this could have given him permission to sit back and engage in strategic leadership of the unheroic sort. Hitler took the opposite track, parlaying his war-time heroism into a bizarre vision of himself as the mystic avatar of the German people.
For a while this worked for Hitler. German society, like much of Europe, had been profoundly militarized prior to World War I. A generation of young men were accustomed to positioning themselves within a martial hierarchy. Disastrous defeat in 1918 had discredited the traditional officer class, creating a void in which Hitler’s mystic avatar could metastasize. This was sufficient for Hitler to win a narrow plurality in 1932, to be seen as politically useful for the aging Hindenburg, and to seize absolute power after his death.
But a false heroic leader was ill suited for the new realities of maneuver warfare. Germany pioneered a form of mobile warfare, blitzkrieg, in which events happened very quickly and where the initiative of officers at every echelon was necessary. Such warfare required a combination of strategic vision at the very top combined with a willingness to leave a great number of operational details to others. But Hitler made the mistake of believing the ideological construct he had built around his leadership; he was, as the kids say, high on his own supply. The practical result was that Hitler ruthlessly indulged in micromanagement. Tactical micromanagement had worked well for Wellington, who could move across battlefields that spanned kilometers. But it was a very inefficient way to fight a global war. In 1938, Hitler had established himself as supreme commander of the armed forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht). His 1939-40 victories only escalated his own confidence in his own decision making. In 1941, he made two disastrous decisions: to invade the Soviet Union and to declare war on the United States. The deteriorating situation by 1942/43 only prompted him to further hamstring his subordinates and insert himself into low level tactical decisions: Keegan focuses on Hitler’s magical thinking during the closing phase of the Stalingrad campaign in which he insisted on holding positions even as it became clear the beleaguered Sixth Army would be destroyed. But Hitler micromanaged from a vast distance, as he had for his own security established himself in the first of several closeted bunker complexes in 1941; he ceased visits to the front in his armored train in that year as well. Hitler never made the sort of global diplomatic journeys that the Big Three undertook, and his protracted failure to “touch grass” took a toll on both his situational awareness and psychological well-being, producing by the bitter end the paranoid, delusional caricature of a leader who shot himself in his bunker in 1945.
A consistent theme for Keegan had been how technology transformed the possibilities of leadership. Alexander’s heroic form worked where the command and control technologies were sufficiently primitive that not too much was lost when Alexander indulged in heroic performance rather than battle management (although the most successful ancient commanders, including Alexander’s father Philip II, and later Romans like Scipio Africanus and Julius Caesar were very much battle managers more like Wellington than Alexander). Furthermore, weapons were not so ranged and lethal that Alexander was guaranteed a certain death if he led from the front, although the king’s close calls were famous. By the Napoleonic wars, Wellington’s gunpowder armies were still of a size that Wellington’s battle micromanagement might be profitable, but the increased lethality of ranged weapons dramatically increased the hazards of exposure. By the US Civil War, new technologies of communications in the telegraph and railroad opened new strategic horizons, even as the increased range of rifles made battlefield exposure all the more risky: 128 generals were killed during the US Civil War, more than 1 in 10 men who obtained the rank. Hitler’s false heroism was driven both by the possibility of ill conceived micromanagement on a grand scale through radio and telephones, while the dangers of aerial raids kept him penned up in fortified command posts.
Keegan was also aware of the politics behind the public persona of each general. Alexander’s theatrical style, often emotional to the point of histrionics, worked because Alexander himself was a monarch, always the center of royal pageantry. Wellington’s reticence was that of an English gentleman, quietly confident in his class status under a constitutional monarch. Grant was an appointed general serving under a democratically elected President. Keegan only tangentially considers Wellington and Grants’ post-war political trajectories, as Wellington would become Prime Minister and Grant President. Hitler’s callow narcissism was deeply rooted in both his fundamentally embittered persona, but enabled by the fact that he was a totalitarian dictator.
Keegan concludes with musing about the “post-heroic” leader. Writing in 1986, in the tail end of the Cold War, Keegan considered the need of a leader to not only abjure personal heroics, but even to find a way to reject the temptations of victory all together and pursue de-escalation in the face of the insane logic of nuclear mutually assured destruction. Keegan himself was hardly a peacenik: once the nuclear threat waned, Keegan proved major booster for the Iraq War (2003-2011), a war where George W. Bush flirted with the “False Heroic,” by landing on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit, declaring “mission accomplished” in a war that would last another eight years.
In the nearly four decades since Keegan wrote have given us iterations on his types. One is struck looking at the famous photograph of Barack Obama during the Bin Ladin raid; Obama as Commander in Chief in many ways encapsulated Keegan’s paradigm of “un-heroic” leadership. By 2011, technology had progressed to the point that the President and his national security team could monitor a few squads of elite troops in real time half-way across the globe. But it allowed monitoring without micromanaging: the photo captures a president who, having personally approved and authorized the raid, is now hunched in a corner as an observer to events he could no longer control.
Meanwhile, it is striking the extent that the False Heroic kitsch is still with us, especially among dictators and authoritarians: Vladimir Putin notoriously issues images of himself riding horses and engaging in other outdoor activities. While he avoided the Vietnam War due to bone spurs, Donald Trump’s most fanatic followers often depict him little differently from Hitler in The Standard Bearer.
We also have seen the closest thing to heroic leadership from Vodoymyr Zelensky. Unlike Alexander, Zelensky, an elected President in a fledgling democracy, does not fight in the trenches, although he often visits troops quite close to the front.5 But Zelensky in the early days of the war refused to flee Kyiv, even though the Russians would have certainly killed him had they captured the city. His flight would have likely triggered the collapse of the Ukrainian state, while his social media posts from the presidential office after air raids were an early indicator of Ukrainian resilience. Even in the 21st century, a heroic mode is possible.
- Today the rank of Lieutenant General (three stars) is now the second highest rank in the US Army, and there are currently 37 Lieutenant General billets. But Grant was appointed as the Lieutenant General, outranking all other generals and reporting directly to Lincoln.
- John Ma, 2013. “Alexander’s decision-making as a historical problem” Revue d’Études Militaires Anciennes 6, 113-125.
- Imitation of Alexander was not limited to his battlefield performance. Hellenisitic kings sought to mimic his haughty attitude, his pose with a slightly cocked head, and his purple robes (Plutarch Life of Pyrrhus 8.1; Life of Demetrius 18.3). For the most complete study of Alexander’s impact on the visual culture of the Hellenistic world, see the classic work by the late Andrew Stewart Faces of Power (Berkeley 1994).
- Ed.: The term ‘Battle Manager’ is one I’m fond of to describe the role of the general in a battle (particularly those who don’t take direct part in the fighting) and comes from E. Wheeler, “The General As Hoplite” in Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience (1993). The concept illustrates both the extent and the limits of the general’s ability to command: the battle is ‘managed’ not micro-managed nor orchestrated, a sort of barely-under-direction chaos over which the general’s control remains decidedly imperfect and yet wholly necessary.
- Ed.: And makes a point of dressing in what we might describe as ‘campaign dress’ to underscore the idea that he is as close to ‘in the trenches’ as he can be as a democratic leader. If that seems strange, it is worth noting that Churchill did the same thing from time to time during the Second World War. I find the effort to ridicule Zelensky’s olive-green mode of dress in some corners of the West a more than a bit odd: for one, it is obviously successful in its intended purpose. For another, it is hardly like Kyiv is safe as it faces regular cruise missile attacks.