The Face of Battle

by Eric Byrd

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As a teenager who just wanted battles, I tried to read The Face of Battle and was baffled by the historiographic argument of Keegan's introduction, a long essay that, I now see, echoes Virginia Woolf's manifesto “Modern Fiction” and applies its prescriptions to historical prose. Keegan called to writers of military history as Woolf called to the novelists of her time – “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected or incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.” Keegan urged historians to turn away from tidy narratives of battle and acknowledge the horizonless confusion experienced by even the best-positioned participants of those battles; urged them to understand that most soldiers don't even know when they are engaged in battle, or at least “battle” as it was understood by the Victorians: a national apotheosis or histrionic downfall; the Hinge of Destiny; and he recommended the historian read and take to heart the chaotic combat scenes in Tolstoy's War and Peace, just as Woolf prescribed Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov to the fiction writer tempted by pat characterization, superficial psychology, all-too-conclusive action, and purely material relations.

Keegan had it in for the “battle piece” – the sonorous, superbly modulated, rhetorical-declamatory mode of recounting battle; the stagey conventions under which all action is directed and decisive, all figures victors or vanquished, steadfast or yielding; a form Romantically colored and full of movement but for all that unable to convey a credible picture of the action, the colliding bodies, and presenting an “extreme uniformity of human behavior” in situations we know to be marked by jarring contrasts and a grotesque simultaneity. In a reading I'm too ignorant to evaluate, Keegan traces the battle piece to Julius Caesar's self-promoting, politically savvy memoirs of the conquest of Gaul (mannequin legions waxing in his presence, waning in his absence), and argues that Greek historians (Xenophon, Thucydides) offer an alternative tradition – one more formally relaxed, decentered and diffuse, and more attentive to the individually wayward responses of men in battle. And when we try to visualize Napoleonic battles, Keegan cautions us to avoid the Salon painting of Second Empire France and Victorian England – the ridiculous CGI of its time, apparently – all those paintings “which by their combination of photographic observation of detail with defiance of physical laws anticipate the work of the Surrealists.” As a contemporary critic, Baudelaire was more harsh, calling exhibitions of battle scenes trade fairs for army contractors, vulgar hubbub of boot- and knapsack-makers; and of the soldier-painter Horace Vernet, Baudelaire said, “I hate this man because his pictures are not painting, but a sort of agile and frequent masturbation, an irritation of the French epidermis.”

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Given the influence I'm told this book has had, Keegan would seem to have succeeded in his effort to convince historians to treat the face of battle as something fugitive and multiform, appearing in many guises to participants variously affected by wounds, sleeplessness, hunger, cold, terror, alcohol, noise, and smoke. I was particularly struck by an account of Waterloo Keegan quotes, that of the British gunner Mercer:

Of what was transacting in the front of the battle we could see nothing, because the ridge in which our first line was posted was much higher than the ground we occupied. Of that line itself we could see only the few squares of infantry immediately next to us, with the intervening batteries. From time to time bodies of cavalry swept over the summit between the squares, and, dispersing on the reverse of the position, vanished again, I know not how.

So appeared the grand French cavalry charges – an epic subject for later painters – to one veteran. The Face of Battle is a classic because Keegan treats battle as a image of life itself – a welter of particulars we suspect must mean something, decide something, must in the end make a shape, a shape about which we hazard guesses and theories and stories. Something is happening to us – over the ridge, through that smoke – just at the edge of our grasp.

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