Saturday, July 15, 2017

Band of brothers

When I retired from teaching I went through the history section of my library culling out those books that I was unlikely to consult or read again. That turned out to be about half of that collection. Most of those books were donated. One I kept was John Keegan's The Face of Battle (1976). Keegan was one of the best military historians of the 20th century. This book, however, is not typical military history. The flyleaf explains:
In this major and wholly original contribution to military history, John Keegan reverses the usual convention of writing about war in terms of generals and nations in conflict, which tend to leave the common soldier as cipher. Instead he focuses on what a set battle is like for the man in the thick of it—his fears, his wounds and their treatment, the mechanics of being taken prisoner, the nature of leadership at the most junior level, the role of compulsion in getting men to stand their ground, the intrusions of cruelty and compassion, the very din and blood.
He wrote about the experience of the infantryman. He did so by examining several battles that took place in nearly the same geographic space but in very different eras.
Chapter 2: Agincourt, October 25, 1415
Chapter 3: Waterloo, June 18, 1815
Chapter 4: The Somme, July 1, 1916
Technology had changed a lot over time. But in some respects the experience of the soldier on the ground had not. I've never been in the military and have no personal experience to judge by. I lent the book to a teacher friend who is a Korean War infantry veteran. When he returned it there was quite a bit of underlining and marginalia — in pencil, but I'm not inclined to erase any of it. He also included this note:
Jim, Thank you for letting me read this. I found it profoundly true — the first I've read that really tried to explore the fears and forces working on infantrymen in battle. It was not easy for me to read through because it awakened long soothed fears and anxieties and some memories that had been covered over by the passing years.
From Chapter 1:
...[O]rdinary soldiers do not think of themselves, in life-and-death situations, as subordinate members of whatever formal military organization it is to which authority has assigned them, but as equals within a very tiny group—perhaps no more than six or seven men. They are not exact equals, of course, because at least one of them will hold junior military rank and he—though perhaps another, naturally stronger character—will be looked to for leadership. But it will not be because of his or anyone else's leadership that the group members will begin to fight and continue to fight. It will be, on the one hand, for personal survival, which individuals will recognize to be bound up with group survival, and, on the other, for fear of incurring by cowardly conduct the group's contempt. ....
My friend underlined these lines, quoted by Keegan from S.L.A. Marshall's Men Against Fire:
...[M]en are commonly loath that their fear will be expressed in specific acts which their comrades will recognize as cowardice. .... When a soldier...known to the men who are around him, he...has reason to fear losing the one thing he is likely to value more highly than life — his reputation as a man among other men.
In the margin: "TRUE!"

I'm glad I kept this one.