John Keegan's The Face of Battle

by Jamie Lutton

As a typical tomboy teenager, I lived and died for Science Fiction. My parents eyed my reading tastes thoughtfully, and suggested that I read this popular novelist, or that murder mystery writer. And they both enthusiastically suggested I read literature and poetry. And also try finishing and turning in my homework once in a while, please.

But I was a Science Fiction addict, of the sort you see in bookshops today, who read and reread the genre fiction to the exclusion of all else. Nowadays, as a bookseller, I see people reading just Star War novels, or just Fantasy, or just cyperpunk; a even smaller subset of the general field. I should not 'pick' on SF fans; many readers only read thrillers, or romance; it is depressing when people get in a rut, when there is so many good books out there...

I worry about some of them never reading anything else, and as I like to meddle in others lives, just as my parents worried about me in their day. I take seriously my job of finding books for my customers, and when I see people living in little, tiny, thin 'book ghettos', I urge them to read other genres. I can of course hear my parent's voices when I do this, but life is too short not try new things. Think of drinking only one kind of beverage your whole life. Stale; that is what reading only one kind of book can be, when there is so many choices, cheaply and easily available.....

This title is one of the books I recommend to Science Fiction fans (among others)...

This book was one of the ones that jolted me out of my obsession on SF. I was in college when it came out, and my reading had already broadened somewhat. I had never been a total ignoramus, as my father and mother loved Shakespeare and would take me to plays of all sorts. In fact, my father loved Henry V, and would read me the prologues from that play, on many occasions. Usually, though, my pocket book was a SF book, as I trusted that field for pleasure reading. I made faces when my mother wanted me to read Literature, as I was sure it would be dull. She was the sort of mom who recited T.S. Eliot to me as a bedtime lullaby, so I had great built up resistance to Great Books she picked out for me.

When I picked this book up, when my father tossed it my way, I was captured by the careful description of how the battle of Agincourt (central to Henry V) really played out. In this book, Keegan compares that battle to Waterloo and the Somme (a central battle in World War l). Keegan's dry wit and keen intelligence here held my attention. Even though I had three big brothers who all devoured military history, I had not gotten the bug till I picked this book up, save to duck when they were having a "war" with bombs made of popcycle sticks and other noxious items.

This particular book I would recommend to anyone who likes Shakespeare's History plays, even a little bit. To anyone who is perplexed by military history, in particular how some classic underdog wins like at Agincourt. And also to Science Fiction fans, as they are fed improbable tales in the light stuff they read, and might like reading true improbable tales.

I had not realized, till I picked up Keegan, how the King Henry had pulled off his win at Agincourt. I don't want to spoil it for you - read it yourself, and see how it differs from the play. It is an incredible account.

Keegan went on to write many other military history books, some of which I thought were good, some not, but this was his breakout book, his shortest, and his best. Start with this book, if you are going to try chewing on any military history, and have not read much history, or have much knowledge of how the military mind works.

This book did have a delirious affect on me. I ran around in my twenties and thirties, reading all the military history that fell into my hands. I collected some hundred books on battles and strategy from the times of the Ancient Greeks to World War Two. But when the United States invaded Iraq, for little or no cause as far as I could tell, I brought most of them back into my bookshop, and sold them, as it was not so much fun anymore. In particular, the battles of the Roman Empire. It was a bit too close for comfort. I was selling less military history, too. Must be because I am in a liberal neighborhood of Seattle, (redundant) but also my readers seemed too sad to read the stuff for fun.

Nevertheless. Pick up The Face of Battle. Even though it is nearly 30 years old now, it has not been surpassed.

In another posting, I will talk about Shakespeare's Henry V, and the good reading that can be had from it. This history play is a favorite of mine, and is a good play to read back to back with Keegan's book. If Shakespeare seems daunting, because of his antique language, rent the 1989 movie version, and watch that, then read my posting. I will talk about where the director soft-pedaled and changed the play to fit modern tastes. This play is a good one to study, no matter what sort of political bent you have. For Shakespeare's genius is to speak all sorts of dark thoughts about the meaning of life, and kingship, even in a play supposedly about a military triumph.