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Works and Days

Remembering the Dead, from Selma

August 5th, 2012 - 10:56 pm

Each time Vidal would say something like “I think it was so-and-so who once said of so-and-so,” my aunt would smile and say something polite like “yes, it was” or “perhaps it was not.” By the end of dinner, he grew more and more sullen with us rubes who were not playing our unenlightened parts. I remember that my mother, the more pragmatic lawyer, sister of the JC teacher, and worshiper of my dad’s efforts, scolded her afterwards with something like “Lucy, he could have gotten mad and given a poor performance.” Sometime in the evening, before slipping away, Vidal showed one flash of sincerity, and remarked to my mother, “Do you mean to say that your old father mortgaged his farm to send his girls to Stanford? Hmmm.” He also said that he had preferred going to war to going to college. (That got my dad’s attention, who had done both, and went over Japan 40 times on bombing runs.)

A far better man — in both the ethical and literary sense — died this last week, Sir. John Keegan. The Face of Battle is the most beautifully written and imaginative military history of the last 50 years. For a period in the 1980s and 1990s, about every two years a new military history followed from Keegan — Six Armies in Normandy, The Price of Admiralty, The Mask of Command, A History of War, etc., as well as general histories of World War I and World War II, and dozens of other titles too numerous for instant recall.

It is true that some of these books were written quickly, but they were written with engaging prose, were full of ideas, and were usually right in their main assessments. Keegan was a British public figure in the best sense of the word, writing newspaper columns, editing volumes, offering pocket biographies, at service to a larger society he loved. As a classics graduate student, who preferred sneaking around military history to the required fare of the manuscript tradition of Aeschylus’s Suppliants, non-literary Hellenistic Papyri, and moods and tenses in Xenophon’s Hellenica, I came across Keegan’s name in the late 1970s in a number of his original, now-obscure academic studies of the Waffen SS and German generals on the Russian front — before the breakthrough of The Face of Battle.

He was a master of the personal voice, but in such a way that was never chatty or self-indulgent. It never seemed to bother him that his unapologetic pro-Americanism, support for the idea of the Vietnam and Iraqi wars, and general British conservatism might imperil his literary career — perhaps because he judged rightly that his historical acumen, innate humanity, fairness toward historical figures, and above-the-fray temperament made him exempt from ideological vendettas. Keegan’s success, fame, and productivity at times earned scorn from academic historians who could spot occasional errors of fact, but usually their nitpicking was not so much over matters of substance, and so their criticism often, in boomerang style, becomes self-reflective.

Here I confess a bias toward Keegan, because I knew him somewhat and owed him much. To know him was to like him. In 1983 a small Italian academic press published my doctoral thesis Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (in elegant but cumbersome folios with the pages uncut) — to zero readership. By that time I had finished graduate school and abandoned a stillborn academic career. I liked farming full-time and had no plans to reenter academia or write again. But when the publisher wrote from Pisa and said I could send 10 free copies to journals, I instead sort of randomly picked the names of ten well-known military historians.

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