Sir John Desmond Patrick Keegan (15 May 1934 - 2 August 2012) was an English military historian, lecturer, writer and journalist. He wrote many published works on the nature of combat between prehistory and the 21st century, covering land, air, maritime, intelligence warfare and the psychology of battle.
Life and career
At the age of 13 Keegan contracted orthopaedic tuberculosis, which subsequently affected his gait. The long-term effects of this rendered him unfit for military service, and the timing of his birth made him too young for service in the Second World War, facts he mentioned in his works as an ironic observation on his profession and interests. The illness also interrupted his education in his teenage years, although it included a period at King's College, Taunton and two years at Wimbledon College, which led to entry to Balliol College, Oxford in 1953, where he read history with an emphasis on war theory. After graduation he worked at the American Embassy in London for three years.
Leaving the academy in 1986, Keegan joined the Daily Telegraph as a defence correspondent and stayed with the paper as defence editor until his death. He also wrote for the American conservative National Review Online. In 1998 he wrote and presented the BBC's Reith Lectures, entitling them War in our World.
Keegan died on 2 August 2012 of natural causes at his home in Kilmington, Wiltshire. He was survived by his wife, their two daughters and two sons.
Views on contemporary conflicts
Keegan stated: "I will never oppose the Vietnam War. Americans were right to do it. I think they fought it in the wrong way. I don't think it's a war like fighting Hitler, but I think it was a right war, a correct war."
An article in The Christian Science Monitor called Keegan a "staunch supporter" of the Iraq War. It quotes him: "Uncomfortable as the 'spectacle of raw military force' is, he concludes that the Iraq war represents 'a better guide to what needs to be done to secure the safety of our world than any amount of law-making or treaty-writing can offer.'"
Keegan was also criticised by peers, including Sir Michael Howard and Christopher Bassford for his critical position on Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian officer and author of Vom Kriege (On War), one of the basic texts on warfare and military strategy. Keegan was described as "profoundly mistaken". Bassford stated, "Nothing anywhere in Keegan's work - despite his many diatribes about Clausewitz and 'the Clausewitzians' - reflects any reading whatsoever of Clausewitz's own writings." The political scientist Richard Betts criticised Keegan's understanding of the political dimensions of war, calling Keegan "a naïf about politics."
Noting Keegan's works on the Waffen-SS, the military historian S.P. MacKenzie describes him as a popular historian "partially or wholly seduced by [its] mystique". He connects Keegan with contemporary Waffen-SS historical revisionism, first propounded by HIAG, the Waffen-SS lobby group from the 1950-1990s. Commenting on this contemporary trend, Mackenzie writes that "as the older generation of Waffen-SS scribes has died off, a new, post-war cadre of writers has done much to perpetuate the image of the force as a revolutionary European army" and includes Keegan in the group.
In A History of Warfare, Keegan outlined the development and limitations of warfare from prehistory to the modern era. It looked at various topics, including the use of horses, logistics, and "fire". A key concept put forward was that war is inherently cultural. In the introduction, he vigorously denounced the idiom "war is a continuation of policy by other means", rejecting "Clausewitzian" ideas. However, Keegan's discussion of Clausewitz was criticised as uninformed and inaccurate by writers like Peter Paret, Christopher Bassford, and Richard M. Swain.
He also contributed to work on historiography in modern conflict. With Richard Holmes he wrote the BBC documentary Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle. Frank C. Mahncke wrote that Keegan is seen as "among the most prominent and widely read military historians of the late twentieth century". In a book-cover blurb extracted from a more complex article, Sir Michael Howard wrote, "at once the most readable and the most original of living historians".
Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda (2003) ISBN0-375-40053-2 (also published with alternative subtitle as Intelligence in War: The value - and limitations - of what the military can learn about the enemyISBN0-375-70046-3)