Death of the Hero

Michael Howard

  • The Mask of Command by John Keegan
    Cape, 366 pp, £12.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 224 01949 X

Among the distinguished group of military historians which has flourished in this country since the Second World War, John Keegan is outstanding. His talents are remarkable: a wide-ranging and speculative mind; clarity in analysis; a deep understanding of the military community; and enviable descriptive gifts to ensure that his books will be acceptable to that wide class of readership which seeks no more from military history than a jolly good read. His skills in this last direction sometimes conceal the profundity of observations which penetrate deep below the surface of military phenomena into the social and psychological conditions which produce them, but all his books can be read on the two levels of military description and social analysis. Increasingly they have been tilting towards the latter, but it is his descriptive powers as a historian which will continue to hold the attention – as in The Mask of Command.

This book is intended as a complement to The Face of Battle, a brilliant work in which Keegan tried to analyse, through three case-studies, what really happens when armies fight. In this book he tries to explain, through four comparable case-studies, how generals command: that is, how they persuade men to die. It is not a new question, but Keegan approaches it in a new way and comes up with fresh and novel answers. ‘The mask’ of which he speaks is the persona adopted by the general, consciously and unconsciously, when he communicates with the men he commands and which makes his authority effective. It will be different in different epochs, as society and technology develop. Keegan presents four examples: Alexander the Great, a ‘heroic’ commander; the Duke of Wellington, an ‘anti-heroic’ commander; Ulysses S. Grant, a supremely unheroic commander; and a little surprisingly, Hitler, a man seldom thought of as a military commander at all but in practice a ‘false hero’ whose personal control of the German Armed Forces was no less complete than that which Alexander exercised over his.

It is a bizarre quartet, over the choice of which eyebrows may be raised. Where are the traditional Great Captains – Julius Caesar, Tamerlane, Gustavus Adolphus, Marlborough, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Moltke, even Montgomery or MacArthur? There seems something almost perverse in Keegan’s deliberate avoidance of the beaten track. But he is in fact no more concerned to provide an analysis of ‘Great Captains’ as such than he was, in The Face of Battle, to give an account of ‘decisive battles’. He has selected his examples to illustrate not just techniques of command or diverse models of generalship but epochs in warfare, and round them to build his thesis.

The thesis, although clearly stated in the opening pages, gets lost to sight in the rich diversity of illustration of which the bulk of the book consists, and reappears only in the final chapter on ‘post-heroic’ leadership. In the first place, Keegan suggests, wars of conquest, with the pitched battle as their central activity, constituted a finite era in human history which Alexander initiated and which technology, especially nuclear technology, has now probably brought to an end. Before it, warfare was cautious, indecisive and fought subject to careful restraints. After it – well, it had better be the same if mankind is not to destroy itself. The era of the hero is over. It was an era on which Alexander set his stamp, not only by aggressive ambitions unprecedented in scope but by his style of front-line command – something in itself derived from the Macedonian concept of Kingship – and by his very appearance. The image of the hero in Western civilisation, young, blond, with a beauty whose hint of effeminacy is constantly belied by his actions, derives from the representations of Alexander which have come down to us from Antiquity. War was an extension of his personality: for him it was not an instrument of policy but a test and expression of Will. The hero is always doomed, for after each success he is driven to a further, harsher test until ultimately even the Will cannot triumph over inexorable adversity. There is nothing virtuous about heroism: Napoleon and Hitler deserved the title at least as much as Alexander the Great.

Keegan has a subordinate and fascinating thesis which he states but does not fully explore. The modern science of strategy began, he suggests, at the outset of the 19th century when war was beginning to be conducted by a new class of professionals, rather than directed by monarchs or their surrogates, and was becoming a discrete activity like a game, distinct from the political objectives which governed it. Military leaders before the 18th century would not have needed Clausewitz’s reminder that war was an extension of high policy, because they themselves, in their role as sovereigns, made that policy. The growing scope and complexity of war produced the professional strategist for whom war was a thing in itself and military success an entirely sufficient objective; and who, as is all too common today, viewed politics in the perspective of war rather than the other way about.

The same circumstances produced the professional soldier; and the professional soldier, however courageous, cannot be a hero. His function is not to express the Triumph of the Will but to carry out orders from someone else. Heroes make bad soldiers, as MacArthur eventually proved. The growing scope of war which bred the professional soldier also destroyed the possibility of heroic leadership: it called for more subtle techniques of command. To illustrate these Keegan presents his two non-heroic leaders: Wellington and Grant.

These examples are the more interesting in that they were the products of totally different types of society. Wellington belonged to a pre-revolutionary, feudal world, in that landowning and the social privileges which went with it were still held to involve military obligations. The social and military hierarchies were indistinguishable. Wellington could command by virtue of status, and by exercising the virtues associated with that status: calm, self-confidence, courage, acceptance of responsibility and massive common sense. These were the qualities, not of the old feudal aristocracy which had destroyed itself by its competitive heroism, but of a service gentry, serving not their caste but the State, or (a more glamorous word for the same concept) the Crown. These qualities were also to be found in the Prussian Junkers, and Keegan might have cited the elder Moltke as a comparable example. In deferential societies command is not a serious problem if the personal qualities and professional expertise of the commander gain the respect of his peers. The First World War was the last conflict in which this style of command could be effective and Douglas Haig the last general who could exercise it. British generals in the Second World War, all of them junior officers in the First, knew that they would have to work at it a great deal harder if they were to persuade their notably undeferential troops to die for them.

This problem had confronted American generals since the establishment of their Republic, as it had confronted French generals from the outbreak of the Revolution. For them society no longer provided a ready-made hierarchy of command. The Napoleonic Wars still provided openings for heroic leadership but by the time of the American Civil Wars these had been firmly closed by the new infantry rifles. In an egalitarian society military leadership could now only be exercised through professional excellence, and in Grant professionalism entirely eclipsed personality. Clausewitz described ‘genius’ as ‘a very highly developed mental aptitude for a particular occupation’, and by this definition Grant was certainly a military genius. He was in other respects a very ordinary and not particularly admirable man who happened to be a great soldier as another might be a great financier or a great cricketer, and who was quite useless at anything else. His very lack of flamboyance inspired awe. No more than Wellington was he a ‘professional’ in the sense of being a mercenary, unconcerned about the cause in which he exercised his skills. He served the Union and the cause of the Union as wholeheartedly as Wellington served the Crown whose salt he had eaten, and he could not have inspired his men to die for the Union if he had not. But he inspired them because he was one of them, off the battlefield indistinguishable from them, knowing instinctively what they could and could not do. His very ordinariness enabled his troops to identify with him: he was their man far more than (as with Wellington) they were his.

Wellington could and did command on the battlefield, where he infected his men with his own calm confidence. Forty years later, armies were so large and the range of weapons so great that armies could only be commanded from the rear: the age of what Keegan calls ‘the châteaux generals’ had arrived, when, in Schlieffen’s words, the commander sat in a comfortable chair at a large table and sent ‘inspiring words’ to his subordinates over the telephone. Hitler also commanded from deep in the rear and never even visited his troops. How then can his style be termed ‘heroic’ or even ‘false heroic’?

Keegan makes out his case. Hitler’s courage was unquestioned; he asked of his troops nothing that he had not himself done in Flanders during the First World War: a point he constantly made to generals whose ‘professionalism’ he despised. War for him was a matter not of professional expertise but of exercising Will. Inspiration could no longer come from direct example on the battlefield: it came from the whole propaganda machine of the State exhorting young men to die for their Führer (not, be it noted, for their country). Unlike the châteaux generals. Hitler could, thanks to radio, exercise direct control over the conduct of battle, but that control had to do, not with the manoeuvres advised by his professionals, but with the exercise of his Will on the Will of his troops. It must be admitted that this worked to an astonishing extent. The brilliant performance which the Wehrmacht put up until the very last days of the war was due, not only to a professional competence far surpassing that of their adversaries, but to an inflexible will in their rear which left them no alternative but to fight till the end. For Hitler, war was neither an instrument of policy nor an exercise of professional skills but a challenge to Fate on which he staked his own life and that of his nation. He lost.

Do heroes remain in the modern world? Alas, they do. They call themselves ‘freedom-fighters’, but their activities are like Hitler’s, usually more an assertion of deranged personality than calculated service to a political cause. The achievement of the goals for which they fight would leave them désoeuvrés, likely to turn their ferocity on their old allies and new rulers, until they at last achieved the immolation they sought in a hail of machine-gun bullets – thus earning immortality as martyrs to inspire another generation. Guevara lives! we were endlessly informed, and in Ireland and the Middle East idealistic young people today seek the same kind of apotheosis. Hitler, thank God, no longer lives, but his type is not dead. Let us be thankful for the dispassionate professionalism which has eliminated such figures from the military world, and hope that they will one day be extirpated from the political scene as well.