The Chop

John Bayley

  • A History of Warfare by John Keegan
    Hutchinson, 432 pp, £20.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 09 174527 6
  • How Great Generals Win by Bevin Alexander
    Norton, 320 pp, £22.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 393 03531 X
  • The Backbone: Diaries of a Military Family in the Napoleonic Wars edited by Alethea Hayter
    Pentland, 343 pp, £18.50, September 1993, ISBN 1 85821 069 0

Neither Genghiz Khan nor Stalin was physically brave. Both led from the rear, keeping well out of the way of any rough stuff that might be going on. The habit of directing matters through a staff (the Russian stavka) was probably an important ingredient in the military success of both; though Stalin, at least, had very little tactical sense, and was apt to interfere with the efforts of good generals who possessed it, often with disastrous results.

Neither, however, enjoyed fighting for its own sake, as Caesar did, or Napoleon, or Alexander, or Stonewall Jackson, by far the most talented commander of the American Civil War. To them it was – or became – like a drug, an addiction that could not be given up. Had he lived, Alexander might have invaded Italy through the Balkans, or attacked Carthage and Spain along the African coast, anticipating the Arab invasions of eight hundred years later. Fed up with Rome, Caesar was looking forward to leading his stylish veterans to Parthia (all my best troops are dandies, he once observed) when his murderers’ daggers struck him down in the Senate. In his last battle in the civil war at Munda, he had nearly got the chop at a crucial moment, demanding if his legionaries intended to let these rebel ‘boys’, like the young Cato, overthrow him. Hitler’s record in the First World War was that of a junior NCO who really enjoyed it; and even in the Second he loved discussing with young officers such things as the best way to site an 88mm antitank gun.

But although these are the instincts which the lords of warfare hope will animate the rank and file, they themselves do not necessarily share them. As John Keegan pungently demonstrates, warfare since tribal times has always been divided more or less unevenly between those who direct it, those who enjoy it (in different contexts and for different reasons) and those who suffer it. This last class would include, apart from civilians, the citizen or conscript armies of recent times (though the ancient Egyptians had something not so dissimilar), a startling number of whom have found it in themselves to think afterwards that they had a whale of a time in the trenches. As Dr Johnson said of foxhunting, it is a very strange and very melancholy thought that the paucity of human pleasures is such as to make us feel that warfare is one of them.

The fact cannot be gainsaid, none the less. Johnson also observed that anyone who has not been a soldier cannot help envying the man who has been one. Except in T’ang China, that sensible civilisation, the profession of arms has always been held in honour. Despite evidence to the contrary, the soldier is still regarded as one of nature’s gentlemen. War is one of the few bonds that can cement class solidarity. The pacific hero of one of L.P. Hartley’s novels is astounded to be told by his gardener, a man for whom he has the deepest respect, that the happiest time of his life was at the sharp end in Flanders between 1914 and 1918, ‘when all of us mucked in together’. Conversely, soldiers can still take pride, as Hector and Achilles did, in the feats of arms of friends and relations. Very engagingly, Keegan dedicates his book to an ancestor, a Lieutenant Bridgman in the Régiment de Clare, one of the Wild Geese mercenaries of the French Army, who was killed at the battle of Lauffeld in 1747. Housman admired the mercenary unstintingly.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
  They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
Whom God abandoned, these defended,
  And saved the sum of things for pay.

Significant that Keegan spends a lot of time with the Mongols, possibly the first conquerors totally to deformalise the concept of war. Social aggression always has rules, conventions or rituals of some sort, proceeding from superstition, religion or tribal usage; but the Mongols had none whatsoever. They fought to win, and to obliterate by winning. And as so often happens in these matters, their methods were catching. One of Keegan’s many original perceptions is that the Mongols bequeathed their concept of total war to the Ming (who finally ejected them from China), and to the crusader conquistadors who threw the Arabs out of Spain and went on to exterminate the highly formalised Aztec and Inca armies.

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