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The Eye of Command (review)

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 73, Number 4, October 2009
pp. 1297-1298 | 10.1353/jmh.0.0406

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This book attempts to challenge John Keegan’s “face of battle” approach to the study of war, perhaps the most important contribution to the (not so) “New Military History.” This attempt must be seen as ultimately unsuccessful.

A truism for most who study battle, and those who actually fight them, but evidently not Kagan, is that attributed to the Elder Moltke, namely that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy (a maxim lost not only on his nephew, but most of those in command in 1914–18). Any number of engagements confirms this, from Plataea (479 BC) to Gettysburg or the Ia Drang, as commanders lead their troops looking for a fight but not always ready for one. In analyzing such events Kagan might find some grounds to critique Keegan, who perhaps distinguishes too sharply between the aims and hopes of soldiers and commanders. But her overarching view (p. 22) that battle may be analyzed critically and that causal chains may be deduced is, I think, stretching a point and ignores a fundamental reality of battle–that it is chaos amid madness. In fact battles are won because subordinates make decisions, often on the spot and without waiting for orders. Kagan’s hypothesis minimizes, if it does not ignore, the motivation, character, and personality of such men as the unknown officer at Cynoscephalae (197 BC) who ordered his cohorts into the flank of the advancing Macedonian phalanx and saved the day for Rome, or John Buford who ordered cavalry to hold superior Confederate forces rushing onto Gettysburg.

In writing The Face of Battle, John Keegan analyzed Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme to formulate his views on the nature of war. In comparison, Kagan examines two writers of war, Julius Caesar and Ammianus Marcellinus, a sampling too narrow, both chronologically and experientially (Ammianus was a staff officer who knew about war but no commander), to sustain the theory she posits. Moreover, the actions of soldiers and generals alike are not susceptible to critical analysis or causal chains and ignore a very big point that could be richly exploited – the nature and reality of leadership. Unlisted in the index of this book, the omission in a book on “command” of the idea of leadership is striking.

Finally, there is an unspoken neocon subtext to this study, one that seeks to diminish if not overturn the “New Military History” and its social-economic and cultural emphases that try to depict the realities of war for those who fight them and suffer from them. In his play, “Andromache”, the veteran and tragic poet Euripides castigates the likes of men who thought they had won battles unaided (lines 693–701) and when the Macedonian soldier Cleitus the Black reminded the great Alexander of this, he paid with his life (Plutarch, Life of Alexander 51.8). But this reality is not going to find much support among those who like to push around pins on a map and send others into battle.

Copyright © 2009 The Society for Military History
Project MUSE® - View Citation
Lawrence A. Tritle. "The Eye of Command (review)." The Journal of Military History 73.4 (2009): 1297-1298. Project MUSE. Web. 25 Jan. 2013. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
Tritle, L. A.(2009). The Eye of Command (review). The Journal of Military History 73(4), 1297-1298. Society for Military History. Retrieved January 25, 2013, from Project MUSE database.
Lawrence A. Tritle. "The Eye of Command (review)." The Journal of Military History 73, no. 4 (2009): 1297-1298. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed January 25, 2013).
TY - JOUR
T1 - The Eye of Command (review)
A1 - Lawrence A. Tritle
JF - The Journal of Military History
VL - 73
IS - 4
SP - 1297
EP - 1298
PY - 2009
PB - Society for Military History
SN - 1543-7795
UR - http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_military_history/v073/73.4.tritle.html
N1 - Volume 73, Number 4, October 2009
ER -

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