Thursday, 23 March 2000

John Keegan: The Mask of Command (1987)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 460

The Mask of Command is a companion to Keegan's earlier book The Face of Battle, published just over a decade beforehand. That book dealt with battle as experienced by the common soldier, while The Mask of Command is about the nature of military leadership. They have the same structure, a general introduction and conclusion framing some case studies, here Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Adolf Hitler. The title indicates something of Keegan's attitude to command: he sees it as an art of persuasion related in some way to acting, involving hiding the true nature of the commander. The illustration chosen for the front of this edition fits well with this, though not related to any of the leaders mentioned; it is a photograph of the Sutton Hoo helmet, which hides the man inside it so that you cannot see his features. (The photograph shows the helmet unworn.) We do not even know precisely who the helmet was made for.

Keegan's analysis of each of his case studies hinges on the relationship between developing styles of leadership and the idea of the hero. Each subject reacted in a different way to this compared with the others, Alexander deliberately cultivating it, Wellington deprecating it, Grant ignoring it, and Hitler creating a propaganda version of it. These reactions, as well as saying something about the personalities of these men, also reflect the changing nature of warfare itself and the most efficient role to be taken by a general. (Keegan encapsulates this in the question "How frequently should the general be in the front line?" - always, sometimes, or never.)

The most interesting analyses are those of Alexander and Hitler; that of Wellington overlaps considerably with the description of Waterloo in The Face of Battle. Grant is perhaps less easily describe, a less extreme personality, and the study of his methods of leadership doesnot really take off.

The final philosophical section, which consists of an analysis of what command actually is, how one man can persuade others to risk their lives, together with an application of this theory to the idea of command in the nuclear age, is fascinating. (Keegan is fairly pessimistic, denying even the possibility of command in the age of "Mutually Assured Destruction", when the executive trying to persuade others to fight is of necessity one of the very few with any likelihood of survival.)

Though I disapprove of warfare, I find the reasons behind it and its methods fascinating, and Keegan's writing always seems to provide insights.

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