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John Keegan

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John Keegan

Sir John Keegan
Born John Desmond Patrick Keegan
(1934-05-15)15 May 1934
Clapham, London, England
Died 2 August 2012(2012-08-02) (aged 78)
Kilmington, Wiltshire, England
Main interests
Military history, history of warfare, First World War
Major works
The Face of Battle, Soldiers, A History of Men in Battle, The Mask of Command and other major works

Sir John Desmond Patrick Keegan OBE FRSL (15 May 1934 – 2 August 2012) was a British military historian, lecturer, writer and journalist. He was the author of many published works on the nature of combat between the 14th and 21st centuries concerning land, air, maritime, and intelligence warfare, as well as the psychology of battle.

Life and career

Keegan was born in Clapham, London, on 15 May 1934, to a family of Irish Catholic extraction. His father saw active service in the First World War.

At the age of 13 Keegan contracted orthopaedic tuberculosis, which subsequently affected his gait. The long-term effects of his tuberculosis 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.[1] The illness also interrupted his education during his teenage years; however, his education included a period at King's College, Taunton, and two years at Wimbledon College, which led to entry to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1953. Following graduation he worked at the American Embassy in London for three years.[2]

In 1960 he was appointed to a lectureship in Military History at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the training establishment for officers of the British Army. Holding the post for 26 years, he became senior lecturer in military history during his tenure. During this period he also held a visiting professorship at Princeton University and was Delmas Distinguished Professor of History at Vassar College.[3]

Leaving the academy in 1986[4] Keegan joined the Daily Telegraph as a Defence Correspondent and remained with the publication as Defence Editor until his death, also writing for the American conservative website, National Review Online. In 1998 he wrote and presented the BBC's Reith Lectures, entitled War in our World.


Keegan died on 2 August 2012 of natural causes at his home in Kilmington, western England. He is survived by his wife, their two daughters and two sons.[5]

Opinions on contemporary conflicts


When asked about the Vietnam War, Keegan repled: "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."[6]


Keegan believed that NATO's bombing of Serbia and Serbian targets in Kosovo in 1999 showed that air power alone could win wars.[7]

Iraq War

An article in The Christian Science Monitor called Keegan a "staunch supporter" of the Iraq War. The article quotes Keegan: "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.'"[8]


Keegan was also criticised by peers, including Sir Michael Howard[9] and Christopher Bassford[10] 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" and Bassford stated that "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 also criticised Keegan's understanding of the political dimensions of war, writing that Keegan was "a naïf about politics."[11]

In August 2015, Russia's government considered banning Keegan's works, accusing him of Nazi sympathies.[12]


On 29 June 1991, as a war correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, Keegan was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) "in recognition of service within the operations in the Gulf".[13] In the 2000 New Year Honours, he was knighted "for services to Military History".[14]

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (FRSL) in 1986.[15] In 1993 he won the Duff Cooper Prize.[16]

In 1996 the Society for Military History awarded him the Samuel Eliot Morison Prize. It recognises not any one specific achievement, but a body of contributions in the field of military history, stretching over time and showing a range of scholarly work contributing significantly to the field.

He was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters (DLitt) by the University of Bath in 2002.[17]

Published work

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". One key concept put forward was that war is inherently cultural.[18] In the introduction, he rigorously denounced the idiom "war is a continuation of policy by other means", rejecting on its face "Clausewitzian" ideas. Keegan's discussion of Clausewitz was, however, heavily criticised as uninformed and inaccurate, by writers like Peter Paret, Christopher Bassford, and Richard M. Swain.[19]

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 being "among the most prominent and widely read military historians of the late twentieth century".[20] 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".[21]

Keegan's Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America, which gave accounts of many of the wars fought on the soil of North America, also contained opening and closing essays on his own personal relationship to America. He continued his interest in American military history with the publication of his book The American Civil War (2009, Hutchinson).


  • Waffen SS: the asphalt soldiers (New York: Ballantine, 1970) ISBN 0-345-32641-5
  • Barbarossa: Invasion of Russia, 1941 (New York, 1971) ISBN 0-345-02111-8
  • Opening Moves – August 1914 (New York: Ballantine, 1971) ISBN 0-345-09798-X
  • The Face of Battle (London, 1976) ISBN 0-670-30432-8
  • The Nature of War with Joseph Darracott (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981) ISBN 0-03-057777-2
  • Six Armies in Normandy (1982) ISBN 0-14-005293-3
  • Zones of Conflict: An Atlas Of Future Wars with Andrew Wheatcroft (New York, 1986) ISBN 0-671-60115-6
  • Soldiers, A History of Men in Battle with Richard Holmes (New York: Viking Press, 1986) ISBN 0-670-80969-1
  • The Mask of Command (London, 1987) ISBN 0-7126-6526-9
  • The Price of Admiralty (1988) ISBN 0-09-173771-0
  • Who Was Who in World War II (1978) ISBN 0-85368-182-1
  • The Illustrated Face of Battle (New York and London: Viking, 1988) ISBN 0-670-82703-7
  • The Second World War (Viking Press, 1989) ISBN 0-670-82359-7
  • A History of Warfare (London, 1993) ISBN 0-679-73082-6
  • The Battle for History: Refighting World War Two (Vintage Canada, 1995) ISBN 0-679-76743-6
  • Warpaths (Pimlico, 1996) ISBN 1-84413-750-3
  • Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America (1997) ISBN 0-679-74664-1
  • War and Our World: The Reith Lectures 1998 (London: Pimlico, 1999) ISBN 0-375-70520-1
  • The Book of War (ed.) (Viking Press, 1999) ISBN 0-670-88804-4
  • The First World War (London: Hutchinson, 1998) ISBN 0-09-180178-8; (New York: Knopf, 1999) ISBN 0-375-40052-4
  • An Illustrated History of the First World War (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001) ISBN 0-375-41259-x
  • Winston Churchill (2002) ISBN 0-670-03079-1
  • Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda (2003) ISBN 0-375-40053-2
  • The Iraq War (2004) ISBN 0-09-180018-8
  • Atlas of World War II (ed.) (London: Collins, 2006) ISBN 0-00-721465-0 (an update of the 1989 Times Atlas)
  • The American Civil War (London, Hutchinson, 2009) ISBN 978-0-09-179483-5


  1. ^ Interview (transcripted May 1994)
  2. ^ Daniel Snowman: John Keegan History Today, volume 50, issue 5.2000
  3. ^ Back cover of The First World War. Keegan, John, ISBN 0-375-40052-4
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Michael Howard, "To the Ruthless Belong the Spoils," The New York Times Book Review, 14 November 1993.
  10. ^ War in History, November 1994, pp.319–336, Christopher Bassford available at "
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 52588. pp. 23–28. 28 June 1991. Retrieved 7 August 2012.
  14. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 55710. pp. 1–2. 31 December 1999. Retrieved 7 August 2012.
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ Christopher Bassford, "John Keegan and the Grand Tradition of Trashing Clausewitz," War in History, November 1994, pp. 319–36
  20. ^ Naval War College – Frank C. Mahncke, Naval War College
  21. ^ The New York Times Book ReviewSir Michael Howard


  • Snowman, Daniel. "John Keegan", pp. 28–30 from History Today, Volume 50, Issue # 5, May 2000
  • Bassford, Christopher. "John Keegan and the Grand Tradition of Trashing Clausewitz." War in History, November 1994, pp. 319–36

External links

  • Appearances on C-SPAN
    • , 8 May 1994.A History of Warfare interview with Keegan on Booknotes
    • interview with Keegan, 2 November 2003In Depth
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