Keep an Open Mind      
I recently have been re-reading John Keegan’s “The Face of battle”.  Written in 1976, Keegan’s approach deconstructs the narrative of battle to offer a critique of historiography since the enlightenment.  What is it that attracts me to his approach?

Keegan analyses battles from an historian’s perspective that questions historiography and mainstream discourse. As a critical intellectual, he not only questions the historians’ tendency to reproduce history through the “cartographic shorthand” that standardizes battles from Antiquity to Modern times, but also the pre-eminence of a Higher Logic of War. 

Moreover, he conceptualizes words and notions like “military history” as being a multitude of projects regrouping a multitude of point of views, all credible and documented, but also charged with the capacity to create a narrative continuum.  In his own words, Naval history is the purest of them all, “a war without civilians (on the whole) and one in which the common sailor cannot, as the common soldier can, by running or sitting tight, easily confound his commander’s wishes”. In other words, battles and wars are multilayered and encompass a lot more histories than one preeminent narrative.

Another characteristic of his analyses is his deconstructive approach to battles.  When reading David Chandler’s “The Campaigns of Napoleon” and the charge of the French Reserve Cavalry against the Russians at Eylau (8 February 1807), Keegan is perplexed by the “tour de force” of the whole manoeuvre.  The French Cavalry executed complex manoeuvres against a “densely packed” Russian force, all without breaking their formation or being seemingly disturbed by the bodies of the fallen soldiers and horses in disarray. Keegan goes beyond the neat boxes we push on a table to depict a battle, but relives the scene from the ground up, analyzing the narrative to re-create what it could have been; and, in the process, highlighting the incongruence of the narration itself.

Keegan, presents his own epistemological position through his analysis of the “narrative tradition” (p.61).  What determines true rendering of History does not seem to be Keegan’s real quest, but rather using Cesar Commentaries or Thucydides account of the battle of Mantinea, he poses two fundamental epistemological markers.  First, that Cesar’s commentaries are evidently an interested narration, a text that is created to influence with a political purpose. And second that the narrative tradition that seems to stem with the enlightenment takes its roots from a deeper source.

All in all, anyone interested in interpretive methods would gain a lot by reading Keegan’s “Face of Battle”.  The historical perspective given by the narrative deconstruction is phenomenal. And the epistemological and methodological brilliance is a lesson to all interpretivists.

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