The subject of war is everywhere these days, impossible to avoid. Newscasts and talk shows devote hours to discussion and debate as to whether the United States should invade Iraq, with or without the sanction of "the world community."
Polls are conducted hourly to discern the wishes of the country and some days it seems no action will be taken until the considered opinion of each citizen is recorded and thrown into the decision-making process.
At times like these, it is soothing to dip into history -- partly as a way of organizing one's thoughts and attempting to see our present options in some sort of context.
So I turned to John Keegan, our finest living military historian. Any one of his books, which thankfully remain in print, yields rich rewards, but I chose his original and perceptive classic work, "The Mask of Command" (Penguin, $15, 351 pages). In our modern era of smart bombs and precision-guided missiles and the mutually assured destructive capability of nuclear weapons, it is somehow consoling to read of black powder wars, hand-to-hand combat and heroic leadership.
What this leadership consists of, its makeup and execution, Keegan describes through reviewing the careers of four men: Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant and -- amazingly but justly -- Adolph Hitler. Taking each in turn, as he discusses the various personal histories, character traits and major battle techniques, Keegan treats us to sharp insights on the development of weaponry, methods of assault, the social context of armies within their societies and all sorts of lively and illuminating details of warfare.
"He had the historian's ability to summarize events and incorporate them smoothly in the larger narrative," Keegan writes of Grant's memoirs, but he could easily be describing his own talents. It is impossible to imagine any better telling of these stories or more thrilling narrative that gives both the grand and, in his word, "grisly" nature of what this history is all about.
Although a solid bibliography is included, Keegan dispenses with distracting footnotes. Along with troop positions on sweeping battlefields, he gives us the small moments of a soldier struggling with, "... that dribble of unmanning fear..." as he faces the enemy.
If a book about men who lead others to death can be enthralling, this is it.
Keegan poses the central and important question at the heart of any commander's examination of conscience: Where must I place myself? Always in front, sometimes, never? Keegan proceeds to examine each general's style, thought process and behavior in light of this question.
Alexander was always in front, in full conspicuous battle gear, driving his men forward, depending on the example of his physical courage and spiritual strength as their king.
This was a man who began every day by plunging his sword into a living animal as a blood sacrifice to the gods. He spent most of his brief but epic life either on the battlefield or preparing for battle. By all accounts, he enjoyed convivial feasts that sometimes turned into sloshing brawls, but kept himself highly informed in matters of topography and culture wherever he sought to conquer.
Alexander's army triumphed through sheer muscle strength. Keegan's description of its signature offensive weapon, the human phalanx, is stirring. Imagine a unit of powerful men each carrying an 18-foot iron-tipped spear, packed together in eight ranks and moving as one giant beast, "...unapproachable by either infantry or cavalry as long as they kept their nerve and cohesion."
Nerve and cohesion appear to be the keys to success as Keegan traverses 2000 years of command.
Wellington, the Iron Duke, and Grant shared qualities with Alexander. All enjoyed good health and possessed the wonderful attribute of being able to sleep well even during times of enormous stress and responsibility. Keegan emphasizes how clean and particular were their habits. Wellington and Grant both preferred a simple diet, although the Duke's meals were prepared and served by his huge entourage of cooks and servants. Grant never had a servant.
These men exuded intrepid coolness in the face of danger and issued concise, even elegant orders in the thick of combat. While Wellington and Grant sometimes got into the fray, they did not purposely place themselves at the head of columns of soldiers. They dressed plainly and worked the scene of battle from vantage points where they could most clearly ascertain what orders were most effective to achieve victory.
Hitler, on the other hand, never placed himself close to his men or any of the fronts over which he made himself supreme commander.
Keegan's treatment of Hitler among these generals is fascinating. He respectfully recounts Hitler's record in World War I and credits him with truly earning the right to call himself first soldier of the Reich.
Keegan then goes on to detail the insomniac Hitler's style of command as remote, petulant, "pettifogging" on minute particulars, uninformed about the larger picture, rambling and indecisive when giving orders, surrounding himself with sycophants.
Keegan names this style "false heroic." His inclusion of this wretched and ultimately insane commander in a work on heroic leadership gives balance and breadth to a profession that otherwise would seem overly admirable and even romantic.
In his conclusion, perhaps the least successful section because it seems truncated, Keegan considers the future of command in the nuclear age. We are far from the days of a general's autonomy, when Grant could say, "I did not communicate my plan to the President."
Keegan makes the case that generals should not own the critical decisions of using force, rather that these burdens should lie solely with presidents and prime ministers. Although the most lauded military leaders of the past have been men unafraid to act and act decisively, Keegan believes what may be needed is a leader of modesty, prudence and rationality who chooses, "... not to act, in any traditionally heroic sense, at all."
Amid all the chatter, it is worth considering what John Keegan, who knows almost everything about this subject, thinks about both the history and future of heroic leadership.