The Mask of Command by John Keegan

The Mask of Command can be seen as a follow up to Keegan’s The Face of Battle, which described the experience of soldiers in battle throughout history and how it had changed. The Mask of Command is about the experience and techniques of generalship and how they have changed over time from the “heroic” (lead from the front) conception of Alexander the Great to the unheroic (lead and/or manage from the rear) concept of the modern era. He illustrates his position with the examples of Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses Grant and Adolf Hitler. However in addition there is a normative element to this book: Keegan discusses how command should have changed (and has not) given the realities of the era of nuclear warfare and modern total war. In particular he singles out Hitler as utilising an ancient heroic conception of command that was unsuited to these realities and claims that to a certain extent this explains his ultimate lack of military success. This is a fascinating analysis of generalship: thought provoking and intriguing. Ultimately I think that it is undermined by a less plausible reading of Hitler (which more recent scholarship might cast doubt on) than of the other generals, but its final section on what generalship should look like in the nuclear era is very interesting. A must read for those interested in understanding generalship in general rather than just finding out about particular battles.

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~ by Doug Newdick on December 19, 2009.

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