John Keegan

For other people named John Keegan, see John Keegan (disambiguation).
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
Academic background
Alma mater Balliol College, Oxford
Academic work
Main interests Military history, history of warfare, First World War
Notable 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


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]

Noting Keegan's works on the Waffen-SS, the military historian S.P. MacKenzie describes him as a popular historian "partially or wholly seduced by [its] mystique". He connects Keegan with the contemporary Waffen-SS historical revisionism, first propounded by HIAG, the Waffen-SS lobby group from the 1950–1990s. Commenting on this contemporary trend, Mackenzie writes that "as older generation of Waffen-SS scribes has died off, a new, post-war cadre of writers has done much to perpetuate the image of the force as a revolutionary European army" and includes Keegan in this group.[12]

In August 2015, Russia's government considered banning Keegan's works, accusing him of Nazi sympathies.[13]


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".[14] In the 2000 New Year Honours, he was knighted "for services to Military History".[15]

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (FRSL) in 1986.[16] In 1993 he won the Duff Cooper Prize.[17]

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.[18]

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.[19] In the introduction, he vigorously 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.[20]

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".[21] 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".[22]

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).



  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. "Booknotes". Retrieved 5 August 2015.
  5. "British military historian John Keegan dead at 78". 4 August 2012.
  6. Binder, David (2 August 2012). "John Keegan, Historian Who Put a Face on War, Dies at 78". Retrieved 10 August 2012.
  7. Byman, Daniel L.; Waxman, Matthew C. (2000). "Kosovo and the Great Air Power Debate" (PDF). International Security. 24 (4): 5–38. doi:10.1162/016228800560291. I didn't want to change my beliefs, but there was too much evidence accumulating to stick to the article of faith. It now does look as if airpower has prevailed in the Balkans, and that the time has come to redefine how victory in war may be won.
  8. Scott Tyson, Ann (8 June 2004). "America's bewildering battle in Iraq follows new rules". Retrieved 10 August 2012.
  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. Betts, Richard (Fall 2000). "Is Strategy and Illusion?". International Security. 25 (2): 25. doi:10.1162/016228800560444.
  12. MacKenzie 1997, pp. 139–140.
  13. Ignacio Villarreal. "Russia orders libraries to ditch 'Nazi' books by British historians". Retrieved 10 August 2015.
  14. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 52588. pp. 23–28. 28 June 1991. Retrieved 7 August 2012.
  15. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 55710. pp. 1–2. 31 December 1999. Retrieved 7 August 2012.
  16. "Royal Society of Literature All Fellows". Royal Society of Literature. Retrieved 9 August 2010.
  17. "Past Winners of The Duff Cooper Prize". Retrieved 29 January 2013.
  18. "Honorary Graduates 1989 to present". University of Bath. Retrieved 7 August 2012.
  19. Binder, David (3 August 2012). "John Keegan, Historian of War and Warriors, Dies at 78". The New York Times. p. 10. Retrieved 29 January 2013.
  20. Christopher Bassford, "John Keegan and the Grand Tradition of Trashing Clausewitz," War in History, November 1994, pp. 319–36
  21. Naval War College – Frank C. Mahncke, Naval War College
  22. The New York Times Book ReviewSir Michael Howard


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