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The Mask of Command (1987)

de John Keegan

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THE MASK OFCOMMAND is about generals- who they are, what they do and how they affect the world we live in. Most studies of generalship have focused on individual character and behaviour. While these are not neglected in this remarkable book, its central argument is that, like warfare itself, generalship is a cultural enterprise, providing a key to understanding a particular era or place, as much as it is an exercise in power or military skill. Through portraits of four generals- archetypal hero Alexander the Great, anti- hero Wellington, the unheroic Ulysses S. Grant and the false heroic of Hitler- John Keegan propounds the view of heroism in warfare as inextricable linked with the political imperative of the age and place. He demonstrates how the role of the general alters with the ethos of the society that creates him and concludes that there is no place for heroism in a nuclear world. THE MASK OFCOMMAND is a companion volume to John Keegan's classic study of the individual soldier, THE FACE OF BATTLE- together they form a masterpiece of military and human history.… (més)
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Keegan analyzes war generals, with a focus on Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Adolf Hitler. He argues that generalship can tell us a lot about a particular era or place, especially whether generals are considered “heroes” or “anti-heroes.” He writes:

“Generalship is, in short, much more than command of armies in the field. For an army is, to resort to cliche, an expression of the society from which it issues.” The purposes for which it fights and the way it does so will therefore be determined in large measure by what a society wants from a war and how far it expects its army to go in delivering that outcome.”

“Context,” he later avers, “is all.”

This macro view of generalship is so much more illuminating than the view from the ground.

On a more specific level, Keegan notes that the hopes and requirements of the soldiers a general leads must be reflected by great generals. He writes, “The leader of men in warfare can show himself to his followers only through a mask, a mask that he must make for himself, but a mask made in such form s will mark him to men of his time and place as the leer they want and need.”

It is a pity Keegan didn’t select George Washington for one of his highlighted generals. Washington was a master of theater, and of both meeting expectations and manipulating them in his favor. (For an excellent analysis of this, see Ron Chernow’s biography of Washington.)

No matter what his subject, however, Keegan is superbly adept at exposing all facets of military affairs in depth, and providing readers with fascinating and unexpected insights. This book is no exception. ( )
  nbmars | Feb 9, 2021 |
readable and informative as Keegan always is. Odd to include Hitler in his set, who was out of his depth as commander and took half a world down with him, whereas the other three (Alexander, Wellington, Grant) were undefeated throughout. But the Hitler profile & analysis is the most interesting. Shows how H learned from his own frontkaempfer experience, but perhaps then learned nothing else, that he boned up on the technical details of weapons and transport and floored his own generals with displays of (essentially trivial) memory feats, how he was even more of a chateau general than the WW1 chaps, with his HQ hundreds of miles from the front (and disruptingly shifting), how he basically collapsed as soon as he met with defeat in any form. the inexplicable is how he kept all those professionals under his thumb and the front line fighting till the last bullet. Keegan doesn't engage much with that. Alex and the Duke are well described but not much new; Grant is interesting: dogged, gruff, coming from nowhere, but with well-concealed intellectual qualities that came out in his Memoirs at the end of his life. The overall analysis in the last chapter is too short and abstract to come across well. Keegan at his best when there's a whiff of gunpowder or a whirr of arrows in the air. ( )
1 vota vguy | Jan 6, 2014 |
A certain part of military life is talking other people into risking their lives to accomplish the goals, worthy or unworthy of those who pay your salary. Of course there's an ideological element in some of this, and there's group solidarity as well, but the bottom line seems to be summed up above. Mr. Keegan has done a very good job defining the role of the officer, and his prose is competent. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Oct 21, 2013 |
Once again, one of the best military historians around has examined the mask of command by examining three great generals in order to understand the nature of military leadershi. In scope it most reminds me of Victor Davis Hanson's similar work on three liberators.
  gmicksmith | Oct 6, 2013 |
Great Review of 4 very different generals and their strategies
  gtsurber | Aug 27, 2012 |
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(Introduction): This book is about generals, who they are, what they do, and who what they do affects the world in which men and women live.
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THE MASK OFCOMMAND is about generals- who they are, what they do and how they affect the world we live in. Most studies of generalship have focused on individual character and behaviour. While these are not neglected in this remarkable book, its central argument is that, like warfare itself, generalship is a cultural enterprise, providing a key to understanding a particular era or place, as much as it is an exercise in power or military skill. Through portraits of four generals- archetypal hero Alexander the Great, anti- hero Wellington, the unheroic Ulysses S. Grant and the false heroic of Hitler- John Keegan propounds the view of heroism in warfare as inextricable linked with the political imperative of the age and place. He demonstrates how the role of the general alters with the ethos of the society that creates him and concludes that there is no place for heroism in a nuclear world. THE MASK OFCOMMAND is a companion volume to John Keegan's classic study of the individual soldier, THE FACE OF BATTLE- together they form a masterpiece of military and human history.

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