Chessboard WWII

Keegan: WWII front coverJohn Keegan: The Second World War, Penguin 1990

I am currently unpacking books from storage crates and finding many a jewel for rereading. This is one of them.

This relatively short (600 pages) book is a strategic and military history of WWII – John Keegan, lecturer at Sandhurst, concerns himself with maneuvres, logistics, weapons and the thoughts and deliberations of military and political leaders about how to conduct war. Largely missing from the story is partisan warfare, the Holocaust, resistance movements, and the political and ideological side of the conflict. This is WWII as seen from military headquarters, where deaths are counted in the thousands and losses deemed acceptable based on percentages.

And that is OK, for the book makes no pretence at trying to be anything else – and as a military history, it is brilliant. The best part of the book are careful analyses of some of the great battles (particularly Crete, which taught both the Germans and the Allies some important lessons, is well described). Where Ambrose describes the hardships of the individual soldiers, Keegan makes us understand the importance of decisions at the strategic and tactical level – how politicians and generals depend on communications, intelligence, rapport with subordinates and peers, and luck. In particular, the book counters the rather disparate view of Montgomery espoused by Ambrose. Montgomery was more careful with his men and more calculating than the American generals – but Britain had exhausted its supply of manpower and could not depend on hordes of enthusiastic young men to be flung against entrenched and experienced Germans.

Keegan does not moralize either this way or that: He evaluates decisions made based on the information available at the time and leaves judgment largely up to the reader, based on his careful and understated analysis, delivered in logical rather than chronological chapters. He discusses Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt and their generals largely in terms of decision style and strategic insight (or delusion).

Read this book for the understanding of technology and maneuver and the decisions faced by military leaders. Highly recommended.