Sunday, 5 August 2012

Farewell Sir John Keegan

Humphrey was deeply saddened to read of the death of the esteemed author and military historian, Sir John Keegan. He was one of the greatest authors of military history of the late 20th century, and many of his books can be found on Humphreys bookcases.

Humphrey first discovered Keenan’s work in his teens, and found the excellent analysis and writing style to be engrossing. It was always a pleasure to read his books, and the world is a poorer place for his passing. Similarly, his work on the Daily Telegraph provided first rate analytical capability to that paper, enabling him to join many disparate facts and events and turn them into a critical ‘so what’ assessment on the implications of a situation. In many ways Keegan was an intelligence analyst in all but name, and proponents of the value of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) could do worse than look at his media articles to show how well written work, derived using the same information as everyone else had access to, could easily be used to inform policy makers without being classified as ‘Top Secret Burn Before Reading’.

One of the most important roles that Keegan played though was in his work at Sandhurst. Working alongside other superb historians, such as the late Richard Holmes, he was able to educate an entire generation of British Army Officers in the subtleties of the academic study of the profession of war. The 1970s and 1980s saw almost a ‘golden generation’ of academics emerge from Sandhurst, teaching and writing, and making the move from being a lecturer through to being internationally renowned historians. This was not a new move, for there has long been a strong academic trend at all three service academies over many years, and where whole generations of officers would have been brought into contact with their theories and ideas. The academic studies teams would teach on strategy, tactics, and history and try to bring the wider theoretical and conceptual understanding of military conflict, and merge it with what the cadets were learning in their basic training. This marked the start of a lifelong process of military education, where throughout their careers, military officers returned to Staff College for further updates on strategy, history and wider considerations.

What is perhaps most interesting though is that although they were with the military, the majority of these academic staff, including Keegan, do not appear to have served full time in the military. This is perhaps the most significant aspect. By delinking the military, and providing civilian tuition, these individuals were able to look at developments in a different light – a step removed from the military; they would not have the same emotional attachment to certain issues, and could teach in a more objective manner.

The seeming diminution in status of the academic staffs at the three academies is a real loss. Unlike in previous years, Strategic Studies appears to be lower on the priority for training, and the personalities coming into the role do not seem to enjoy the same stature as their predecessors. In the RN the role appears to have been hived off to a local university, while at Cranwell Airpower Theory is taught by serving staff, who while experienced, perhaps are too closely linked to the subject to be able to examine it in a truly objective manner. Only at Sandhurst does a small academic team really remain, and even then it recruits relatively junior civil service grades to carry out the role. A place on the Sandhurst academic staff no longer seems to be the hugely important academic post that it once was. Arguably it is less important, particularly as the majority of officers join now with degrees – there is less need for the academies to act as a finishing school, and better to dedicate resources at Shrivenham where a truly world class academic package can be delivered.

Does this really matter though? Some may feel that time in a training environment is best dedicated to mastering the profession of arms, and not of learning about historical events which are of limited relevance to an officer on their first appointment. Humphrey though feels that this link between the military and academics is crucial – they provide a uniquely independent and unbiased take, able to discuss and educate on matters of concern without having a direct service bias. They can train people to think and write, and initiate a lifelong love of learning which underpins their ability to think and argue on behalf of their service.

One only has to look at the dearth of high quality military academics in recent years – while there have been good ‘war diaries’ published, describing the experience of what it is to command, usually by former soldiers, there is a lack of new faces on the block. If one goes to academic conferences organised by the MOD, you usually encounter the same old faces, well known in their day, but now gently edging towards retirement. It feels as if there is a lack of new John Keenan’s or Richard Holmes out there. The gap is being filled by so-called ‘defence commentators’ but these are usually single issue individuals obsessed with one dogma, theory or belief, and unable to view other arguments against in a truly objective manner, for fear it will threaten their own religion. One only has to look at the turgid, tired old diatribe from the Phoenix Think Tank, which seems to hold that Sea Harriers and Naval Aviation is the one true form of flying, and anything else should be cast asunder. Alternatively look at the disappointingly poor ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ written by an individual who had arguably not benefitted from sufficient staff training or defence academic studies, and the end result was a document which felt akin to an internet bulletin board ‘wish list of how to fix bad things’ rather than a serious credible argument in favour of policy or defence reform. In both cases though these individuals have got media coverage – there is a lack of credible individuals emerging from periods at a service academy who can step up and speak publicly about the challenges of warfare, about the challenges of defence, and educate not just the military, but the public at large. The loss of this talent is keenly felt, and it remains to be seen where the next generation of Keenan’s and Holmes will emerge from.

Farewell Sir John, we will miss your analysis and ability to put an argument across far more than we perhaps realise.  


  1. I would like to endorse Sir Humphrey's comments about the late Sir John Keegan.
    I found Sir John a very interesting and thoughtful person who made me think.

    Now about degrees - lol.
    "" Arguably it is less important, particularly as the majority of officers join now with degrees""
    I would say - but there are degrees and there are degrees!

    Now a story - I once served with a cavelry regiment which was being visited by officer cadets who hoped to join the regiment.
    One morning, while watching the cadets do their thing, the colonel turned to the adjutant and said "Now remember Henry. No ologies in this regiment, no ologies."

    So.... There are degrees and there are degrees!

  2. Here-Here with your final large paragraph and wider points made.
    The issue is, is there funding for such positions? How can we turn these positions into a more desireable one?

    Perhaps we're not seeing new faces because they've either been swallowed up by these groups or private industry, or those surviving are simply too overwhealmed by work to take up such a position.
    Then again, in the 70's and 80's period, we did not have the resources we have now at our fingertips.

    As with degrees, I'm not officer class but I have a degree... not an ologie (though those would work in certain trades)... something that is now prevalent in the S/NCO ranks (in the US, this has been standard for a while).

    Again wishing this site had more traffic.
    Good stuff.