Sir John Keegan, Ave Atque Vale

For various family reasons, I have been mostly off-line during the last few months, but I could not let slip by the sad news of the passing of Sir John Keegan, the renowned military historian and author of many works that certainly shaped my thinking and, I would guess, that of many of our readers.  The Telegraph, for which he served as defense editor for many years, has an obituary here.  For my part, I exchanged occasional cordial letters and, later, emails with Keegan beginning in the early 1990s.  The discussion over all those years that most engaged us both began with a review Keegan wrote in the Times Literary Supplement in 1995 of a book on the laws of war by another intellectually towering figure in these fields, Sir Adam Roberts (the review is probably in the TLS archives, but I can’t find an open source link).  Keegan’s review was, as with everything he wrote, crisp, lucid, and elegant; although his reputation justly rests on his many books, I myself am drawn in a literary sense to his exquisitely written critical reviews in the TLS and elsewhere.

Keegan’s review of Adam Roberts’ book remained with me, and I quoted it in my own 1998 TLS review of Caroline Moorehead’s powerful history of the Red Cross movement, Dunant’s Dream: War, Switzerland, and the History of the Red Cross.  Keegan got in touch after my essay appeared to tell me that this notion of honor was far from being a throwaway point, but was in fact central to his view on the nature of the military professional and added, I’m pleased to say, that he embraced the passage in which his own comment is embedded.  Fifteen years later, the intellectual conversation around these topics is significantly different, of course – but not entirely:

The dream of an international culture of legality that has all the virtues of a settled and legitimate domestic legal order is the ancient dream of a deus ex machina. Faith in legality as the engine driving such adherence as exists to the laws of war seems to me, however, entirely misplaced; it is a fantasy tailor-made for lawyers, and especially for American lawyers. Lawyers believe the problem is one of enforcement, whereas in fact it is one of allegiance. Codifications of international law are a useful template for organizing the categories of a soldier’s duties. But, in the end, the culture relevant to respect for inter-national humanitarian law is not the culture of legality and the cult of lawyers, but instead it is the culture of the professional honour of soldiers, and what they are willing or not willing to do on the battlefield.

Which is why the profoundest remarks in some years about war and law were those written three years ago in this paper [TLS] by John Keegan. “The experience of land war in two world wars”, Adam Roberts observes in The Laws of War, the book Keegan is reviewing, “‘must necessarily raise a question as to whether formal legal codification is necessarily superior to notions of custom, honour, professional standards, and natural law’ in making for battlefield decencies.” Keegan answers simply, “There is no substitute for honour as a medium for enforcing decency on the battlefield, never has been, and never will be.” (TLS, November 24, 1995.) Despite the ICRC’s affection for international legalism, it surely knows that Keegan is right in a way that other human rights and humanitarian organizations do not, precisely because it has lived so long with the dilemmas that other organizations avoid. Should it ever cease to comprehend this, it will also cease to be an organization with a unique mission, legitimacy and insight – the organization it has always claimed to be – and become instead, in David Rieff’s words, “just another NGO”. The loss would be profound.

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