The Mask of Command

A retro-review from November 25, 2003.

I think it’s still considered a classic of military history.

Review: The Mask of Command: Alexander the Great, Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant, Hitler, and the Nature of Leadership, John Keegan, 1988.Mask of Command

Its title comes from a theatrical metaphor, Keegan examining what a commander chooses to reveal of himself to his troops, what he conceals, and what he sometimes invents.

But the book is much more than that. Through an examination of the armies, times, and personalties of four commanders — Alexander the Great, Wellington, Grant, and Hitler (with a brief look at the command style of John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missle Crisis) — he shows us how command tactics and theatrics have evolved from Alexander’s leading by example in the thick of battle, an heroic example, to the decidely unheroic and distant Hitler and Kennedy.

You’d expect, in a book like this, some look at the politics, military structure, and arms surrounding each leader. And that’s present as well as a look at the mechanics of battlefield communication. We’re also shown how each of the above leaders personifies some leadership style.

As with his The Face Of Battle, Keegan makes some of his most memorable points through telling details. We hear of how Alexander’s leadership was constricted by the dust of battle, the impossibility of directing combat while heroically hacking at the foe himself; we see how Wellington was distanced from the battlefield by cannons, his vision even more clouded by the gray smoke of guns than Alexander’s was by dust, and his intuitive estimation of how fast troops could move against enemies who had just discharged a volley; Keegan talks about the importance of clear and concise dispatches in 19th century battles and how Grant and Wellington’s command of English served them well off the battleground; we read transcripts of a micromanaging Hitler who had far better recall of various weapons’ characteristics than his commanders but a notable deficeit in strategic thinking.

I found it interesting that all the commanders Keegan chose were political leaders, half unifying military and political commands at once, the other half pursuing political careers after their generalships were over. He doesn’t explicity say why this is so, but a concluding chapter on “post-heroic” leadership over nuclear forces implicitly argues for a new style of command by our current military-political leaders.

Whether you want a biography of any or all of the commanders studied in this book, a history of how warfare and the process of command changed through millennia, or a look at how a war leader must manipulate his followers with the right mix — for his society and time — of love, alienation, fear, and respect, this book is worth reading.

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