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Published September 19, 2012

The various EVE forums and news sites are home to battle reports, those short narratives entailing the who, what, why, when and where of large and small-scale engagements across New Eden.  They are almost always, however, contradicted by 'the other side' and criticized for a lack of perception, whether it be in exaggerating numbers or in judging the objectives of the opposing force.  But in the field of war, this is hardly a new phenomenon, argues recently-deceased war historian John Keegan, who attempts to bring attention to the front-line perspective of three famous and well-documented land engagements in The Face of Battle.

The book is revolutionary in its approach to defining both how and why soldiers risk their lives on the battlefield in the face of death or capture.  The US Army Command and General Staff courses require reading The Face of Battle; it also stands out, among Keegan's other publications (The Second World War and The Price of Admiralty are also fantastic reads for the history buff) as unique in that it is not so much concerned with the outcome of battles and their long-term consequences in national and military development as it is with the psychology of individual men, both at the top and bottom ranks. 

His introduction is a lengthy treatise on his own perspective as an academic, not a soldier.  Indeed, his first task is to admit that he's never been in a battle, much less experienced the rush of being in the front lines of a confused clash between bodies, steel and smoke.  He situates war narratives into many categories and recognizes their value as propaganda, further arguing that many battle histories we consider instrumental have no value in discerning the combat environment for individuals.  Caesar Augustus, for example, relies on as little human detail as possible, naming only higher officers and insisting that his rallying cries are what make and break close sorties.  It is this mentality (that the competent commander wins, that the incompetent commander loses) which Keegan seeks to avoid in his analyses of combat.

The first location in The Face of Battle is Agincourt, October 25th, 1415 between Henry V's English army and the French army led by various princes.  Though severely outnumbered, Henry V won a decisive victory in multiple stages by routing calvalry charges, suppressing advances with longbow salvoes, and encircling the heavily-armored French swordsmen with English spearmen.  The slightest details are brought to life: How difficult it must be for a man wearing sixty to seventy pounds of steel armor to lift himself once knocked down (dooming the French infantry advance); in what situation a horse will charge directly into a solid crowd of men (causing the repulsion of the first French cavalry charge and causing the panicked horses to instead charge the advancing French line); Henry's fateful order to execute the French prisoners, and why the order was defied (not for morality, but for the handsome ransoms promised for live French prisoners).  In this chapter, Keegan successfully argues that, though the leadership of Henry V might have created the pretext to victory, the decisiveness of the battle was owed entirely to English discipline and French impatience under fire.

The second battle, perhaps the most famous English land victory in their entire history of war, is that of Waterloo, on June 18th 1815.  Napoleon Bonaparte sought to rout the British army, led by the Duke of Wellington, before a Prussian army led by Blucher could arrive to bring reinforcements.  Fraught with miscommunication and the unfortunate choice to 'reinforce failure' on Wellington's strong center, Napoleon's repeated thrusts and detachment sorties failed and bought ample time for Blucher's army to arrive and crush Napoleon's right flank.  Despite Napoleon's sound and well-justified tactics and an army vastly superior in overall composition and experience, the defensive tactics employed by Wellington - especially in hiding his reserve forces behind hill slopes for surprise counter-thrusts combined with the effect of thick musket smoke favoring Wellington's hill-mounted lines over Napoleon's downwind columns - were crucial factors enabling the British to hold the field until Blucher could deliver the killing blow.

Keegan's most ambitious exploration, however, is in The Battle of the Somme, 1916.  One of the bloodiest battles of World War I, the Allied push past the Somme river in France is puzzling when reduced to the average soldier: Why, knowing full well what dangers lie in the 'no-man's land' would anybody venture out of their trench and across it to rout the enemy from their trenches, only to be faced with another frontier of no-man's land punctuated by yet another line of trenches on the other side?  Despite the picture painted by books and films, the infantry advances, however chatotic and prone to miscarriage, were calculated, and their leaders assured that they would be virtually uncontested once past the two to three hundred yards of no-man's land.  Other observations combined to compel the attacking infantry forward: That mortar shrapnel blew forward, not backward, from the point of impact; that the Germans would not bombard or gas their own trenches with live men still defending; that the sheer volume of covering fire afforded to advancing infantry gave the illusion that their advance would be unseen or unheard through the smoke, dust and gunfire.  Although these observations were often unfounded in reality, they gave to infantry the illusion that advancing through no-man's land was at least safe as, if not safer than, residing in the trenches.

The sheer misery of day-to-day trench life also served as inspiration to strike into no-man's land, which is precisely where a comparison to EVE Online can be drawn.  Why do inferior forces, either in quality, quantity, leadership or all three, frequently form up to engage vastly superior forces despite knowing, with near-certainty, the end result?  The reasons are more complicated than simple arithmetic or strategic precedent.  The spoils of sov warfare matter only to leaders and cannot entirely, if at all, justify the individual's presence on the battlefield.  Keegan's overall premise is that, while the reasons for staying away from battle are simple and can be universally applied, the reasons for being on the battlefield change through the centuries, through technology, with the presence or absense of spiritual guidance, and with the national perogative.  And while some posters on Kugutsumen or EVE-O may try to speak for the whole in announcing their intentions - typically under the broad banner of Goodfights - it can just as easily be argued that the reasoning behind any CFC, Dotbros, HBC or SoCo member showing up for a fight might be vastly different, and that these reasons deserve a thorough investigation akin to Keegan's. 

Hilmar Keller
The blackest member of Kugutsumen.com.
Author: John Keegan
Publisher: Pimlico
Price: More information on product page

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