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September 17, 2003

John Keegan

John Hawkins' latest poll asked for favourite editorial columnists. My number one and two choices match the results. My only choice who did not make the list was John Keegan, former Sandhurst military historian and defence editor of the Telegraph. Keegan's The Face of Battle is a classic but Warpaths is my favourite. Years of history in a Canadian high-school utterly failed to convey the scale of conflicts on this continent and until I read Keegan I had never before understood the importance of the riverine system linking Montreal south through Lake Champlain down the Hudson to New York. The book should be mandatory reading in Canadian high-schools. I cannot speak to American high-school history but Warpaths would probably be an asset there too.

War is repugnant to the people of the United States; yet it is war that has made their nation and it is through their power to wage war that they dominate the world. Americans are proficient at war in the same way that they are proficient at work. It is a task, sometimes a duty. Americans have worked at war since the seventeenth century, to protect themselves from the Indians, to win their independence from George III, to make themselves one country, to win the whole of the their continent, to extinguish autocracy and dictatorship in the world outside.

It is not their favoured form of work. Left to themselves, Americans build, cultivate, bridge, dam, canalise, invent, teach, manufacture, think, write, lock themselves in struggle with the eternal challenges that man has chosen to confront, and with an intensity not known elsewhere on the globe. Bidden to make war their work, Americans shoulder the burden with intimidating purpose.

There is, I have said, an American mystery, the nature of which I only begin to perceive. If I were obliged to define it, I would say it is the ethos - masculine, pervasive, unrelenting - of work as an end in itself. War is a form of work, and America makes war, however reluctantly, however unwillingly, in a particularly workmanlike way. I do not love war; but I love America.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at September 17, 2003 08:10 AM


"War is hell."

But hell, the guy who said that demonstrated that war is also cool. When General Sherman wrecked the Southern railroads, his men built fires from the ties, heated the rails red hot, and then wrapped them around trees. Even the Southerners expressed grudging admiration for his handiwork -- calling them "Sherman's bow ties."

Americans do not like war, but when war comes, they try to enjoy it. (The latest phenomenon of "South Park Warriors" being no exception....)

A hell of a post. Keep it up!

Posted by: Eric Scheie at September 18, 2003 12:41 AM

War is a form of work

That's true in a way, but that's not quite the essence of it. War gets in the way of work (and other of the finer things in life). War is a waste of a lot of things, but most of all it is a waste of time. A waste of energy and effort. War is a distraction from real life.

As with many other such distractions, it may be annoying but at times someone's got to do it. So when it finally becomes clear that it's necessary, we deal with it as quickly and decisively as possible so that we may get back to living our lives, working, thinking, writing, raising families, etc.

Posted by: jeanne a e devoto at September 22, 2003 04:06 PM