At the age of 13, Keegan contracted orthopaedic tuberculosis, which subsequently affected his gait. The long-term effects of this rendered him unfit for military service, and the timing of his birth made him too young for service in the Second World War, facts he mentioned in his works as an ironic observation on his profession and interests. The illness also interrupted his education in his teenage years, although it included a period at King's College, Taunton and two years at Wimbledon College, which led to entry to Balliol College, Oxford in 1953, where he read history with an emphasis on war theory. After graduation he worked at the American Embassy in London for three years.
Leaving the academy in 1986, Keegan joined the Daily Telegraph as a defence correspondent and stayed with the paper as defence editor until his death. He also wrote for the American conservative National Review Online. In 1998 he wrote and presented the BBC's Reith Lectures, entitling them War in our World.
Keegan died on 2 August 2012 of natural causes at his home in Kilmington, Wiltshire. He was survived by his wife, their two daughters and two sons.
Views on contemporary conflicts
Keegan stated: "I will never oppose the Vietnam War. Americans were right to do it. I think they fought it in the wrong way. I don't think it's a war like fighting Hitler, but I think it was a right war, a correct war."
An article in The Christian Science Monitor called Keegan a "staunch supporter" of the Iraq War. It quotes him: "Uncomfortable as the 'spectacle of raw military force' is, he concludes that the Iraq war represents 'a better guide to what needs to be done to secure the safety of our world than any amount of law-making or treaty-writing can offer.'"
Keegan was also criticised by peers, including Sir Michael Howard and Christopher Bassford for his critical position on Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian officer and author of Vom Kriege (On War), one of the basic texts on warfare and military strategy. Keegan was described as "profoundly mistaken". Bassford stated, "Nothing anywhere in Keegan's work – despite his many diatribes about Clausewitz and 'the Clausewitzians' – reflects any reading whatsoever of Clausewitz's own writings." The political scientist Richard Betts criticised Keegan's understanding of the political dimensions of war, calling Keegan "a naïf about politics."
Noting Keegan's works on the Waffen-SS, the military historian S.P. MacKenzie describes him as a popular historian "partially or wholly seduced by [its] mystique". He connects Keegan with contemporary Waffen-SS historical revisionism, first propounded by HIAG, the Waffen-SS lobby group from the 1950s to the 1990s. Commenting on this contemporary trend, Mackenzie writes that "as the older generation of Waffen-SS scribes has died off, a new, post-war cadre of writers has done much to perpetuate the image of the force as a revolutionary European army" and includes Keegan in the group.
In A History of Warfare, Keegan outlined the development and limitations of warfare from prehistory to the modern era. It looked at various topics, including the use of horses, logistics, and "fire". A key concept put forward was that war is inherently cultural. In the introduction, he vigorously denounced the idiom "war is a continuation of policy by other means", rejecting "Clausewitzian" ideas. However, Keegan's discussion of Clausewitz was criticised as uninformed and inaccurate by writers like Peter Paret, Christopher Bassford, and Richard M. Swain.
He also contributed to work on historiography in modern conflict. With Richard Holmes he wrote the BBC documentary Soldiers: A History of Men in Battle. Frank C. Mahncke wrote that Keegan is seen as "among the most prominent and widely read military historians of the late twentieth century". In a book-cover blurb extracted from a more complex article, Sir Michael Howard wrote, "at once the most readable and the most original of living historians".
Norman Stone described Keegan's The Second World War as his preferred book on the war.
Booknotes interview with Keegan on A History of Warfare, May 8, 1994, C-SPAN
Presentation by Keegan on Fields of Battle, June 5, 1996, C-SPAN
Presentation by Keegan on The First World War, June 15, 1999, C-SPAN
Waffen SS: the asphalt soldiers (New York: Ballantine, 1970) ISBN 0-345-32641-5
Barbarossa: Invasion of Russia, 1941 (New York, 1971) ISBN 0-345-02111-8
Opening Moves – August 1914 (New York: Ballantine, 1971) ISBN 0-345-09798-X
Guderian (New York: Ballantine, 1973) ISBN 0-345-03385-X
Rundstedt (New York: Ballantine, 1974) ISBN 0-345-23790-0
Dien Bien Phu (New York: Ballantine, 1974) ISBN 0-345-24064-2
Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda (2003) ISBN 0-375-40053-2 (also published with alternative subtitle as Intelligence in War: The value – and limitations – of what the military can learn about the enemyISBN 0-375-70046-3)
Atlas of World War II (ed.) (London: Collins, 2006) ISBN 0-00-721465-0 (an update of the 1989 Times Atlas)
The American Civil War (London, Hutchinson, 2009) ISBN 978-0-09-179483-5
^Interview Archived 9 November 2015 at the Wayback Machine (transcripted May 1994).
^Daniel Snowman: John Keegan History Today, volume 50, issue 5.2000
^Back cover of The First World War. Keegan, John, ISBN 0-375-40052-4
^"Booknotes". Archived from the original on 9 November 2015. Retrieved 5 August 2015.
^"British military historian John Keegan dead at 78". 4 August 2012. Archived from the original on 12 August 2012.
^Binder, David (2 August 2012). "John Keegan, Historian Who Put a Face on War, Dies at 78". NYTimes.com. Retrieved 10 August 2012.
^Byman, Daniel L.; Waxman, Matthew C. (2000). "Kosovo and the Great Air Power Debate" (PDF). International Security. 24 (4): 5–38. doi:10.1162/016228800560291. S2CID 57560780. Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 July 2017. Retrieved 10 August 2012. I didn't want to change my beliefs, but there was too much evidence accumulating to stick to the article of faith. It now does look as if air power has prevailed in the Balkans, and that the time has come to redefine how victory in war may be won.
^Scott Tyson, Ann (8 June 2004). "America's bewildering battle in Iraq follows new rules". CSMonitor.com. Retrieved 10 August 2012.
^Michael Howard, "To the Ruthless Belong the Spoils," The New York Times Book Review, 14 November 1993.
^War in History, November 1994, pp. 319–336, Christopher Bassford available at Clausewitz.com
^Betts, Richard (Fall 2000). "Is Strategy an Illusion?". International Security. 25 (2): 25. doi:10.1162/016228800560444. S2CID 30732113.