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Fields of Battle is John Keegans study of warfare in North America. In chapters on the French and Indian War, the Revolution, the Civil War, the Indian Wars (as well as a brief coda on flight and strategic bombing) Keegan demonstrates that Americas peculiar geography played a major role in shaping the military and political outcomes that led to todays United States. He keeps his nose to the ground, revisiting the sites of important military engagements, which, he points out, frequently recur (the Hudson corridor during the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars; the Yorktown Peninsula during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars), in order to study the land and the strategic role geography played in those specific battles. As a Westerner, I am new to the Eastern states, its rivers and mountains, and the positioning of its cities. Fields of Battle provides a very interesting insight into the strategic importance of these mountains and waterways (the Hudson, the James, the St Lawrence) and gives a sense of meaning to what often feels like the arbitrary placement of cities. I had driven through Richmond six times without realizing it was positioned on the James. I had no idea you could canoe from Quebec to New York City. Until the railroad, water travel was by far the most energy efficient mode of travel, and though North America is not transversed by a single waterway, the vast portion of it inside the Mississippi-Great Lakes-St Lawrence system can be easily reached via a network of natural portages caused by back flooding during the last Ice Age. Control of these portages was instrumental in the creation of political demarcations between first the French and British and later British and Americans. In the same way, the Unions control of the waterways that were the agrarian Souths principal means of transport, and Grants brilliant understanding of the geography of the South, predetermined the outcome of the Civil War long before the bloody atrition of the Eastern theater resolved itself. Keegan is fascinated with Grant, as with Washington: both men surveyors and frontier explorers. Particularly as compared to McClellan, who never grasped that war in America was of a strategically different kind than war in Europe because of the particular nature of American geography. The South, Keegan points out, is the size of Europe.In a sense this is the thesis of the book: that America is geologically unique, that the rapid populating of it was historically unique and created war between the powers that fought to control it, and that those military leaders who best understood the unique nature of American geography were the inevitable conquerors of it. A study of war in America, in Keegans brilliant thinking, is as much about America as about war. Fields of Battle, in a sense, is two books: Keegans study of war, and Keegans autobiographical reminiscences and meditations on his extensive personal travels in the United States. Keegan loves the United States, and has visited often, first as a pioneering Oxford exchange student on a reverse Rhodes scholarship who toured the battlefields of the Civil War in a seersucker suit and a borrowed car; later as an eminent historian invited to lecture at various military bases and universities; once even to counsel the US President. While the book on war is fascinating, beautifully researched, and original, the book on America is in someways better. In it, as in some passages of his other books, Keegan reveals his true character. He is a delightful man, more Bill Bryson than JFC Fuller. At times, the study of war feels like an excuse for a very interesting young man to take a lifelong holiday. That he provides such brilliant history along with such a touching and insightful travelogue, speaks to Keegans singularity as a man as well as a historian. My only quibbles with the book are: there is hardly a mention of the two wars that shaped North Americas southerly orientation: the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War. While both may have been fought outside the extent borders of the United States, the proximity to Mexico and the Caribbean, the eventual positioning of the border along the Rio Grande, and the strategic value of the Caribbean islands to Gulf coast shipping all fit easily within the parameters of the book. Their absence is felt. Secondly, Keegan comes down hard on the Plains Indians for refusing to adapt to the encroachment of Europeans. On this, I dont find his thinking very balanced or the outcomes of that thinking very justified. In sum, however, this is a wonderfully written, highly insightful, and touchingly personal book by one of our finest historians.

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