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Book Review Essays

The Eye Of Command

by Kimberly Kagan

Ann Arbor, Michigan
University of Michigan Press, 2006
271 pages, US$24.95 (trade paperback)
ISBN 0-472-03128-7

Reviewed by Brian Bertosa

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Book CoverThe author of this carefully crafted work, Kimberly Kagan, has a PhD in ancient history and has taught at a number of prestigious American universities, including the United States Military Academy. As such, she has had academic experience with military affairs both ancient and modern, and this is closely reflected in the volume under review here. For The Eye of Command can, in a sense, be viewed as two books in one. In the main, it constitutes an in-depth examination of the battle narratives of two ancient Roman army officers, Ammianus Marcellinus, and the well-known Julius Caesar, to show how their respective narrative styles represent two very distinct approaches to the writing of military history. Ammianus, a relatively low-ranking staff officer, is shown to be an exponent of the “face of battle” approach, first expounded in the 1976 work of the same name by Sir John Keegan.1 This soldier-centric viewpoint, which emphasizes the experience of small-unit tactics by the individual soldier or junior officer, is regarded by Keegan as the proper approach to be taken by historians wishing to understand the reality of combat. The writings of Caesar, by contrast, serve as an example of the “eye of command” approach (a term, presumably, of Kagan’s coining), which, by virtue of its commander-centric viewpoint, affords historians a much broader knowledge base than that of the individual combatant by which to reconstruct a given battle.2 Kagan propounds this approach as the preferred method for historians seeking to understand higher-order phenomena, such as causality in battle.

The other component of this book, appearing in various locations in the text, takes the form of a closely reasoned critique of Keegan’s Face of Battle in favour of the author’s “eye of command” theoretical construct. Drawing upon material as diverse as Clausewitz and modern chaos theory from the sciences, this portion of the work is not restricted to the chronological boundaries of Ammianus and Caesar, whom Kagan, given her background in ancient history, has chosen in order to illustrate the difference between the two approaches. As such, this book has the potential to be of interest to those involved with the military history of periods later than ancient Rome. This makes it an example of that still all-too-rare bird, the interdisciplinary study, which I commend Kagan for having the courage to undertake.

Excluding the introduction and conclusion, the work can be divided into two roughly equal halves, the first dealing with Ammianus, and the second with Caesar. In each, there is a brief but informative section aimed at the non-specialist reader that places each Roman author into his historical, and, perhaps more importantly, historiographical context. I found these sections to have just the right amount of detail, but a note of caution must be sounded at this point, for these are the only places in the text that actually deal with history per se.3 The remainder of the study of each author consists of detailed, sometimes literally line-by-line, analysis of the language4 they use in order to demonstrate how their narratives constitute examples of, in Ammianus’ case, the “face of battle” approach, and in Caesar’s case, the “eye of command” approach. Forming the centrepiece of the work, these analyses are strongly recommended to anyone doing academic work on the battles narrated in Ammianus or Caesar, with equal applicability to those whose emphasis is primarily historical or literary.

That being said, the non-classicist should not feel deterred from making a go of these portions of the text, for I found that Kagan’s analysis is paced such that it usually has the tendency to move on to something new before tedium or boredom sets in. Lest that be thought to be due to a fortunate congruence of Kagan’s interests with my own, this tendency unfortunately breaks down in her last chapter, dealing with Caesar’s account of the battle of Gergovia in 52 BC. For some reason, the reader is here presented with geographical minutiae of a type quite uncharacteristic of the rest of the book, suitable more for an academic journal, or a book intended for a specialist readership. Admittedly, the terrain around Gergovia is more complex than the other battlefields examined in the text, but the morass of detail the reader is forced to wade through, particularly in the endnotes, is out of all proportion to this difference, making parts of this particular chapter a difficult read.

Another irritant, perhaps inevitable in a work spanning disciplinary boundaries, concerns terminology. In my case, difficulties arose from the terms generic causality, adduced by Kagan as a fundamental of the “face of battle” approach to battle narration, and critical causality, a term derived from Clausewitz and a feature of the “eye of command.” I found the definitions that accompanied these terms on their first use vague and inadequate. In the case of the first term, which figures more prominently in the text, what understanding I have of it came only through sheer repetition of examples of its use. Similar comments apply to the author’s attempt to differentiate between episodes, supposedly a feature of “face of battle” narratives, and events, the proper grist for the mill of critical causality. Nevertheless, such constructs by no means dominate those parts of the work devoted to a critique of Keegan, and appear even less frequently in the portions devoted to Ammianus and Caesar. Therefore, those who, like myself, are not convinced of the suitability of theory to the study of the humanities need not be deterred from engaging with this otherwise thought-provoking work.

A far graver difficulty in my view with The Eye of Command lies in its overall premise, and how that premise relates to the wider field of military history. Essentially what Kagan does is to put forth her “eye of command” approach to the study of battle – commander- centric, knowledgeable of a battle’s main events and how they contribute to the eventual outcome – as a much-needed alternative to soldier-centric approaches based upon Keegan’s Face of Battle. For this to be so, one would expect that nothing written since Keegan in the field of military history had shown any sign of using, albeit unknowingly, the “eye of command” approach. This may very well be true in Kagan’s specialty, ancient history. Of the examples she gives of books written since Keegan, all cleave to his “face of battle” methodology. Victor Davis Hanson, for example, waxes effusive about Keegan in his 1989 Western Way of War, and is rewarded with an introduction written for the book by Sir John himself.5 But can this pattern be seen in the field of military history more broadly defined?

Sitting in the military history section of my personal library is a copy of Louis Allen’s 1984 Burma: The Longest War, 1941-45.6 This mammoth tome discusses the conflict in Burma at every imaginable level, from the political and the grand strategic, to the most hair-raising “face of battle” accounts.7 At the level of the individual battle, a more suitable point of comparison with Kagan, the battle for Meiktila, for example, is reconstructed using official histories; memoirs, both published and unpublished, of generals, lower-ranking officers, and even a civilian attached to the Japanese army; intelligence bulletins; and personal communications with the author by former participants. It should be pointed out that many of these sources are written in Japanese, the author having served as a Japanese-speaking intelligence officer in the theatre of which he writes. As can be imagined, all of the tenets of Kagan’s “eye of command” approach to battle narration are covered, indeed, I would say masterfully, in Allen’s accounts of the battles in the Burma theatre. And his book is only one of many works of military history post-Keegan that do so.8 While Kagan can certainly take credit for identifying the “eye of command” concept in the capacity of a concept, and for giving it a name, I suspect that many practitioners of military history, particularly those outside academia, have either lost or are losing no sleep over their failure to engage with the “eye of command” theoretical construct. And I believe this holds true for Keegan’s Face of Battle, for that matter.

Which brings me to the crux of my disappointment with Kagan’s book. Ensconced within the field of ancient history, situated in the context of the current bibliography in that discipline, she is probably on safe ground. This is certainly the impression given by the review of Kagan by Michael B. Charles, an ancient military historian writing in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review,9 who highlights none of the problems brought forward in this essay. But pitching the book, and the concept of the same name that underlies it, as a viable, indeed, necessary alternative to Keegan’s Face of Battle demands a familiarity with the scope of the latter work’s influence, lying largely in the realm of military history postdating the ancient period, that is simply not there. Why this would be so is quite perplexing. Academic parochialism, in the form of a belief that nothing outside the field of ancient history is worth engaging, is impossible in the case of an author possessing the versatility to tackle Keegan, Clausewitz, and chaos theory. Alternatively, it has been suggested to me that the cause may be nothing more than a different set of books on Kagan’s shelf as compared to my own,10 i.e., unwitting, as opposed to wilful, unfamiliarity. Either alternative strikes me as a poor foundation for a conceptual foray with ramifications in another discipline. Nevertheless, I hesitate to state that Kagan would have done better to confine her work to the analyses of Ammianus and Caesar. For a work of a dual nature such as this one can, of course, have more than one readership suited to it, and so, I would also recommend this book to theoretically-informed students and scholars of more recent periods of military history, particularly any who might question the temerity of one whose avowed purpose is to knock Sir John Keegan off the pedestal upon which he seems to have been placed. Only time will tell if Kagan succeeds.

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Brian Bertosa is an independent scholar whose articles have appeared in The Canadian Military Journal, the Journal of Military History, and War and Society.


  1. John Keegan, The Face of Battle (London: J. Cape, 1976) and numerous subsequent printings, including even an audiobook. The reprint edition currently in print appears to be London: Pimlico, 2004.
  2. Kagan would have us understand the “eye of command” as distinct from what she calls the “traditional command-centered approach” (p. 10), which was the bête noire of John Keegan and a major impetus for the writing of his Face of Battle. For the purposes of this review essay, I will give Kagan the benefit of the doubt on this point, but it must be stated that, after careful reading of her presentation of the “eye of command” construct, I can see little substantive difference between the two.
  3. Readers interested in furthering their knowledge of the historical background of each of the ancient authors examined in The Eye of Command would do well to consult, for the period of Caesar, Adrian Keith Goldsworthy, The Roman Army at War: 100 BC-AD 200 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) and for Ammianus, Hugh Elton, Warfare in Roman Europe, AD 350-425 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).
  4. English in the main text, Latin primarily in the endnotes.
  5. Victor Davis Hanson, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece, 2nd edition. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000). Curiously, another example given by Kagan, Goldsworthy’s Roman Army at War, makes copious use of the writings of Caesar, Kagan’s archetypal “eye of command” historian.
  6. Louis Allen, Burma: The Longest War, 1941-45 (London: J. M. Dent, 1984; London: Phoenix Press, 2000).
  7. Keegan is included in Allen’s bibliography.
  8. Lest I be accused of ‘comparing apples to oranges,’ inasmuch as Allen is not listed as having a PhD and was not published by an academic press, I have pulled from my shelf David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 1995): House has the PhD, Glantz is fluent in Russian, and their work contains enough critical causality to satisfy even Kagan, I should think.
  9. Michael B. Charles, review of The Eye of Command, by Kimberly Kagan, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.02.33, <http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2007/2007-02-33.html>.
  10. I owe this insight to Professor Hugh Elton, Department of Ancient History and Classics, Trent University, who graciously gave up some of his time to discuss Kagan’s book with me. All other ideas in this review, whatever their merits, are my own.