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Why There Are No More Heroes : THE MASK OF COMMAND by John Keegan (Elisabeth Sifton Books/ Viking: $18.95; 350 pp.)

December 27, 1987|Paul Bohannan | Bohannan is editor of "Law and Warfare" (University of Texas Press) and is working on a one-volume world history in anthropological perspective

The late great Scottish sculptor Michael Ayrton, in an ephemeral novel called "The Maze Maker," divided men into two sorts on the basis of the way they approach their work: those who struggle to master materials become artists or craftsmen (like Daedalus, the artisan who made wings to escape the maze of the Minotaur), while those others who manipulate people try to become heroes. The craftsman's risk is that543713651enough for the job. The hero's risk is that he will perish on an ego trip. The craftsman at worst produces schlock, but the hero, like Icarus falling from the sky, may lose life itself--or, like Hitler, may lay waste whole continents.

"The Mask of Command" is a book about heroes and the historical role of heroism in war and in society. A vivid description of the social underpinnings of Alexander's heroic behavior sets the stage. In Alexander's time and place, military command was subsumed in kingship and military heroism was one dimension of political leadership.

However, the kind of military heroes a particular society can support is strictly curtailed by two factors. First, heroism is not in itself creative, whatever other attributes it may have; therefore as the scale of society increases, heroism will inevitably be separated from political innovation. And second, the evolution of social complexity and the invention of new tools and weapons so circumscribe the exercise of command that a third type of person must emerge, which neither Ayrton nor the author of this book discuss in so many words--the manager who manipulates complex organizations.

After setting his stage with Alexander, the author selects Wellington as the anti-hero and Grant as an example of unheroic leadership in face of the more complex social situation. Neither was heroic in nature or stature. Both, however, were what a later age would come to call good managers. Managerial skill seems to have replaced heroism as the vital requirement behind the capacity to command.

It is at first off-putting that the author would use Hitler as his fourth outstanding general. Yet the reader is soon convinced: Hitler is indeed the perfect foil with which to describe "the false heroic"--that variety of narcissistic onstage heroism which, however sensible for Alexander, can no longer be supported by complex modern society. It is instructive to view Hitler as he viewed himself: a hero in an era of managers--and to see him as a failure for perhaps just that reason.

It will be interesting to see how the general public--particularly men, concerned as so many of them are with the heroes of team sports and with the managers of great corporations--will treat this book about generals. Do generals belong with football players or with managers? Was Alexander just a good quarterback on a team that did not have or need a manager? Were Wellington and Grant no more than good managers of companies that did not have or need anything like a quarterback (the classic "hands-on" executive)? How have the requirements of military success changed since their day? Hitler's eye was on himself instead of on the organization. Was it his need to be a military/political hero in a society that could no longer accommodate that kind of heroism that first made him compelling, and that later undid him?

Political heroism seems to need a stage as small as that of sports heroism--in effect, the stadium and the greatly restricted context of the ballgame. As for managers, we may extol them only because complex society requires them.

Are generals then just craftsmen--engineers and artists--who work their wills, without heroism, on organizations? Where does such a view leave the function of military command?

This book poses more good questions than it answers. The historical sections demand some basic knowledge of events if one is to follow them clearly, but they do nicely document the historical movement of the function of command from hero to manager in the last 2,500 years. The author asks some cogent questions about the future of the function of command in an atomic age. What kind of people might run an atomic war?

The substance that underlies this book may be far more exciting than what is actually written in it, page by page. The plodding is necessary, however, and it leads to some soaring insights.

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