Winston Churchill: a life (Review)

(Winston Churchill: a life is a biographical sketch by historian John Keegan)

John Keegan was a member of the Royal Society of Literature, the author of over twenty historical books, and is held in high esteem as one of the most “distinguished contemporary military historians”.  It appears few are in better position to present an accurate peek into the life of a man who seemed to halt the very tide of Nazi aggression with his words of courage and determination.

But beside his qualifications, John Keegan presents an interesting look into the psyche of many British youth following the years of World War II.  His portrait of Winston Churchill comes with a touch of personal discovery from the author, who in his youth considered Churchill “Unchic, ponderous, and pompous,” but through personal curiosity discovered an individual highly complicated, divisive, and yet, when it counted most, decisive.

A large portion of the book is directed to recognizing the achievements and legacy of Winston Churchill, while also laying out for the reader, in plain terms, the strengths and weakness of Churchill’s character.  Through Keegan’s eyes, it can be seen that all heroes are tragic men who struggle with their own weaknesses and flaws, and yet through sheer perseverance produce results that stand as a monument, not to the man as a whole, but to that which was good within his divided nature.

The book, despite its shortness, gives an in-depth look at the politics and war-time strategies of Winston Churchill, especially the momentous period of the early 1940s in which Winston Churchill rejected the idea of surrender.  It is interesting to note that the bluntness of Winston Churchill proved both his strength and weakness.  In the 1920s and 1930s, Winston Churchill saw the dangers of appeasement and yet was ignored because no one wanted to hear about war after the tragedies of World War I.  He therefore was ignored and mocked incessantly.  However, when World War II was imminent Britain needed a leader who spoke plainly and decisively, who put reality into easily understood terms and then communicated to the British people that, despite the terrifying circumstances, the people of the British Isles could and would rise to the occasion.

John Keegan views Winston Churchill from a very positive perspective, and yet he does not airbrush the negatives of Churchill’s life.  Keegan does not tear down Churchill for his weaknesses in a sarcastic memoir as Lytton Strachey might have, but neither does Keegan venerate his hero to God-like status as the Greeks, or even the Victorian British might have.  Instead Keegan shows the human experience as it is; a struggle between good and evil, not between nations or powers, but inside a human’s very soul.  Keegan’s perspective is that, for all Winston Churchill’s flaws, he was the right man at the right time in the right place and he helped secure freedom and democracy for the European Continent.

Winston Churchill a life is superb example of how an individual can be chronicled accurately in a simple and straight-forward book lasting no longer than several hundred pages.  History is the study of the human experience and the great struggle has always been to get it experienced by humans.  Of all the subjects studied in school currently, history perhaps has seen the least amount of progress.  While high school math, science, and English classes have risen in difficulty and scope, to the point college students often have college credits in these classes as freshmen or have enough knowledge to test out of basic college classes, history has not had an equal increase.  Is it the student’s failure, or is it the failure of historians to not present the human experience in a concise and straight-forward manner that the average student can relate to and comprehend?  This is why John Keegan has produced such an amazing work and why his work should be emulated.  Instead of making a five-volume biographical research series into the life of Winston Churchill, and patting himself on the back for how much knowledge he has despite influencing absolutely no one, John Keegan has penned a short book which will not intimidate the casual curiosity of the average individual.  This book can be picked up, read quickly, and passed around to others.  Many people have now had the experience of discovering Winston Churchill’s life just as John Keegan himself did when he listened to The War Speeches of Winston Churchill in a lonely New York apartment in 1957, thanks to the thoughtful writing of this short book.  History must be experienced so we can understand our own experience, or else history accomplishes nothing.

The Millennial Federalist


Categories: Politics and Philosophy


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