Warbringer’s John Kevill: 8 Pieces Of Military History That Metal Fans Should Know About

Photo by Alex Solca

Frontman John Kevill of battle-scarred thrashers Warbringer lists the moments in warfare’s bloody history that deserve as many anthems as D-Day and Gettysburg.

Warbringer aren’t here to give you the battle hymn you might think you want. Make no mistake, the California-based thrash outfit have written about conflicts huge and small, from the culture-destroying campaigns of the ancient world to the police brutality going down in American streets. But in their lush, breakneck tracks, Warbringer won’t list specific dates or the numerical designations of specific tank or rifle models; instead, the band trade waving banners for the human anguish behind these scenes, focusing on even the most epic conflicts from a “ground-level point of view.”

“That’s what keeps me fascinated by it — dude, this is totally outside of my frame of reference,” laughs frontman John Kevill. “What is the craziest fucking thing human beings have every dealt with in the world? What are the extremes of the human condition? A lot of them surely are found in warfare. The kind of force unleashed by a military industrial state, it can literally annihilate the world at this point. Flesh-and-blood men and women deal with this, and it’s been this way since the dawn of time.”

That Warbringer’s upcoming sixth studio album (out Friday 4/24 via Napalm Records) is titled Weapons Of Tomorrow is in itself a form of dark commentary, or maybe an inside joke. While the record sleeve may suggest Priestian tracks about robots taking over the world, the subject matter still often focuses on antiquity; the song “The Black Hand Reaches Out,” for example, is about the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. For Kevill, it’s more that the modern world possesses an unreadiness for global turmoil that has maybe been seen before, and could at any moment be thrust into a future that will shake the foundations of our lives with artillery fire.

“History repeats itself is a cliche, and I’m against cliches in general,” notes John. “But, and I wish I could remember who to attribute this to, I heard it said that history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. Things don’t happen the same fucking way, but the theme might be the same. My focus is primarily on World War I, and I write about the outbreak phase of it, how people had this idea of the future coming their way, and it was very different. And my fear is that there’s going to be another great power conflict–that people won’t see it coming, and it’ll be worse than what the foolish people that got us into it anticipated. That’s exactly what happened in 1914–these European imperial powers had a system that was working for them, and despite that, all of them crashed into each other. And I think the lesson there is, don’t get too complacent in the way things are. It doesn’t need to be warfare — look at the way the pandemic’s changing society. Nobody knows that yet, but is it going to change things? You bet it is. That’s why, when talking about the future and tomorrow, I go back to 1914 a lot — because nobody knew that they were getting jerked into a totally different world from the one they had growing up. But it happened anyway, and it could happen to us, or our children.”

To hopefully learn a little more from our pasts, we thought to ask John about his favorite battles, figures, and stories in the history of war. But given how well-tread Gettysburg and Stalingrad are, and given John’s depth of knowledge, we asked him to give us the stories behind those insane military milestones that most metal fans might not have heard of (and which deserve more bludgeoning metal songs in their honor). Here’s what he brought to the war room.

The Suicide of General Nogi – 1912

“So Russia’s got this warm water port, Port Arthur, that probably rightfully belonged to Japan — at least Japan thought it did — so they went to war over it. First things first, Japan kicks this off with a surprise naval attack, so Pearl Harbor was the 2.0 of this. This guy Admiral Togo sails the Japanese fleet into Port Arthur and blasts the Russian ships. Then they do a land campaign. The fleets are squaring off, there’s shelling, and the Japanese land a bunch of infantry forces — you don’t have tanks yet, so it’s just infantry, artillery, and cavalry. The Japanese basically have that samurai bushido mentality, and they storm Russian positions on hilltops that are fortified with electric barbed wire fences, and intersecting machine gun fire and search lights and the whole fucking nine. They storm them with repeated human wave assaults, and they take significant human casualties — and they win! 

“So one of the commanders, who’s really pressing the brutal frontal assault, is General Nogi [Maresuke]. He’s a very symbolic figure in Japan because he represents the old samurai way. First off, his sons are in the infantry, and they die. He’s super aggressive, just sending all these men to their death. So the General goes to Emperor Meiji and asks for permission to commit seppuku, because he feels great shame for the loss of all his soldiers. He feels that though they won, the losses he took were beyond anything. The emperor, who considers him a great general and with whom he had a childhood relationship, says, ‘No. As long as I live, you must serve me.’ General Nogi, being a loyal servant of the Emperor, doesn’t commit suicide, but he writes a lot of tragic haiku about the loss of his men, and his sons, and his great shame. So when the Emperor finally dies in 1912, once the funeral procession is gone, General Nogi and his wife commit seppuku [Ritualistic suicide by plunging a sword into one’s abdomen and slicing horizontally – Ed]. This hadn’t been done for a while — it made the news. There’s a lot to wonder here — should we honor this guy? Was he a butcher of his own men, or did his remorse change how we view him morally?”

The Campaigns of Charlemagne – The late 700s AD

“I think I’m going to write a song about this, so nobody better fucking steal it! We did a song called “Woe To The Vanquished” about what would happen to a city in the ancient world if it got invaded — and it ain’t pretty, most of it would be considered unacceptable now. But I want to do one about the medieval religious conversion campaigns, specifically the campaigns of Charlemagne when he was converting the pagans. And the reason I got this idea is because he had a pretty sick line, which is: If the armies of Charlemagne came to your village, and you were a bunch of pagans, you had two options — you could accept their god, or prepare to meet yours. THAT should be in a metal song!

“That way of being religious — not embodying satan and the opposite of religion, but embodying the cruel inquisition, being them and talking from their perspective — is pretty evil. And it’s all done in the name of the cross, so it gives it this holy zealot’s dementia — that’s also pretty metal! And it’s not just one religion either — the Islamic Conquests go all through India and North Africa, and they’re incredibly bloody.”

How Hannibal’s Victory At Cannae Led To The Birth Of Trench Warfare

“Strategy goes so far back–you can see how Hannibal’s victory at Cannae influenced the Germans in 1914 to blow it while invading France. They were reaching for a giant right hook through neutral Belgium into France, but the French attacked the German left, and the German left bounces them off. The commander of the German left, Prince Rupprecht, is like, ‘Give me reinforcements, high command! We can get them on the left, too!’ This is something that had theorized by Alfred von Schlieffen, who thought they could do another Cannae, which is Hannibal’s great victory over the Romans in 212 BC. It’s one of the hardest wins anyone’s ever gotten, because the Carthaginian army was a little over half the size of the Roman army, but it encircled the Roman army. That broke all the rules. It’s like a general’s wet dream to pull something like that off.  

“What I’ve read, [General Helmuth] Moltke the Younger, who’s enacting von Schlieffen’s plan, blows it by giving in to what Rupprecht wants to do. He gives him the reinforcements, and the whole plan fails. They don’t get their double envelopment, and they get turned back at the Marne, and that’s how you get trench warfare. Trench warfare doesn’t just happen, it’s because every army in 1914 does this super high-stakes let’s-win-all-at-once plan, and they push their armies to the utter limits of exhaustion, and all the plans fail. So then they can’t do anything for a month or two, and by the time they’re ready to fight the Germans, the Germans have dug in. Their plan failed, there’s nothing they can do, so they have to dig in and hope they can weather the storm.”

The Voyage of the Russian Baltic Fleet – 1904

“Russia’s problem in the Russo-Japanese War is that most of their infrastructure is over on the Western end of the Empire, and they’re fighting on the far East. One of their problems is that a lot of their ships are up in the Baltic Sea. So they sail this fleet around the fucking world. They go from the Baltic See to the straits of Japan in these early, coal-burning battleships. And they fuck up everything that it is possible to fuck up. First, they’re sailing these old ships, and need enormous amounts of coal, so they have to supply themselves in British Africa and shit. Second, they wanted to go through the Suez Canal, which is British-owned, and the Russians and British have good political relations right now. But in the Gulf of Finland, they shoot at some English fishing trawlers, thinking that they’re Japanese torpedo boats — which, they’re in Finland, how the fuck did they get there? But Russian isn’t a very maritime nation then, so a lot of these guys haven’t been at sea before, so they’re kind of jittery and superstitious.

“This, what’s called the Dogger Bank Incident, causes a diplomatic crisis between England and Russia. So because they fuck up like this, the English won’t help them anymore, so they have go all the way around the southern tip of Africa. The ships stop at different ports for a while, a leopard is brought on from the African coast and it kills someone and has to be thrown off the ship…the whole thing’s a shit-show. Then they finish the voyage, it takes them a year, they have every misadventure on the way, but they finish it — and when they get there, the Japanese fleet crushes them in a single battle. They sail around the entire world to get to the other side of the Russian Empire — and get sent straight to the bottom. It’s one of the biggest ‘WOMP-WOMP’s in history.”

Dien Bien Phu – 1954

“So the French are trying to maintain their colonial holdings on what they then called Indochina, and their western developed armies are fighting what are known as third-world armies. The advantages of the western armies are firepower, technology, all of that, while the advantages of the third-world armies are often manpower and basically will. The stakes for the Vietnamese are higher than they are for the French. They’re willing to do stuff that the French don’t think they can do, and it’s crazy. In this case, the French put this base out in this valley called Dien Bien Phu, and they know this is well in the Vietminh’s territory. They basically say, ‘Attack our base — we have a bunch of artillery there, we have a bunch of air support, we’ll be able to see you when you attack our base, so we can kill you. We’re the Western army, we have these resources.’ There’s not much of a Vietminh airforce in 1954, you know?

“The Vietnamese see that this base is at the bottom of a valley. So they get every man, woman, and child to take apart these heavy artillery pieces — and haul them up the goddamn mountain! Villagers, on bicycles, hauling this heavy artillery up the mountain. And the French did not see that this was possible. So now, the French base that was designed to be a thorn in the side of the Vietminh, is in crisis — it’s surrounded! They figure that even if the base gets surrounded, they’re fine — they have an airfield, they can fly in supplies. Except now, the airfield is in the range of Vietnamese artillery, which starts chewing up the airfield, and all these firebases start going dark. Slowly, the Vietnamese boa-constrict around this base. It’s the end of the French occupation of Indochina, and the beginning of what we think of as the Vietnam war.”

The First Years Of Germany’s Invasion of Russia in WWII

“You can also see [the political will] theme in the beginning of the German Invasion of Russia in WWII. It’s not so much that [Germany] is technologically superior, it’s that they’re doctrinally and tactically superior. Their tactics and the implementation of their tactics are a lot better than the Russians’ in 1941. But with the Russians, it’s not just that they have a lot of men, it’s that those men are willing to die in very large numbers to stop this very large army killing them at a huge rate. The fact that there’s that will there — that people will say, ‘I’ll give up my entire life for this crazy assault that I very well may not live through in order that some greater cause, my nation, my people, will survive.’ And in order for something like the Soviet victory of WWII to happen — 20 million casualties, it’s pretty ghastly, there’s nothing else like it in the history of warfare — you’ve just gotta think, man, THAT many people were willing to do that.

“These days, we have modern technology, greater firepower, et cetera, but something you can take from lower-tech armies beating higher-tech armies is, human will is still itself a powerful weapon. I mean, without WWII in Russia, the war isn’t the same.”

Isandlwana – 1879

“Two battles happened the same day in the Zulu War — Isandlwana and Roark’s Drift. You’ve probably heard about Rorke’s Drift, which was the plot of the [1964] movie Zulu, where 120 British gunmen hold against 4,000 Zulu warriors. But the British have bolt-action rifles, which is pretty helpful, and they’re in a defensive, fortified situation. The one that is even more interesting is Isandlwana, which is actually a much larger engagement. You’re talking about a couple thousand British here, a proper army. 

“The British are on the march. They’ve got their baggage train, and they’re not expecting to see any Zulus that day. They camp on the side of this mountain, and they send out scouts, and just a couple miles from their camp the scouts see 10,000 Zulu warriors ready for battle. They think, ‘Oh, shit, we’ve stepped on the hornet’s nest!’ The British army are not ready for battle. The Zulus, upon seeing these British scouts, begin to move at full speed, and the Zulus are some of the fastest light infantry that’s ever been. They’re famous for the distances they could cover. In the British camp, they’re trying to set up a battle line. In their state of panic, they aren’t organized, which is where the strength of an army comes from. Long story short, the Zulus charge in and annihilate the British force. And this is really unusual– this is late-19th century colonial warfare, which in general favors the imperial powers that have industrial weaponry. It’s a real testament to the Zulu warriors. As far as I understand, it’s a pretty legendary battle in Africa for that reason. But you’ve got the twin battles on the same day — one a major Zulu victory, the other smaller British victory. But the British were masters of propaganda — they might have written the book on it — so you hear a lot more about Rorke’s Drift than Isandlwana.”

Erwin Rommel, Nazi Germany’s Questionably Competent War Hero

“Speaking of the British being the masters of propaganda: Erwin Rommel is a famous Nazi general, but the only reason he’s included on most lists of the greatest German military leaders — and let’s say ‘best commanders in battle’, he was a Nazi, so ‘greatest’ might be the wrong term here — is because he fought against the British in Africa, and the British had trouble with it. There’s something called the Rommel Myth. Basically during 1942, when Rommel’s putting in work in the desert campaign against the British, they’re not really fighting anywhere else. They’ve been kicked off the continent, and there hasn’t been any Sicily or Normandy invasions yet.

“So historians say that Rommel’s reputation is inflated for a few reasons. One, he was beating the British, so the British want you to think he must have been a fucking genius, because if you beat the British, you musrt be one of the greatest geniuses of all time. Second, he died before the war’s over [Rommel committed suicide after being involved in Operation: Valkyrie, the infamous conspiracy plot to kill Hitler. – Ed], so he’s got some old-guard chivalry in a regime that was as barbaric as you can get. That’s something that historians say was used to reconcile West Germany post-war with the Western Allies. They can say, ‘Here’s one of your guys that we respect.’ But he was predictable — he’s known for doing a bold flanking attack whether he should or shouldn’t. So if you were ready for that, as Montgomery was in El Alamein, you can beat him.”

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Words by Chris Krovatin