Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Death Marches Onwards

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Death Marches Onwards

Article excerpt

The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle

Michael Stephenson

Duckworth, 480pp, [pounds sterling]20

Notwithstanding comprehensive scholarship and the best efforts of Michael Stephenson's clear and respectful writing, there is something unpalatable about The Last Full Measure. Then again, perhaps that is precisely the point. Stephenson knows that there is a line that those who have not experienced combat simply cannot cross: both the writer and most readers are "at best honest observers and at worst voyeurs". The line between observer and voyeur is a fine one.

The title is taken from Lincoln's tribute to the dead of Gettysburg who "gave the last full measure of devotion". Stephenson's stated aim is to pay dead soldiers due respect, while neither promoting militarism nor pretending that every one of them was a hero.

The scope of his work is ambitious and his attention to detail is impressive. Even so, we move at a cantering pace: from Homo sapiens using primitive wooden missile launchers against the stronger Homo neanderthalensis to the battlefields of the ancient Middle East and the still-contested deserts and streets of Iraq and Afghanistan. Conflict is seen at close quarters, through the prisms of contemporary weaponry and the reality of death on the battlefield. Unsurprisingly, the most powerful passages in the book are eyewitness accounts and they do not make for easy reading. In a powerful passage, an officer in the trenches in the First World War recalls a comrade being hit by a shell, the resulting crumpled heap of flesh" and the heartbreaking moment when "I saw in his remaining eye a gleam of recognition and terror".

The terrible physical injuries described prefigure those caused by more recent improvised explosive devices but the description of death is Homeric. …

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