A History of Deaths in Land Warfare

By Burke, Michael | Army, August 2012 | Go to article overview

A History of Deaths in Land Warfare


Burke, Michael, Army


A History of Deaths in Land Warfare The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle. Michael Stephenson. Crown. 480 pages; index; appendix; $28. Publisher's website: wunu.randomhouse. com/crown.

As the United States finishes with one war and begins withdrawing from a second, it may or may not be a good time to publish a historical survey of how men die in battle. Given the relatively small number of people who have been directly affected by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, perhaps we need reminding of just how intimately war and death are bound together. Michael Stephenson, former editor of the Military Book Club and student of battles across history, offers an encyclopedic synthesis of the deaths of others from the prehistoric to the almost-contemporary battlefield. His focus is solely on death in land combat, which, while limiting in some ways, lets him concentrate where most combat deaths occur. He also relies only on the written experiences of others - soldiers, historians, memoirists, commentators - because, like almost all Americans, he has no direct war experience of his own.

Many other writers have offered readers similar surveys over the years, with John Keegan's The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme and Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, coming to mind. Both are also the works of scholars without direct combat experience. Stephenson quotes both books and includes the well-known memoirs of Lord Moran (The Anatomy of Courage), Guy Sajer (The Forgotten Soldier) and many other figures from across the history of land warfare. Being necessarily derivative, then, why bother with it?

The answer lies in Stephenson's ability to synthesize his many sources into a coherent narrative, one that avoids two pitfalls: the extreme particularity of individual experience and the sweeping generalizations of distant historians. He uses diary entries, memoirs, summaries of historical events, and long and short views of human conflict and experience to create a coherent whole that meets his one overriding concern: expressing the utter misery associated with death on the battlefield. He robs it of glory, showing readers without embellishment exactly what happens when men fight wars: They die in large numbers and small, killed by weapons used close up or from far away. Sometimes they see their killers; most often they do not. Some die quickly, others slowly. A few are killed by - in the words of that most grotesque of euphemisms - "friendly fire."

The chapters grow longer and more detailed as the written experiences of soldiers grow from reliance on hard-toverify Greek and Roman historians to the explicit, detailed analyses written during and about 19th- and 20th-century wars. In his chapter on World War II, Stephenson points out who is reliable and who is not, criticizing S.L.A. Marshall and Stephen E. Ambrose for sloppy work. He prefers the memoirs and diaries of the veterans themselves, men like E.B. Sledge, William Manchester and even Paul Fussell.

Stephenson makes connections across time, pointing out similarities between infantrymen and artillerists of all times, paratroopers and medieval knights, and the like. …

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