Monday, June 17, 2013

New and Noteworthy---How Soldiers Die In Battle

The following is a portion of a book review written by Andrew Burtch, Canadian War Museum, published by Michigan War Studies, June 13, 2013.

The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die In Battle, Michael Stephenson, Crown Publishing, 464 pp., 2013, $28.00.

In The Last Full Measure, Michael Stephenson combines a compelling, encyclopedic analysis of the history of warfare with firsthand accounts of battlefield carnage. The finished product is accessible, informative, convincing, and moving. It forgoes any discussion of the geopolitical and strategic elements of warfare to get at what Stephenson defines as the core of military history—killing and dying. Whether inflicted by fire-hardened sharp sticks, swords, axes, arrows, musket balls, high velocity rounds, cruise missiles, or IEDs, violent death links soldiers across the centuries.

Stephenson states his central thesis in a discussion of combat in the Pacific during the Second World War: "The fighting ... reminds us that combat is a bloody gutter-slop: nasty, brutish and short—an abattoir that is only later cleaned up, perfumed, and decorated with the laurel crown of history" (262). He also dismantles the myth of the "Western Way of War," characterized by heroic man-to-man confrontations on the battlefield, by highlighting accounts from the sharp end, where "the last sound from the lips of the stricken is not so much the rousing call 'for the motherland' as the heartbreaking cry for mother" (xii–xiv).

. . . .

The book has no formal conclusion, perhaps because wars and their aftermaths are still ongoing in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and any attempt to assess definitively their outcome or meaning would quickly be outdated. But Stephenson misses an opportunity to use his considerable store of evidence to answer a question he raises at the close of his Civil War chapter. If war is such a devastating experience (in General Sherman's words, if "war is hell"), why does it continue to exist? Why is it that a man like Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., wounded and thoroughly disillusioned, resigned his commission, yet less than twenty years later, "Like some American samurai, … discovered a fervent belief in the mystical importance of a warrior's unquestioning obedience unto death" (165).

Why, in short, do men so easily forget the atrocities of past wars just in time for the next one? Of course, many historians have fruitfully explored the meaning and memory of death and the heroic ideal after the battle, but we are left to wonder about Stephenson's thoughts on the subject.
This book is a thoughtful, respectful treatment of a difficult subject. Its author deftly balances personal, sometimes extremely graphic accounts of death and mutilation with enlightening historical analyses, steering clear of the purely anecdotal war stories or "pornography of violence" that John Keegan warned against. I recommend The Last Full Measure to both scholars and general readers with any interest in military history.

The full text of the review is found at Michigan War Studies, June 13, 2013

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