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Book Review: The Last Full Measure

The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle

by Michael Stephenson

Crown Publishing, 2012

Michael Stephenson, the author of 2008’s excellent tactical study of the American Revolution,Patriot Battles, has set himself a far larger and more ambitious canvas in his new book, The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Combat. Here he seeks to demythologize combat itself, to find the actual flesh-and-blood men who are doing the fighting and dying and excavate their experiences for an age Stephenson claims is far too eager to relegate all its knowledge of military combat to Hollywood movies and the occasional item in their Google news-feed:

Old wars were once real before they were preserved in the formaldehyde of history. They were chaotically bloody and shockingly immediate in a way that words have always struggled to convey. Reading about combat and death is radically different from experiencing combat and death. In time the blood dries, the agony fades, and battle takes on a pleasing shape, in the way a jagged rock is worn smooth by insistent surf. Looked at from afar, it becomes romantic, and the killed – rescued from the smashed and torn violence of their deaths by the magic powers of our nostalgia – are bathed in the golden aura of some version of the “greatest generation.” The stench and screams give way to rousing images. The death agonies settle into the encouraging heroic gestures of the war memorial and the movies. We are wrapped in the warmth and certitudes of History with a capital H.

There are some sure signs of trouble here. When a historian of Stephenson’s talent starts setting up “History” as a straw man in this way, readers can be forgiven for wondering what’s going on. Stephenson himself is quick to point out that there’s a trade-off that takes place around the subject, “the idea that remembrance can conjure rescue from oblivion.” But our author was editor of the Military Book Club for six years, so he knows as well as anybody the near-impossibility of writing to a primarily American audience about the realities of the combat experience. Americans don’t want to know about those realities; American bosses will fire you for even so much as alluding to them. American politicians learn early to adopt that particularly strident ‘Don’t Mess With This’ tone in public speaking whenever ‘our troops’ come up (those troops are the only Federal employees who elicit such a tone – no love for the EPA, even though their field workers also get shot at for protecting the innocent).

In reality, most of ‘our troops’ aren’t noble or valiant or self-sacrificing at all and never have been. In reality, they tend to be from the poorest states in the country, lured into military service by the cash bonuses and college opportunities the Armed Services dangle at recruitment offices. In reality, many of ‘our troops’ are and always have been undereducated, xenophobic rednecks with disproportionate affection for alcohol, tobacco, and firearms. In reality, ‘our troops’ terrorized Southern women and children in the 1860s for sport, massacred surrendered Nazi soldiers in the 1940s for sport, machine-gunned Vietnamese women and children out of flying helicopters in the 1960s for sport, and humiliated helpless Abu Ghraib prisoners in the 21st century for sport. The ‘warmth and certitudes’ of ‘History with a capital H’ have been damningly collective endeavors, to which Stephenson has contributed his due portion.

The Last Full Measure would have been a stronger book without that straw man, and it’s a mighty strong book even with it. True, there are far too many offhand uses of ‘valiant’ and ‘brave’ (it’s through such cracks that the formaldehyde seeps in, if you’re worried about formaldehyde), but there’s also plenty of bracing counterbalance in which easy formulations are vigorously rejected. This is certainly Stephenson’s finest book and one of the most engaging and thought-provoking works of popular military history since J. E. Lendon’s 2006 Soldiers and Ghosts. In every chapter, our author displays – but does not flaunt – not only his encyclopedic knowledge of all things military history but also his refreshingly ‘Big Picture’ understanding of it all:

Even though in many battles fewer Confederate soldiers were killed in action or died of wounds than Federals, those who did represented a higher proportion of the fighting force. It was an actuarial reality that smashed the heart of the Confederate cause as mercilessly as a bullet or shell fragment. The South was forced into a war of attrition that eventually and inevitably ran it into the ground. And it is this aspect of the Civil War that foreshadowed the strategic architecture of the world wars of the following century.

(A less confident author would have turned that masterful last line into an entire chapter, or an entire book)

He’s also got a first-rate nose for picking great quotes from his primary sources, although (and I have to hope this was by subversive design) they often do nothing to help support all those ‘brave’s and ‘valiant’s, as in a Texan soldier’s callous account of the Fort Pillow massacre of April 1864:

“I never saw so many dead negroes in my life. We took no prisoners, except the white officers, fourteen in number; these were lined up and shot after the negroes were finished. Next day they were thrown into a wagon, hauled to the Ouchita river and thrown in. Some were hardly dead – that made no difference – in they went.”

This barbarism is a separate thing from the barbarism of war itself, and it crops up in every conflict in history; the symbiosis between militarism and sadism is the spectre haunting every book of this kind – equating men to weapons (or worse, arrows and bullets fired by somebody else) is a brutal business, and yet wars are built on nothing else. It can give rise to savage outlooks, as anybody who’s ever watched the opening of the Hollywood movie “Patton” will recall. A French soldier in the First World War offers an uncanny preview of that famous speech:

“When you’ve seen men cut open, chopped in half or split from top to bottom, spread around in pieces by ordinary shells, their bellies gaping and the contents dug out, skulls driven right into the lungs as if from a blow with a mallet or a little neck in lace of a head with a blackcurrant jam of brains dripping all around it, on the chest and back … when you’ve seen that then come and tell me about clean, decent weapons of war!”

That raw view of things recurs every time veterans open their mouths in this book (including when veteran WWII members of that ‘greatest generation’ talk frankly about sending newcomer ‘replacements’ out on virtual suicide missions rather than go themselves – a practice that, for what it’s worth, was more common among American troops than German ones, probably because, as Stephenson points out, the Nazis tried to group together soldiers from the same towns or villages), and it’s a welcome – though bitter – corrective to the sanctimony that almost inevitably clouds a book of this kind. Because the most honest and horrible term that describes how most soldiers die in battle is ‘pointlessly,’ as writers have known for thousands of years. The Trojan Mydon might have joined the cause with thoughts of glory, but Homer gives him only humiliation when the fatal moment comes:

Up leapt Antilochus, sword stabbing temple,

and luckless Mydon, gaping, pitched from his armored chariot,

head-first, upended, shoulder-deep in the wet, sucking sand

pounded flat and trampled by his own panicked horses …