Book examines science, psychology of killing
By Andrew Burstein
Special to Magazine
October 06, 2012
THE LAST FULL MEASURE:
HOW SOLDIERS DIE IN BATTLE
By Michael Stephenson
Some books about war describe the movements of armies, others ennoble the warrior. The Last Full Measure focuses instead on the graphic nature of war and how, since ancient times, the introduction of new weapons of destruction has altered the experience, and the psychology, of the combatant. The author, a former editor of the Military Book Club, combs the literature on weaponry and soldiering from the heroic age of Homer to Vietnam and Iraq, and explains how the science of killing and the uneasy art of dying have evolved.
The steady organization of the book allows the reader to understand, century by century, what makes a weapon work and how battlefield conditions alter its effectiveness. The earliest missile launcher, the wooden atlatl, was able to sling darts, thus extending the lethal range of the spear. It was a means of “social leveling,” reducing the impact of physical size in combat situations, à la David and Goliath.
Improvements in equipment did not, however, dictate against the marching phalanx, the cohesive band-of-brothers infantry, which drove an enemy off the field. Nor did it restrain the culture of honor and the vaunted pride of the knight.
Indeed, chivalry was so ingrained that as late as the Battle of Waterloo (1815), close to 50 percent of British officers were killed or wounded, compared to 20 percent of the lower ranks. Every ambitious warrior, from medieval times to the modern age, accepted the same choice: death or promotion. You distinguish yourself in battle or die trying.
In the 15th century, in what the author calls the “black-powder era,” gunpowder exploded onto the scene. The noise and concentrated crash of solid shot and small projectiles affected an enemy’s morale in ways even the longbow could not.
By the 1520s, remarkably, “a handgun cost 40 percent less than a crossbow.” Yet, as late as the American Revolution, firearms in the hands of mounted troops were notoriously ineffective, barely superior to a hurled rock.
Civil War-era technology — repeating guns and rifled artillery — changed the lethality of war. The South, less populous and logistically behind the North, was defeated by a “bloody arithmetic” that Ulysses Grant knew he had to deploy. Page after page, the book cites the poetic nightmares of soldiers in their letters home. This was the moment, too, when ambivalence about the presence of mangled bodies entered the literature of war. One Confederate explained: “We cook and eat, talk and laugh with the enemy’s dead lying all about us as though they were so many hogs.”
A Union soldier employed the same vocabulary: “We don’t mind the sight of dead men no more than if they was dead Hogs.”
World War I brought suffocating poison gas into the ugly equation — the author’s graphic description is not for the squeamish. World War II forms the longest section of the book, with statistics piled as high as corpses.
The racial component in the rationalization that allowed for the widespread killing of a dehumanized enemy was part of the European and Asian theater alike: Germans described Russians as barbarians, Japanese saw the Chinese as backward and insignificant, and Yanks converted “Japs” into a subhuman species. A cultivated enthusiasm for killing became, for some, the only way to feel alive, which we know as well from the published testimony of Vietnam-era fighters.
In detailing the modern age of warfare, Stephenson’s narration is light on interpretation, because he consciously steps aside and lets others speak. Long block quotes of first-person testimony add color. You’ll find evidence of risk (even for medics), the list of equipment carried by members of the 101st Airborne, the ultilitarian “puke bag,” enlisted men’s dialogue — all of which convey the fighting man’s culture. But plenty of war memoirs exist that do a better job than Stephenson does, providing insight into the soldier’s psychology.
The book is tremendously informative, and is satisfying in its encyclopedic thoroughness. It does not explore the human condition in real depth, however. The Appendix opens with a forceful epigraph, courtesy of a Red Cross historian writing during World War I: “Were it not so tragic, there would be something comical in the way man invents machines to kill and injure, then uses his ingenuity to provide methods of repairing damages caused by his own destructive genius.”
If only this stinging paradox had been brought into the narrative earlier, The Last Full Measure might have accomplished more.
Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship Professor of History at LSU and author of books on American politics and culture. His website is: http://www.andburstein.com.