Military historian Michael Stephenson: Who dies in battle and how?

'They've always been young, and they've nearly always been poor,' Stephenson says of our soldiers.

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    The headstone in Arlington National Cemetary honors four unknown soldiers who died on the U.S.S. Maine, the sinking of which helped set off the Spanish-American War.
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A few years ago, military historian Michael Stephenson came across the graves of two British soldiers near his home in Dorsey, England. One died in the First World War, the other in the second. They were father and son, bound by blood and the way theirs was spilled.

"When I saw them, I thought about how we owe a debt to the people who have died in war," Stephenson says, "and the best way could I pay it would be to look at the factors throughout the centuries that contributed to their deaths."

He does just that in his new book "The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle," a sobering and crucial look at the evolution of death on the battlefield and the ways that warriors come to terms with serving as killing machines.

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I reached Stephenson at his home in New York City, where he now lives, and asked him what divides and binds the soldiers of human history.

Q: What is the main theme of your book?

A: On one level, my book is really about the mechanics of soldiers getting killed, what happened in terms of weaponry and the development of weapon technology and tactics.

The great arc is from close-up fighting to very distant fighting, of the soldier getting farther from the person who will kill him.

The 2,000th American soldier in Afghanistan was just killed. Most of the deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, and going back to World War I, were delivered to the soldiers from a very great distance.

We live in a disassociated society. The soldiers we send to Iraq and Afghanistan are a tiny minority, and we as a society are disassociated from their experience. We're distant from these men, and they're distant from the ones who kill them.

Q: What has this distance meant?

A: Death comes in an utterly anonymous way and is in no way connected to a person. It robs soldiers of a certain kind of heroic possibility – fighting somebody face to face, being overcome or overcoming them. That's where the heroic tradition is rooted.

Q: What else does your book examine?

A: It looks at the attitudes of the men toward the prospect of their own deaths, the deaths of their comrades and killing other people.

It also examines the idea of the heroic and what you have to do to put your life on the line. Is it patriotism, some kind of religious belief or just the belief in your friends? What do men think, what do they feel, what do they fear?

Q: There's always been a certain kind of code to warfare, right? We can kill our enemies in a certain way, but it's wrong to adopt other methods. How did that evolve?

A: If you go back to ancient warfare, the men who fought with bows and arrows or slingers or threw javelins were always considered to be absolutely without any redeeming feature whatsoever. They somehow breached the heroic code because they didn't face their enemies, they didn't test their strength against the other person's strength.

As the centuries go by, you get the same feeling about people who use guns. Even crossbow men were despised.

That same idea is applied to sharpshooters and snipers. Often snipers were despised by their own side because they were considered to be illegitimate. You shouldn't shoot people from that distance.

The last chapter of the book is how soldiers in modern warfare have been killed by what they'd consider underhand ways – blown up by a roadside bomb, killed by a sniper from a mile away.

There's a feeling that they've been robbed by a certain kind of dignity.

Q: I interviewed a Civil War historian last year, and he spoke about the intense shock that greeted the soldiers who headed into the first battle with a sense of bravado. They discovered, to their horror, that war is a dirty and grisly business, far from the glorious portraits painted in the romanticized books they'd read. Can we ever get close to understanding the experiences of soldiers without being warriors ourselves?

A: I don't think my book can ever really answer this question: How do you get close to that experience, of the prospect of you or someone else being killed, the smell and the noise of it?

I've got a file just on the sound of weaponry and of people being hit. That immediacy is something that's very hard to get over in a book.

The experience of reading about it, or even of seeing it in very realistic news clips or movies, is not the same at all as being there.

In a society like ours, we live a kind of ersatz experience, a sort of pretend experience. We watch movies and play computer games dedicated to combat and violence, but nothing ever could give you the sense of what it must be like.

Q: What surprised you as you researched the book?

A: How chaotic warfare is.

If you read about military history, quite a lot of it is written as if it were a sort of chess game. This unit moved here, and they did that and moved there.

Underneath all that is a bloody desperate irrationality. The most accidental things happen, the plans get modified. The chaos is quite extraordinary.

Q: What has changed the least about warfare over the centuries?

A: The blood.

If you get stabbed by a Roman gladius sword, if you get hit by a high-velocity shell, your body is destroyed and there is blood. That has never changed.

It's hard to staunch blood, even with the most modern techniques, and we haven't been able to devise a way to have a good old war with no one getting hurt.

The hurt is the thing that connects all of these soldiers, all of them. I wanted to write this book because I had a deep sense of that, and I was also a bit disturbed by the easiness with which we send our young men and women – and they've always been young, and they've nearly always been poor – to fight for us.

When they come back, we are suddenly very lax about looking after them, and this has been true for centuries and is true today. We don't quite want to pick up the tab when they come back.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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