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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.

By Randy Dotinga / June 18, 2012

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.

Randy Dotinga

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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.

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"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.

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.

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