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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.

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

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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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