Yet another set of old battle stories whipped together into a book by a writer-journalist, you say? Hardly.
Men of War is a strikingly vivid, well-observed, and compulsively readable exploration of combat—of its sounds, smells, feel, of the explosive emotions it engenders, of its beauty and its terror—and a book that has a great deal of interesting things to say about the place of major battles, and the ordinary men (and, more lately, women) who fight them, in the collective American consciousness.
The project was inspired, we learn early on, by another book: British military historian John Keegan’s The Face of Battle. Originally published in 1976, Keegan’s book has been through several dozen printings and is a military classic of the first order. It is a searing and searching exploration of three seminal clashes in British history—Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, with some brilliant observations about the writing of military history thrown in as dessert.
Like Keegan, Rose is not a combat veteran, but a historian deeply fascinated by the experience of battle at the sharp end, and his passionate interest in his subject matter is contagious. Rose explains his enduring fixation with combat in the introduction this way: “No other activity allows individuals to sample the extremes of what it means to be human. Combat encompasses unadulterated terror and grinding boredom, unstinting comradeship and man being wolf to man, callous randomness and coolly calculated risk, barbarism and unexpected virtue.”
Now, Alexander Rose may not be what John Keegan surely was—at once the most learned and imaginative military historian of his generation writing in English—but he is without question a gifted and imaginative storyteller, and a first-class researcher who, in drawing on myriad diaries, letters, memoirs, interviews, and oral histories of veterans, as well as the context-setting work of many military and cultural historians, manages to produce strikingly original portraits of three critical military engagements in American military history.
Men of War eschews discussion of the sort of “big picture” issues and controversies that tend to engage academic historians, such as strategic and operational planning, tactical decision-making, and civil-military relations. Nor does he assess in anything more than a passing way the importance of each battle in the context of the war in which it took place.
Rather, we come to understand what made each of these engagements unique, and uniquely iconic, bit by bit, as the author weaves together deftly chosen anecdotes and recollections of vets with his own startlingly intelligent commentary into a richly textured tapestry. This is all to the good, because the participants’ accounts of their “up close and personal” combat experiences are invariably shaped by their understanding of the larger significance of battle in which they took part, just as our appreciation of their experience is shaped by our personal sense of each battle’s place in the broad sweep of the American experience.
As for his selection of battles, Rose has chosen carefully, and well. All three engagements resonate deeply in the American collective imagination. And they will resonate even more memorably, I am sure, once Men of War finds the wide audience it so richly deserves.
The militiamen who fought at Bunker Hill were engaging British regulars in the first pitched battle of the Revolutionary War, and they could be justly proud of their “defeat” in the battle—they were forced to flee their positions after repelling several frontal assaults—because they acquitted themselves better than anyone, including themselves, had a right to expect. In fact, Rose tells us, they inflicted the greatest number of casualties on the enemy of any battle in the war—who knew?—and put to rest the notion that upstart colonial citizen-soldiers could not stand up to the worldly professionals of the British army.
In short, Bunker Hill was a tactical defeat but a moral and psychological victory of the first order.
Gettysburg occupies a unique place in the moral as well as military history of the United States. It marked the end of the South’s efforts to invade the North, put General Robert E. Lee’s seemingly invincible Army of Northern Virginia on the defensive, and thus altered the momentum of the conflict in an important way. Even if it was not in the traditional military sense a “decisive” battle, it was unquestionably a turning point.
Because it was the costliest single engagement of the Civil War in terms of blood and treasure—and not long after guns had fallen silent, the scene of a profoundly moving mediation on the meaning of the battle and the sacrifices it required by a great prose stylist named Abraham Lincoln—Gettysburg has come to embody the terrible, tragic grandeur of the conflict of which it was a part.
Iwo Jima was neither a turning point nor a decisive battle. It took place in February and March 1945, as the sun was beginning to set on the Japanese imperial empire. Iwo has often been described by historians as the most arduous amphibious assault in the history of warfare, and not without good reason. The Japanese fortifications on this godforsaken speck of ground—three thick belts of mutually reinforcing pillboxes, blockhouses, and trenches, an 11-mile tunnel network, a thousand pieces of ingeniously emplaced artillery, and scores of caves, natural and man-made—were by far and away the most formidable encountered in the Pacific War.
For 36 days and nights, 70,000 Marines engaged in ferocious combat with 22,000 Japanese soldiers who gave up ground only in death. Despite weeks of around-the-clock, pre-invasion aerial bombardment and three days of gunfire from a vast armada of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, most of the Japanese had to be killed at very close range by Marine infantry and demolitions men wielding rifles, machine guns, flamethrowers, and satchel charges, not to mention K-bar knives and entrenching tools.
The stoicism and courage of the Marines, symbolized by the iconic photo of the flag-raising atop a 550-foot fire-breathing volcanic monster looming above the landing beaches called Mount Suribachi, gave a war-weary American public a much-needed morale boost. The image seemed to foreshadow the demise of Japan. For 70 years now, the photograph of five Marines and a Navy corpsman lifting the flag has been a powerful symbol of national resolve and teamwork in times of utmost adversity.
Most of the eight original assault battalions on Iwo were so frightfully depleted after two weeks of fighting they should have been taken off the line as “combat ineffective” organizations, yet miraculously they fought on doggedly until the job was done. And done very well.
Men of War transports us to scores of frightful and desperate scenes of combat with shockingly evocative narrative reconstructions and penetrating, precise analysis. Here Rose recounts what happened to a particularly sorry group of Confederate infantrymen at Gettysburg after making the acquaintance of a Union artillery round:
Veterans, on the other hand, knew only too well what could happen if they clumped together. Private Cyrus Boyd was alerted to the dangers when he came across “five dead Confederates all killed by one [small] six pound solid shot.” They had been sitting in a row when the shot raked them from the side. “One of them had his head taken off. One had been struck at the right shoulder and his chest lay open. One had been cut in two at the bowels and nothing held his carcass together but the spine. One had been hit at the thighs and the legs were torn from the body. The fifth and last one was piled up into a mass of skull, arms, some toes, and the remains of a [uniform]. Just a few feet from where they lay the cannon ball had struck a large tree and lodged.”
From this interesting description we can reconstruct the path of the lethal object. Fired from some distance away, the shot descended along its parabolic arc—it sequentially hit a head, a shoulder, an abdomen, and the pelvis or thighs—but such was the kinetic force that it did not, despite the many bony obstacles, deviate from its trajectory. The odd man out is the final victim, who ended up as a “mass” of gore. It is likely the cannon ball hit him in the feet as he crouched, ricocheted off the ground directly upward through the groin and abdomen, and violently exited through his upper torso, thereby separating his arms and shattering his head.
Ah, now I understand…
Here, with the help of direct quotes from a few veterans, Rose explores a particular aspect of the Marines’ experience that didn’t come into play in the relatively short battles of Bunker Hill and Gettysburg: sustained, grinding fear for weeks on end:
Everyone was always scared on Iwo, but fear subsisted for the most part as a constant, cumulative, corrosive feeling that bred a “bad memory, inability to concentrate, a demanding appetite for liquor, a short temper, a body that tires quickly, a weary, soul-deep resignation.” Men learned to tamp it down and could outwardly appear calm, controlled, and mentally alert—yet the unceasing, low-grade sense of fear chewed “into your body and into your mind like a cancer beyond cure...”
There was no shame on Iwo at being scared... Everyone knew that a breakdown could happen to anyone. On Iwo, it was a “constant inner battle,” said a Marine who had fought at Tarawa, Saipan, and Tinian, “to maintain some semblance of sanity, clarity of mind, and power of speech. Everyone tells me they felt as I did.”
Rose asserts that “there is a logic, grammar, and vocabulary” to battle that shifts over time, and that “there is no ‘universal soldier,’ in the sense that the internal motivations and beliefs” of one generation of soldiers are not applicable to another. Well, yes and no. Taken together, the stories rendered in Men of War also go far toward confirming the Clausewitzian belief that so far as war and battle are concerned, the more things change, the more they stay the same. All three of these engagements were, as Clausewitz put it in On War, “extreme trials of strength and stamina” in which the adversaries sought to impose their will on one another. All three tested the ability of the combatants to confront fear, chaos, and loss—and to keep functioning.
Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo were all to a considerable degree shaped by unforeseen developments—what Clausewitz called “friction” or “fog”—and the soldiers and commanders who fought in them were forced to adjust and carry on, or suffer the grim the consequences. As he famously wrote:
Everything [in combat] is uncertain... Fog can prevent the enemy from being seen in time, a gun from firing when it should, a report from reaching the commanding officer. Rain can prevent a battalion from arriving, making another late by keeping it not three but eight hours on the march... Action in war is like movement in a resistant element. Just as the simplest and most natural movements, walking, cannot easily be performed in water, so in war, it difficult for normal efforts to achieve even moderate results.
In the course of recounting the three battles, Rose offers up a wealth of interesting observations and caveats about the business of understanding exactly what happened, and when, due to the limitations of the human mind, memory, and personal perspective:
[E]very memoir, diary, account, and letter tends to capture only a snippet of the broader battle; their takes are microscopic and subjective, not panoramic and objective. In scientific terms, combat is anisotropic, in the sense that its properties and characteristics vary according to the changing perspectives of observers and participants.... There are, in other words, many Bunker Hills, or rather multiple facets of the same battle. Every soldier, in short, focused solely on what was happening directly before his eyes to the exclusion of all else…. When engaged in a battle, soldiers pay virtually no heed to the precise topographical names or characteristics of where they are: They classify terrain not as map coordinates but as, say, a useful hill from which to hold off the enemy or a bit of woodland with good cover or a difficult field to traverse. It is only afterward, sometimes long afterward, when they consult maps and photos or talk to former comrades or read a history of the battle that they begin to work out, piece by piece, where they were and what happened.... Even then, owing to the cunning of memory, their recollections of what happened are inevitably jerky and disordered. Of combat, vivid details seem real yet may be false, uncontestable facts become uncertain, and the conventional linear progression from past to present to future dissolves into a half-remembered sludge periodically interrupted by disturbing flashbacks, out-of-order sequences, and fragmented recollections. These disconcerting effects are not a product of passing time and increasing age but set in immediately after combat. The concluding chapter of Men of War is terse, discursive, and a bit of a letdown after 350 pages of such compelling and insightful storytelling. I found myself yearning for the author to step back from his materials and offer his readers a more considered summing up—or perhaps some general reflections on how the experiences of battle in the “good” wars he chronicles here compare with battle in our more morally ambiguous foreign entanglements, such as Vietnam or Iraq, but this, when all is said and done, is a very minor quibble.
Overall, Men of War is a tour de force. I am quite sure that John Keegan, who for many years was a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Britain’s West Point, would give it high marks, and then some.