Alexander Rose, in his new book, Men of War, attempts to answer one of the intriguing questions of the human experience: “What’s it like being in battle?” Inspired by John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, Rose creates an American version to place the reader in the midst of combat as seen through the eyes of militiamen at Bunker Hill, Union and Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg, and Marines on Iwo Jima. He does so not from the strategic level but at the most extreme tactical level—the tip of the spear: fighting men on the front lines. Rose relays the vivid sights, sounds, smells, apprehensions, fears, and boredom of combat. He describes the horrendous wounds and subsequent triage and treatment in great detail, including psychological wounds that haunt men long after battle. Rose ultimately challenges the concept of a “universal soldier” to argue that similarities between modern combat and these iconic battles are “superficial.” On this point, at least in part, the author and I disagree. Setting that aside, Men of War is well researched and, considering the author has not been in battle, captures the combat experience admirably.
At Bunker Hill, Rose describes a battle fought by American farmers, craftsmen, slaves, land owners, and their sons. Although not professional soldiers, the militiamen were not short on quality leaders, marksmen, weapons, or purpose. Most brought their own firearms and their work clothes served as uniforms; no flashy garments distinguished officers or the wealthy. Cohesion was formed through community and family relations; Rose estimates that 30 to 40 percent of Massachusetts military-aged males rallied to the cause, regarding battles as a necessary part of life, devoid of the romantic aura of the early fighting in the Civil War. At Bunker Hill, Rose illustrates the helpless fear brought on by incoming cannon fire with one veteran summarizing the dilemma as being “exposed to fire without being able to return it.” If there is a universal fear in combat, it is the fear of dying with no ability to affect the outcome. Equally effective is Rose’s portrayal of General Putnam and Colonel Prescott trooping the lines in the face of cannon fire and the inspirational effect it had on the men. Readers may find some of the most intangible secrets of combat leadership in these settings—notably that when under duress, troops invariably watch their leaders to determine if alarm is warranted, and that leaders are therefore obligated to remain calm under pressure to inspire confidence in their men.
The author dissects the famous Revolutionary War order, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” accompanied by instructions to aim at the enemy’s waistline to improve accuracy. Commanders gave such instructions during pep talks before battle and, “the shorter, more informal, and less complicated . . . , the more effective it is, particularly when the commander is trusted and respected.” This is as true now as it was then. Simplicity remains one of the nine principles of war in U.S. Military doctrine, endorsed by the likes of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz. Marine General James Mattis, a noted commander in Iraq said, “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” Simple, direct guidance from leaders is required in combat, not because people are simple, but because the friction and fog of war invariably turn the easy into the difficult.
Fear of cowardice often overshadows fear of death.
The author highlights issues that plagued the British at Bunker Hill, including lack of cohesion, poor training, weak junior officers, and misconduct. In contrast the militiamen displayed strong family and community bonds, respect for their leaders, and a reluctance to shrink from combat for fear of being labeled cowards. Among combat troops (in cohesive units with good leaders), fear of cowardice often overshadows fear of death. It is a powerful motivation felt by the leaders themselves.
Rose is equally insightful on other factors shaping the way soldiers at Gettysburg fought the way they did: “massing troops together and using their combined momentum to advance was the key to victory, not a cause of failure. . . . Indeed, a willingness to suffer, rather than inflict, high casualties was, at that time, considered evidence of a proudly masculine and divinely suffused will to win, not a worrying signal of lunacy or incompetence.” Rose characterizes the Civil War era as “profoundly influenced by the Romantic movement,” as if this literary fashion could somehow overcome ballistics. While tactics of the period are still difficult to rationalize in modern times, they provide evidence for Rose’s challenge to the “universal” soldier.
Gettysburg introduced new tactics that led to a more chaotic form of battle. Skirmishers or small formations were placed beyond the main body of troops to conduct probing attacks and provide early warning. Sharpshooters were employed, adding another stress factor to the fighting. Bayonets were exalted, even lengthened as a moral advantage for attacking troops, regardless of their limited practical value. Artillery introduced the hollow shell designed to burst above troops to complement the already effective solid shot. With new munitions and tactics, the battlefield became more dangerous and scary. Telling is a quote by Winfield Scott of the 126th New York Infantry Regiment at Gettysburg, who “wished to be made thin, thinner than hard-tack, yea as thin as a wafer.” The author captures the mental trauma suffered from such attacks, regardless of injury, similar to the dread soldiers experienced just before battle, regardless of being hardened veterans. No person was immune to these pressures and as the author adroitly remarks, “combat itself was not the only test of manhood.” To prevent or at least ease panic, attacking soldiers kept pace with their flanks if only to reassure each other. They were backed and encouraged by officers who stood erect, obligated to be an unflappable example under fire.
Gettysburg introduced new tactics that led to a more chaotic form of battle.
Rose vividly describes the exhaustion and dehydration produced by twenty- to thirty-mile marches just to get to the Gettysburg battlefield. He captures the palpable apprehension just before battle, heavy legs and sickening feelings during the initial advance, and the inner struggle between fight and flight. One can sense the gradual release of tension as troops speed toward the final assault, numbing themselves as their comrades fall in waves from leveled artillery and gun shot. Then comes the horrific aftermath with debris, gear, and shattered equipment littering a battlefield covered with dead and dying men and animals. He shares the survivors’ inexplicable lack of feeling toward casualties and carnage and their resilience when the battle has ceased. The mysterious draw of combat was captured in the diary of Civil War veteran Cyrus Boyd: “I do not want to see any more such scenes and yet I would not have missed this for any consideration.”
At Iwo Jima, Marines adapted to the enemy in the midst of battle to preserve their force and kill more efficiently. Rose’s early scenes reflect Gettysburg, but with modern equipment. Skirmishers in the form of amphibious vehicles floated ahead of the main forces. Preparatory indirect fire softened the enemy as waves of men attacked a defense point in frontal assault.
Other similarities among the three battles included fear of “randomness of the [artillery] hits,” summarized as “the most helpless feeling in the world.” Snipers also imposed their will on unsuspecting men with demoralizing effect. Senior leaders once again brought calm to chaos as when Colonel Harry Liversedge and Lieutenant Colonel Robert Williams walked up the Iwo Jima beach among men who were taking cover in shell holes, telling the men, “Get up! Get off the damn beach!” They, like General Putnam and Colonel Prescott at Bunker Hill, calmed and inspired their men.
Iwo Jima differed from the other battles in the living and fighting from foxholes at night, coupled with sleep deprivation due to the need to remain always alert. Rose concludes that, for men to conquer fear and keep going, war was “best treated as a job, one that needs to get done to get home,” a job described as “the imperative to process live humans into dead ones.” Most impressive was the bottom-up refinement of tactics by young Marines and non-commissioned officers. Junior leader initiative is a cornerstone of Marine operations and their subsequent success. It is not surprising that the author chose the subject of Marine adaptability to frame this chapter. The most significant innovation was the use of flamethrowers in concert with demolition and small arms in a “combined arms” attack to reduce pill boxes and bunkers, and to seal the countless enemy caves. Rose mentions the value of tank–infantry integration as well as the timing of attacks to avoid patterns and keep the enemy guessing, aspects that shaped how Marines fight today and what they espouse to emulate, and the author holds nothing back in his descriptions. There are equally bad lessons that sting when reading. Dehumanizing the enemy, boiling skulls, and removing gold teeth for profit represent viral combat stress and subsequent behavior that today’s leaders ruthlessly guard against. As General Dunford, the newly nominated Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently stated, “America goes to war with her values.” Times have certainly changed, but military units typically learn more from their mistakes than from their accomplishments.
Rose identifies several combat experiences that span the three battles.
Throughout Men of War, Rose identifies several combat experiences that span the three battles: apprehension, uncertainty, fear, killing, interpersonal violence, death, wounds, helplessness against indirect fire, and the intangible effects of leadership and camaraderie. In the final chapter, he connects physiological similarities including “increased heart rate, loss of fine motor control, rising stress levels, and post-battle exhaustion.” Rose then surprises the reader by categorizing the similarities as “superficial,” opting instead to highlight differences in how soldiers have understood war over time, describing combat as “an interlude between day-to-day hardships” at Bunker Hill; a romantic “quest for self-fulfillment” at Gettysburg; and “a matter of managerial competency” on Iwo Jima. According to Rose, “there is not one eternal experience of combat, but many experiences that alter over time.” While acknowledging his lack of combat experience, the author preemptively counters claims that one must experience combat to write about it accurately. According to Rose, this overlooks a trend among veterans to view their personal experience as equivalent to those of their forefathers, a phenomenon he describes as the myth of the “universal soldier.”
As a U.S. Marine with direct combat experience, I identify more with the similarities of combat than its differences. There may be no universal “battles” but the “personal” combat experiences are largely unchanged. Rose eloquently captures these shared combat experiences throughout Men of War, only to abandon the message in the final chapter. To me, combat is to the individual as battle is to the collective. Combat occurs within the battle and, even then, its intensity corresponds with proximity to a threat; killing up close is different than killing from a distance. This leads one to ask the question: what is it about combat that makes it combat? The author uses battle and combat interchangeably. Whether intended or unintended, he conveys an idea that combat is defined more by changing culture, ideology, and tactics rather than the sum of its personal, human, and intangible experiences. The former position shapes why and how battles are fought; the latter defines the actual experience of combat.
Veteran accounts of the battles vary. Bunker Hill was confused with Breed’s Hill by its participants; soldiers at Gettysburg recalled moving with soldiers on their left and right, knowing nothing of strategy; Marines on Iwo Jima lost track of time a few days into the battle. This book’s quotes by veterans indicate that “feelings” among combatants in each of the battles are remarkably the same. In other words, men may not remember everything that happened, but they remember how they felt, just as post-traumatic stress is not stirred by culture, ideology, or tactics, but by personal experiences and human emotion. Perhaps the closest comparable experience to that of combat is a violent car accident, hypothetically sustained for the duration of a battle. Those who have experienced a violent accident remember the adrenaline rush. It matters not that driving was part of their daily lives or why they were inspired to drive or how efficiently the drivers adapted to surroundings. The experience is defined by emotions at the time of the crisis.
Rose admits that his impartial, historical approach is deliberately cold and clinical at times. Opinions regarding the universality of the combat experience are debatable, but should not keep prospective readers away from this informative and well-written book. Throughout Men of War, the author expertly puts the reader at the scenes of great battles with an appropriate balance of history and individual accounts, rightfully calling attention to the continuously changing dynamics in American battlefield tactics. This is a book that has broad value to a wide audience. Whether the reader aims to learn what actually happens in battle, draw on the military lessons within, or wrestle with what actually defines combat, Men of War is a valuable addition to our understanding of this all-too-human experience.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 1, on page 69
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