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The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle, by Michael Stephenson, Crown Publishers, New York, 2012, $28

Warfare is a constant thread running through the experience of human history. People all too often regard wars as glorious and heroic adventures, though seldom those who have experienced combat firsthand and lived to tell about it. Some come through war without a scratch, at least outwardly. Others survive but are horribly maimed. And many die in battle. Killing is what makes war what it is—it is its essential element, its first principle. Yet the mechanisms and conditions by which soldiers die in battle have changed markedly over time, as cultures, war-fighting practices and especially military technology have evolved.

As Michael Stephenson notes in the preface to The Last Full Measure: “Soldiers die in the style of their times. But also much of it is a shared human experience.” His book is an attempt “to trace the great arcs of connection that leap across the centuries.” That said, Stephenson never lets his readers forget, “Reading about combat and death is radically different from experiencing combat and death.” Citing soldier-authors such as Guy Sajer (The Forgotten Soldier) and Siegfried Sassoon (Memoirs of an Infantry Officer), Stephenson reminds us of the line in the sand only those who have experienced combat may cross. “Those, like Sajer, who have lived on one side of the line may be observed but never joined.”

Stephenson presents us with a sweeping survey of armed human conflict, from the earliest writings of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus to the battlefields of the late 20th century. The author’s prose is crisp and distinct, and his interpretations and insights give the reader much food for thought. Yet his book falls somewhat short of its ambitious objectives.

About half of the book is devoted to the 20th century. That is understandable, considering it is the period most familiar to the widest range of readers. But the two chapters that cover the 31-year period of World Wars I and II take up more than 160 pages, while only 36 pages relate the nearly 70 years since the end of World War II. The technologies of war-fighting and the realities of ground combat have undergone huge changes since 1945, not the least of which have been the advances in military medicine and the corresponding survival rates of the wounded. Stephenson does offer as a concluding appendix “A Brief History of Battlefield Medicine.” This is a valuable addendum, but it, too, says next to nothing about the post-1945 period.

There are some disturbing aspects about the final chapter, “Diamonds in the Mire: Death and the Heroic in Modern Combat.” One gets the feeling Stephenson added this chapter almost as an afterthought. While the documentation and references in the first seven chapters are uniformly excellent, the author cites at least one highly questionable reference multiple times in Chapter 8: Nam: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There (1981), by Mark Baker, one of the worst collections of sensationalistic and absurd war stories ever produced. Among the nonsense in the pages of that book are stories about witnessing naval gunfire from the battleship Arizona [sic] and being so close to B-52 strikes that the tubes [sic] in field radios were shattered by the concussion from the bomb blasts. Unfortunately, Stephenson cites the book six times.

Despite its problems, The Last Full Measure is an important book, one well worth reading. Approach that last chapter with caution, however.

—David T. Zabecki