Read The Last Full Measure Online
Authors: Michael Stephenson
Copyright © 2012 by Michael Stephenson
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
CROWN and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Stephenson, Michael, 1946–
The last full measure : how soldiers die in battle / Michael Stephenson.—1st ed.
1. Battle casualties—History. 2. Military history. I. Title.
Jacket design by Christopher Brand
Jacket photography by Getty Images
For Kathryn, who makes everything possible
and for Gabriel Gray Henshaw, who runs so bravely
Dreading what I might see, yet needing to see it.
The Recollections of Rifleman Bowlby
We moved on, each of us inching along the brink of his own extinction.
But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.… From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.
—Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg, November 19, 1863
HE IDEA THAT
remembrance can conjure rescue from oblivion may be only a historian’s sleight of hand. But the act of remembering, of memorializing, also invokes a magic as old as humanity. There is an atavistic sense of propitiation: remembrance as a gift to the restless dead. It is an idea powerfully invoked by the First World War doctor and poet John McCrae (who was to die in Flanders in 1918). His line “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep” was intended to rally the boys to the flag, but to me it makes a different, equally powerful appeal.
The Last Full Measure
is about how soldiers have died in combat. This exploration of the central truth of battle involves a recognition of a debt and an attempt to honor an obligation. But it is important to be clear about this. To pay respect to these dead is not at all the same thing as promoting militarism. (The braying of the war lovers and the shrill call of the chicken hawks, will always ensure that their voices are heard loud and clear.) Nor is it to pretend that every slain soldier is a hero—a word hugely devalued by our huckster politicians and their media flacks (what the World War II poet-soldier Alun Lewis, killed in 1944, described as “the loud celebrities / Exhorting us to slaughter”). In fact, by trying to represent death in battle as honestly as possible and with as much regard to the complexities as my “poor power” would allow—in other words, to deal with the whole bloody business as humanely as I can—I hope to honor the slain by helping to rescue them from appropriation by the cynic and the jingoist.
Old wars were once real before they were preserved in the formaldehyde of history. They were chaotically bloody and shockingly immediate in a way that words have always struggled to convey. Reading about combat and death is radically different from experiencing combat and death. In time the blood dries, the agony fades, and battle takes on a pleasing shape, in the way a jagged rock is worn smooth by insistent surf. Looked at from afar, it becomes romantic, and the killed—rescued from the smashed and torn violence of their deaths by the magic powers of our nostalgia—are bathed in the golden aura of some version of the “greatest generation.” The stench and screams give way to rousing images. The death agonies settle into the encouraging heroic gestures of the war memorial and the movies. We are wrapped in the warmth and certitudes of History with a capital
Wehrmacht infantryman Guy Sajer, writing of the experience of combat on the eastern front in Russia in World War II, put it this way in his memoir,
Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual. One should really read such accounts under compulsion, in discomfort, considering oneself fortunate not to be describing the event in a letter home, writing from a hole in the mud. One should read about war in the worst circumstances, when everything is going badly, remembering that the torments of peace are trivial, and not worth any white hairs. Nothing is really serious in the tranquility of peace.… One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn …
Sajer draws his line in the sand, and only those who have experienced combat may cross it. All others are at best honest observers and at worst voyeurs—those who, as the poet-soldier Siegfried Sassoon accused, “Listen with delight / By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.” As I was keenly aware while writing this book, the fates had dealt me a pretty cushy hand as far as military hazard has been concerned. The date and place of my birth has, due to some benevolent turn of the roulette wheel, preserved my sorry ass. It is a fact of which I can be neither proud nor apologetic. Those, like Sajer, who have lived on one side of the line may be observed, but they may not be joined.
Many soldiers act heroically, but death in action is not itself an automatic anointment. The horrible truth is that most have had their lives wrenched from them, far from the embalming salve of the heroic. The last sound from the lips of the stricken is not so much the rousing rallying call “for the motherland” as the heartbreaking cry for mother. In the end, though, there is a kind of democracy among the killed: Heroic Themistocles is as dead as an anonymous soldier who has his life ripped from him in abject terror. And this book is interested equally in both—and seeks to honor both.
The roads that lead a soldier to the grave may be brutally short and straight, or they may be winding and complicated by many smaller byways and detours. But there is always a place where they come to their fatal intersection. What brings a warrior to his death is a convergence of many factors: the weapon that kills him; the tactics that brought him to the place and manner of his death; the strategy that marks the boundaries of the killing field; the decisions he makes or the decisions that others make on his behalf; the ability of medical services to save a life (or, throughout much of history, hasten the extinction). And last, what might be called the cultural context that shapes each and every warrior: a complex amalgam of attitudes and ideas about such things as the heroic, the need for sacrifice, the justness of the cause, the embrace of the aggressive spirit, compassion toward the defeated (to name only a few ingredients in this rich soup), or, indeed, the rejection of all the foregoing. Much of this is quite specific to the historical period, and that is why I chose to organize this book chronologically—soldiers die in the style of their times. But also, much of it is a shared human experience, and that is why I have attempted to trace the great arcs of connection that leap across the centuries.