Review of “The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle” by Michael Stephenson

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

In The Face of Battle, John Keegan described three famous battles — Agincourt (1415), Waterloo (1815), and the Somme (1916). His focus was not on the historical setting or significance of the battles, but rather on the overall experience of individual soldiers in those battles. That seminal book inspired other authors, notably Victor Davis Hanson and Paul Fussell, to write about the messiness of battle at other times in other wars. Michael Stephenson takes up similar themes in The Last Full Measure, in which he writes about the causes and methods of killing soldiers and how specific battle tactics contribute to or reduce the likelihood of those deaths. He spends less time than Keegan on the general discomfort of infantry life and the confusion of battle, focusing on the specific effects of various kinds of weapons on their targets. This makes for riveting reading while providing a strong disincentive to personally engaging in battle.

The historical sweep of Stephenson’s narrative is vast, covering warfare from the Bronze Age (the siege of Troy) up to our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the book, however, is devoted to the American Civil War and the two World Wars.

The old adage that generals begin any war by using the tactics of the last war has been true more often than not. The result is that combat soldiers tend to suffer most from the failure of their leaders to adapt to battle technology that developed between wars.

Stephenson uses statistics to illustrate general trends, but avoids being dull. For example, he shows that although army tacticians and training from the American Revolution to World War I emphasized bayonet fighting, medical records show that very few casualties were caused by sharp-edged weapons. The vast majority of casualties in the Revolution and the Civil War were caused by muskets. As tactics changed and soldiers learned to use cover (such as trenches and fox holes) more effectively, the role of artillery became dominant.

His final chapter is devoted to the improvements in battlefield medical care. Ancient warriors had virtually no access to medical care, and nearly everyone with a significant wound died from it. Roman armies were organized to care for the injured and even though they had no theory of germs and infection, they actually had some sense of the need to clean wounds. Armies in the Middle Ages seem to have forgotten lessons learned by the Romans, and seldom were able to provide care on the battlefield. Up until the American Civil War, armies were nearly always woefully under-prepared for inevitable carnage. Medical care improved substantially over the course of the war, at least in the North. (One of the medical breakthroughs included the use of chloroform as anesthesia.) However, a lack of understanding of the causes of sepsis still left wounded soldiers in a sorry state even when they were delivered to a field hospital. The modern American army has made enormous progress in medical treatment. By the time of the Vietnam War, the average time between injury and field hospital treatment was reduced to 2 hours, and the array of treatment available was vastly better than even 30 years earlier.

Evaluation: Stephenson’s writing is crisp and effective. He tempers the intensity of his accounts with poignant quotes from letters or other writings of battle participants. A mild criticism I have of the book is that it gives rather short shrift to American’s two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Otherwise, however, this is a fine addition to the literature of combat in the tradition of John Keegan.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 2012

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6 Responses to Review of “The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle” by Michael Stephenson

  1. Barbara says:

    Excellent review, Jim. I’ve never understood those who are attracted to war, or for that matter the need to have wars at all. However, our medical treatment of war wounds seems to have gone a long way toward catching up now. Still, I see so many vets coming home now without a leg or arm, or suffering from PTSD, and it sickens me. I suppose young men will always go off to war like many did in our Civil War; full of visions of glorious battle and heroic status. So sad.

  2. I think the part about the medical advancements sounds especially interesting.

  3. zibilee says:

    This was an amazing review, and I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to be on a battlefield, or injured in war. I do remember from my reading, that the Civil War seemed to be a turning point when it came to medical care for wounded soldiers, but even then, things were pretty grim when it came to serious wounds and infection. So many interesting tidbits in this review. I need to pick this one up and give it a read. I am not such a nut for actual history, but stories about people always manage to strike me deeply. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  4. BermudaOnion says:

    This is a fantastic review but I don’t think the book is for me. I know I sure be better informed but I just don’t like to think about war and what it does to those who fight it.

  5. bookingmama says:

    I agree with Kathy– Jim outdid himself, but I honestly don’t think this book is for me.

  6. Caroline says:

    I’ll need to read this – or rather The Face of Battle – soon, thanks for the review. I hadn’t heard of the author before.

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