Monday, May 25, 2015

The Great Red God

"War is hell."
— William Tecumseh Sherman

As much as I enjoy reading military histories, I never had a desire to join the military.  And yet in some ways I envy the camaraderie soldiers must feel, particularly during wartime, and there's something interesting in knowing what war is like.  But as a quiet and rather bookish-person, my interest is purely intellectual – I don't really want to see any death and destruction!  But while military histories are all about death and destruction, most give you a mere taste of the unpleasantness of war but are still fairly sanitized.

Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima by Alexander Rose, however, is a bit different.  Rose takes three iconic American battles – Bunker Hill (American Revolution), Gettysburg (Civil War), and Iwo Jima (WWII) – and discusses them from a standpoint of the soldiers who fought in them.  He talks about the attitudes they would have brought to the battlefields, the terrain they faced, the weapons used, the enemy they fought, the wounds received and inflicted, and the results.  His focus for each battle is methodical but slightly different: "... for Bunker Hill, we [can] deduce a militiaman's experience of combat depending on his location (redoubt, beach, rail fence) and for Gettysburg we [can] do the same by deconstructing the era's formal templates (artillery bombardment, attack, defense), [and] for Iwo Jima [we] mostly examine combat method -- that is, how Marines first confronted obstacles and then surmounted them by watching, doing, adapting, and learning." (from pg 217 of the advance copy)

It's true, there's plenty of blood and guts in the writing, but it's told with a professional detachment that satisfies my weird curiosity but still leaves room for a healthy appreciation for the personal sacrifices. Yes, I squirmed while reading about the effects of cannonballs and bullets on the human body or the frightening descriptions of grenades and flame throwers in battle, but it's not all gore. Rose neither romanticizes warfare nor paints it simply as too horrific to even think about.  It's interesting to read how the battles happened from a soldier's perspective and how each differed, as well as why modern-day combat would be different still. It's also loaded with many of the individual observations from people involved in the fighting, the kind of quotes that don't always make it into the regular histories. One interesting note is how progressively "work-like" war had become by WWII, and how PTSD was almost unheard-of in earlier battles such as Bunker Hill. Another was the psychological effects of things like bombardments and bayonets – neither of which he says in the Bunker Hill section were as lethal as we might think in terms of physical damage inflicted.

It might not be the ideal book for someone with a weak stomach, but I found it so engrossing and well-written that it never really bothered me (and I read much of it while eating lunch). It's scholarly-like in its thoroughness and approach, but not difficult to read by any measure. I know a man who fought at Iwo Jima and he's criticized most books on the battle, but I suspect he might be more approving of this one. It certainly gave me a greater appreciation for his experience.  (I received an advance copy from Amazon Vine.)

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