- - Monday, June 29, 2015



By Alexander Rose

Random House, $30, 496 pages

“What’s it like being in battle?”

This age-old question was tackled by historian Alexander Rose in his new book, “Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima.” Most of us know is about “what the general on his horse thought,” but far less of what “the corporal and private at the sharp end” were thinking.

Using the firsthand accounts of brave soldiers who fought for freedom, Mr. Rose (whom I know) sheds new light on viewpoints we haven’t heard as widely before. It’s a welcome perspective in an era where most people have no military experience to speak of.

Bunker Hill, which was fought on June 17, 1775, “holds the wretched distinction of being the bloodiest clash” during the Revolutionary War. British soldiers used Brown Bess muskets, and had a massive supply of bayonets. Meanwhile, American militiamen, ragtag to the bone, brought their own firearms — and used shovels, axes, pitchforks, and whatever else they could lay their hands on.

It was an intense battle. One Boston surgeon, Dr. Grant, who had never observed musket balls cause such trauma, noted “[m]any of the wounded are daily dying, and many must have both legs amputated.” Yet, descriptions of what happened that day were all over the map. Bunker Hill therefore “suffers from a defect common to every clash in history: No man was everywhere at once.” There were “many Bunker Hills,” according to Mr. Rose, “or rather, multiple facets of the same battle.”

Within the lower ranks, “their takes are microscopic and subjective, not panoramic and objective.” There were true acts of heroism that day, however. John Barker carried his injured friend, Benjamin Farnum, on his shoulders, saying “The Regulars sha’n’t have Ben.” They didn’t. Mr. Farnum would have “the honor of becoming the last captain at Bunker Hill still alive.”

Gettysburg was fought between July 1-3, 1863. I respectfully disagree that this battle “was neither extraordinary nor even that ‘important’ in the grand scheme,” as Mr. Rose writes. It was a huge victory for the Union, a massive mental and physical defeat for the Confederacy, and turned the tide of the Civil War. Regardless, he’s right to point out “Gettysburg’s conventionality, not its uniqueness” makes it worthwhile to study.

Much blood was shed on the battlefield. Artillerymen were “notorious for being tough hand-to-hand fighters.” Both armies lost over 23,000 soldiers. The horrifying sight of dead bodies was, “to put it mildly, a memorable one” for survivors — and “worse perhaps, and certainly more lingering, was the smell.”

Captain Benjamin Thompson of the 111th New York bluntly said, “To juke and hide and skulk for men and deliberately aim at and murder them one by one is far too bloodthirsty for Christian men.” This may explain why “many Civil War soldiers were traumatized and afflicted, either in the immediate or the longer term, by their battle experiences.”

Iwo Jima was fought between Feb. 19-March 26, 1945. This World War II battle was a “case study in how armies solve problems and learn to fight.” In particular, “American responses to the Japanese were instrumentalist, not ideological, in nature.” Why? The author suggests the “Japanese were killed by the most effective methods and weaponry available because, in the face of unyielding resistance amid difficult terrain, this was the only way to win.”

This clash was similar to Bunker Hill and Gettysburg in that the stench of death was in the air. Cpl. Frank Walker, for example, witnessed a tank that “chewed up a Marine just underneath the surface,” which led to “blood and body fluids sprayed onto me and I carried that on my clothes.”

What was different was some Marines “began to indulge in extreme behavior.” This included getting souvenirs from “booby-trapped corpses” the Japanese left behind, and an unusual “penchant for the removal of body parts.” Meanwhile, some soldiers experienced fits of madness.

When it comes to “Men of War“‘s original question, Mr. Rose fully admits, “I remain stumped.”

The talented historian, who wrote “Washington Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring” — upon which the AMC TV series “Turn: Washington Spies” is based — believes the “universal soldier” concept, in which war is “statically isotropic” and “can be viewed and understood from a single, unchanging perspective,” is “fundamentally flawed.” He sees combat as “dynamically anisotropic” because war is “felt, heard, tasted, seen, perceived, interpreted, in a shifting, subjective myriad of ways depending on context and culture.”

Maybe that’s the best answer we can hope for.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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