The NBC television show Stars Earn Stripes, co-hosted by the retired U.S. general and one-time presidential candidate Wesley Clark, purports to put minor celebrities through the harsh realities of war. This book represents a corrective to the conceit the show peddles, that soldiering is simply about drills, endurance, and shooting straight.
Stephenson's thoughtful, well-compiled survey begins with ancient combat and concludes with twenty-first-century wars, although it is dominated by the American Civil War and the two world wars. He reminds readers of how many ways it is possible to get killed in war: by blunt and sharp instruments, a variety of projectiles, toxic substances, disease, and becoming trapped in vehicles and buildings. Death rarely results from straightforward fights between equals; it is most often caused by distant firepower or by booby traps and mines left by hidden enemies, such as the improvised explosive devices that were a major source of casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is an arbitrariness to war that soldiers learn in combat, as one falls while another lives. "It was bad form to weep long for a fallen buddy," recalled the writer William Manchester, who served in the U.S. Marines in World War II. "We moved on, each of us inching along the brink of his own extinction."
Stephenson relies on the testimony of those who have lived through war to convey how men become accustomed to living with death and can even get a thrill from the killing.