The Last Full Measure; Soldaten; Why They Die

In This Review

The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle
by Michael Stephenson
Crown, 2012
480 pp. $28.00
Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying
by Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer. Translated by Jefferson Cha
Knopf, 2012
448 pp. $30.50
Why They Die: Civilian Devastation in Violent Conflict
by Daniel Rothbart and Karina V. Korostelina
University of Michigan Press, 2011
224 pp. $70.00

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. These books represent 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. In Soldaten, Neitzel and Welzer draw from an even more immediate source: a trove of transcripts of surreptitiously recorded conversations among German soldiers who were taken prisoner by the British during World War II. The conversations are gripping and terrifying, laced with boasts and black humor. The most compelling ones focus on killing, especially of civilians. The German soldiers talk casually of killings as reprisals, as a way of dealing with unwanted prisoners, as part of the effort to exterminate the Jewish people, and as something done just for fun. Even when they express a degree of revulsion at the mass slaughter of Jews, the soldiers’ chief complaint is that it is a waste of resources and could create a risk of retribution. The authors’ commentary is at times overly psychological, but in general it is helpful, providing corroborative evidence when available and drawing attention to other relevant studies.

There is even more psychological analysis in Rothbart and Korostelina’s exploration of why war kills so many civilians. This is an important topic, and the authors have some interesting things to say, using as case studies the deportation of the Tatars from Crimea in 1944, the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Israel’s strikes against Lebanon in 2006, and the U.S. war in Iraq. But the book is ultimately an antiwar polemic masquerading as social science. They are so bound up in how “rigid identities,” “dualities of virtue and vice,” and the “normative framing of group differences” make it possible for civilians to be treated as demonic “others” (hardly news) that they seem unaware that they themselves use crude caricatures to describe mainstream views about how armed forces operate and are used. “We seek to smash the false scandal that is the militarist framing of warfare,” Rothbart and Korostelina proclaim. The confusing use of “false” in that statement is a good example of what happens when academics produce slogans.