The Last Full Measure: How soldiers die in battle by Michael Stephenson

In the light of the global focus on chemical weapons, policymakers would do well to take note of a conversation that Stephenson records between two First World War soldiers about the folly of ever imagining that there are such things as “clean, decent wea

The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle
Michael Stephenson
Duckworth, 480pp, £20
 
Notwithstanding comprehensive scholarship and the best efforts of Michael Stephenson’s clear and respectful writing, there is something unpalatable about The Last Full Measure. Then again, perhaps that is precisely the point. Stephenson knows that there is a line that those who have not experienced combat simply cannot cross: both the writer and most readers are “at best honest observers and at worst voyeurs”. The line between observer and voyeur is a fine one.
 
The title is taken from Lincoln’s tribute to the dead of Gettysburg who “gave the last full measure of devotion”. Stephenson’s stated aim is to pay dead soldiers due respect, while neither promoting militarism nor pretending that every one of them was a hero.
 
The scope of his work is ambitious and his attention to detail is impressive. Even so, we move at a cantering pace: from Homo sapiens using primitive wooden missile launchers against the stronger Homo neanderthalensis to the battlefields of the ancient Middle East and the still-contested deserts and streets of Iraq and Afghanistan. Conflict is seen at close quarters, through the prisms of contemporary weaponry and the reality of death on the battlefield. Unsurprisingly, the most powerful passages in the book are eyewitness accounts and they do not make for easy reading. In a powerful passage, an officer in the trenches in the First World War recalls a comrade being hit by a shell, the resulting “crumpled heap of flesh” and the heartbreaking moment when “I saw in his remaining eye a gleam of recognition and terror”.
 
The terrible physical injuries described prefigure those caused by more recent improvised explosive devices but the description of death is Homeric. If The Last Full Measure makes one point forcefully above all others, it is that the weapons may change but there is a haunting constancy in violent death that can be understood only by those immediately proximate to it.
 
Invariably, it is not the injuries of the dying man that stay with the storyteller (and the reader) but whatever connection is made, in a final glance or the squeeze of a hand, the last vestige of ebbing humanity. A soldier in the American civil war is haunted by a comrade “gasping in that peculiar, almost indescribable way that a mortally wounded man has. I shall never forget the pleading expression, speechless yet imploring.”
 
While the statistics about loss of life are appalling, it is these painfully explicit, firsthand descriptions that linger the longest. The balance is not always perfectly maintained. Nonetheless, this is a powerfully relevant book. The devastating situation in Syria has once again brought to the fore debates about different types of military force. In the light of the global focus on chemical weapons, policymakers would do well to take note of a conversation that Stephenson records between two First World War soldiers about the folly of ever imagining that there are such things as “clean, decent weapons of war”.
 
Those advocating military intervention in Syria should be required to read this book and confront the reality to which they would send their nations’ young men and women; those who equivocate should be required to read it to know what is happening to the young Syrian men and women while they do; the remainder should read it and be glad that, in Sassoon’s words, they’ll “never know/The hell where youth and laughter go”.
 
Patrick Hennessey is a former soldier and the author of “The Junior Officers’ Reading Club” (Penguin, £9.99) 
Can there be any decent weapons of war? Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution