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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era