Can there be any decent weapons of war? Image: Getty
The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle
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)