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What’s It Like to Be in Battle?

Historians may never fully comprehend the soldier's experience, but several are trying.
A U.S. Army soldier with the 101st Airborne Division returns fire with a M249 light machine gun during combat operations in the valley of Barawala Kalet, Kunar province, Afghanistan, on March 29, 2011. DoD photo by Pfc. Cameron Boyd, U.S. Army. (Released)

Those who study war should remember the classical maxim that the realm of Mars, like the realm of Eros, is known only through experience. Regardless of the level and sophistication of preparation, initiation and participation defies all previously lived experience. Irony reigns supreme in the fact that combat demands the takingand sacrificingof life, whereas the sine qua non of physical intimacy is the propagation of life.

In fact, is not war, and close combat in particular, one of the great ironies of human existence? As WWI combatant Frederick Manning reminded readers in his classic The Middle Parts of Fortune, “War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a peculiarly human activity. To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime.”

Yet these paradoxes do not preclude historians from speculating academically on the question of, “What’s it like to be in battle?” A recent attempt, Alexander Rose’s Men of War, creditably follows in a tradition initiated with John Keegan’s groundbreaking The Face of Battle (1976). Denis Winter’s Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War (1978) is written in a similar vein. As gleaned from the title, Rose’s book focuses on “the American soldier in combat” at three historical junctures, while Keegan’s depicts English soldiers’ experiences at Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. Winter recounts the experiences of the common British soldier in WW I on the Western Front.

The strength of works in this genre, of which there are far too few, is in converging studied attention on the common, front-line, combat soldier. Of note, none of the three aforementioned authors has been in combat; indeed, none served in uniform. This does not detract from the excellent marshaling of sources, exemplary archival research, and resulting historical validity and utility of works such as Men of War. It does, however, present a dilemma. As Rose candidly notes, “I could not seek answers within the realm of my own experience.” (Secondarily, though of less significance, the majority of reviewers of books of this ilk likely have had little empirical contact with the actualities of sustained ground combat, though they may have gone to war.)

Still Rose plausibly accomplishes his aim of painting the experience of battleto a point. He has drawn on a trove of primary sources. He writes clearly and concisely. But can a reader divine the inherent essence of combat from Men at War or merely a synopsis of what it might be like? Through the words of others Rose conveys the incongruence between what might be expected and what actually occurs. Not that this detracts from the usefulness of the genre. Stephen Crane never saw active service yet Red Badge of Courage effectively renders the interplay of emotional and psychological stress of man faced with mortal combat. An interpretation of Red Badge of Courage might well encounter a tone of ambiguity and an underlying irony.

Moreover, there is a dearth of authors with combat experience who can meaningfully, and intellectually, give personal verisimilitude to the subject. Thus, works such as Keegan’s, Winter’s and Rose’s, while useful, have built-in limitations. Rose concedes as much, saying, “Every time I think I’ve got a handle on the topic, that I have finally grasped the experience of combat, it slips infuriatingly away.” Does it not slip away because the experience has never been lived? Is the inherent irony absent because, as Paul Fussell states in his acclaimed The Great War and Modern Memory, “Irony is the attendant of hope and the fuel of hope is innocence”?

The serious student of combat is well served in reading, amongst others, Fussell, Ambrose Bierce (whom Rose appropriately twice cites), Oliver Wendell Holmes, Guy Chapman, Louis Barthas’s Poilu, Edmund Blunden, and Leo Tolstoy’s description of the battle of Borodino in War and Peaceadmittedly a novel, but one vividly describing the abject messiness of war. (For the genesis of the description of combat at Borodino, see the latter’s Sevastopol Sketches). These authors all had been combatants. Ultimately the answer to the age-old question of what the engaged combatant feels and thinks remains obtuse except in the experience and minds of those who have borne witness.

Nevertheless, Men of War is purposeful and warrants consideration. Rose’s research, extensive and excellent, bears merit, though the choice of battles is curious. The opposing forces’ testimonials from Bunker Hill and Gettysburg are in English and are rightfully cited. Primary Japanese testimonials from Iwo Jimathe few availableare cited from post-war translations.

Drawing principally from primary sources, Rose does well in depicting the inherent violence, chaos, deprivations, fear, “…accident, initiative, chance, and other such intangibles as morale, background, culture, ideology, and experience”as well as giving examples of ever-present gallows humorencountered in combat. Nor does he skimp on describing the macabre and grotesqueries of combat. Arguably, graphic treatment of prisoners, wounded and dead, grows tedious and is overdrawn.

The bare-bones overview of each of the addressed battles is at best for the novice of military history. Rose implicitly conveys characteristics that are unique to American soldiers, warranted, as all combatants exhibit explicit characteristics of their respective societies. However, suggesting a lack of racial hatred on the part of U.S. Marines on Iwo Jima accords more with political correctness than reality. Rose’s claim that “Gettysburg was neither extraordinary nor even that ‘important’ in the grand scheme of the Civil War (the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, for instance, was of far greater import.)”is a bit of a stretch. A Confederate victory at Gettysburg would have had extraordinary and important consequences for the Union cause, the fall of Vicksburg notwithstanding.

Men of War does not, perhaps cannot, ultimately answer Rose’s opening question, “What’s it like being in battle.” The experience of combat, like initiation into the world of Eros, is uniquely individual. Men of War approaches, albeit vicariously, the experience of combat. It does not breach, much less allow for, original and critical insight into human sensitivities and sensibilities during close-quarters ground combat.

Yet the theme of Rose’s book, like those of Keegan’s and Winter’s, whether intended or otherwise, nonetheless admirably serves to give pause to those political leadersand to their military hierarchywho contemplate taking the nation into ill-thought-out military ventures in pursuit of some chimeric illusion. The on-going difficulties with properly attending to the casualties of such ventures has illustrated the resulting consequencesand engaged the pity of a nation. Therein lays reason enough to read, and duly contemplate, Men of War.   

Colonel John C. McKay (USMC, Ret.) is a twice-wounded combat infantryman. He has actively participated in three armed conflicts. A graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy, and an Olmsted Scholar, he holds master degrees from Georgetown University and the National War College. He is preparing his memoirs.