The Last Full Measure

How Soldiers Die in Battle

by Michael Stephenson

Hardcover, 464 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $28 | purchase

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The Last Full Measure
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How Soldiers Die in Battle
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Michael Stephenson

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Book Summary

Draws on in-depth research to consider how soldiers through the ages have met their deaths in times of war, covering of such subjects as weapons and battlefield strategies while offering insight into cultural differences and the nature of military combat. By the author of Patriot Battles.

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A U.S. Army honor guard stands at attention during a ceremony to mark Memorial Day, this week at Arlington National Cemetery. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Excerpt: The Last Full Measure

There were so many ways a soldier could get killed. GI Raymond Gantter pondered the possible fate of his foxhole buddy, Chesty, who disappeared without a trace: "I wonder what did become of him. It's possible that he wandered up to the front that night and was killed, perhaps so mangled that he was unrecognizable and his dog tags lost. Or a German sniper or straggler may have killed him and concealed his body in Hurtgen Forest ... or he may have stumbled on a mine or booby trap ... or perhaps he's spent the night in a dugout that collapsed on him burying him alive."

Despite the emphasis on mechanized warfare with the thrilling promise of blitzkriegian speed and finality, much of the fighting followed the much more prosaic tradition of "infantry performing its role with rifles, hand grenades, machine guns, and mortars and using tactics unchanged since the First World War and even the Civil War." Combat in Europe was often drawn out and dogged. The Normandy front was static for two months following D-Day, Monte Cassino lasted six months, the siege of Leningrad lasted two and a half years, and El Alamein has been described as a classic First World War battle, with huge preliminary bombardment, creeping barrages, and infantry break-ins designed to crumble the enemy's fortified line. And in the Pacific much of the fighting was a classic infantry slugfest against entrenched defenders: "Contrary to the common impression that Second World War battles were easy, fast-moving and decisive affairs we find that they were in reality protracted, gruelling, nerve-racking and costly. There were more dangers to counter than there had been in the battles of a quarter century before; and it took a higher level of training and morale to overcome them. The tight-rope on which front-line soldiers walked had become thinner and less stable, reflected in higher levels of accidents, 'psychiatric casualties' and the general destruction of lives and property. War had become inexorably nastier."

For the infantryman, the war was fought amid an unremitting exposure to danger. General Omar Bradley described its extraordinary brutality: "The rifleman fights without promise of either reward or relief. Behind every river there's another hill — and behind that hill, another river. After weeks or months in the line only a wound can offer him the comfort of safety, shelter and a bed. Those who are left to fight, fight on, evading death but knowing that with each day of evasion they have exhausted one more chance for survival. Sooner or later, unless victory comes this chase must end on the litter or in the grave." As a veteran American infantryman put it: "Nobody gets out of a rifle company. It's a door that only opens one way, in. You leave when they carry you out, if you're unlucky, dead, or if you're lucky, wounded. But nobody just walks away. That was the unwritten law."

Without the prospect of rotation out of the combat zone, the grave became a likely destination. For Americans, the last fourteen months of the war saw the heaviest casualties. In October 1942, only 1 in 1,000 US Army members became a casualty. In November, it rose to 4 per 1,000, reflecting the fighting in North Africa, Guadalcanal, and New Guinea. By June 1944, it had soared to 50 per 1,000, hitting its peak in January 1945 with about 56 per 1,000.

As a snapshot the statistics are interesting but hide a much grimmer picture. The rate per thousand is a percentage of the whole army. Unlike World War I, where a much larger proportion of the total armed services was exposed to combat, in World War II the logistical tail was fat and long and comparatively safe. The combat soldiers formed the small arrowhead that carried combat to the enemy, and their chances of being killed or wounded were, of course, considerably greater. Of the roughly 10 million men in the US Army by the war's end, only about 2 million, or 1 in 5, were in the 90 combat divisions (of which 68 were infantry divisions), and of these, about 700,000 were in the infantry: 1 in 14 for the whole Army but absorbing 70 percent of the casualties. Frank Nisi, an infantryman with the Third Infantry Division, described that exclusive club in a letter to his father:

I would venture to say that only a very small percentage really know what war is all about. By that I mean that of the millions ... only the Infantry and certain attachments, such as tanks and TDs [tank destroyers], were ever close enough to hear a shot fired in anger. Then that could be broken down still further to exclude the Reg't. Hq. Service Company etc. It gets down to the man with the rifle who has to live in the ground ... or any place he possibly can, then go without sleep for several days and get up and fight, hike, run, creep, or crawl 25 miles or so. During this time the echelons in rear of him move up in vehicles, get their night's sleep and wait for him to advance again.

In the last six months of 1944, the battle losses far exceeded the US planners' expectations, with 12,000-18,000 GIs killed in each of those months and 40,000-60,000 wounded. The upshot was that young men who had initially been allocated to the logistical tail to take up relatively safe duties of an administrative nature, thanks to their higher intelligence-test scores, now found themselves on the front line. Death in combat had suddenly become a whole lot more democratic.

From The Last Full Measure by Michael Stephenson. Copyright 2012 by Michael Stephenson. Excerpted by permission of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.