Men of War
The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima
By Anthony Rose
Random House. 496 pp. $30.
Reviewed by Brother Edmund Sheehy
Following the work of military historian John Keegan, in Men of War Anthony Rose studies how individual troops reacted in conflict in three of the "most iconic" combat situations in American history. He does a superb job of presenting the story of individual troops along the fence, in the trenches, and facing the enemy at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima, answering the difficult question, "What's it like to be in battle?"
With Bunker Hill, he focuses on the preparation of both sides, while with Gettysburg he touches on a number of different themes as well as the battle itself. Iwo Jima provides a classic example of adaptation by the Marines. In each case, emphasis falls not on great generals, but on common soldiers in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. "If we can take anything from this book," Rose suggests, "it would be that there is not one 'Face of Battle' but many."
In place of sweeping narrative descriptions of confusing formations and maneuvers, Rose offers a brief, well-presented summary of each battle. There are occasional long sentences (especially in the Gettysburg section), but this is a remarkably fine book that is well organized and flows smoothly. He makes excellent use of an extensive bibliography and easily understood maps. Sometimes military histories can lose sight of individuals' names; Rose keeps each person's role straight throughout.
His extensive research gives a rich variety of quotes from combatants, and he covers a multitude of issues. The optimum range for infantry firing at Gettysburg, for example, was only 50 yards. It's easy even for seasoned students of warfare to underestimate the effects of temperature and lack of water in battle situations, or the role of medicine.
Rose also discusses carnage. Casualties were almost impossible to believe at times. At Cemetery Ridge, for instance, the First Minnesota suffered 82 percent losses, and fully one third of all Marines who died in World War II died at Iwo Jima.
Confusion on the battlefield and communication difficulties play huge roles. Inexperienced officers could have trouble knowing when and how to communicate. Even British regulars panicked at Bunker Hill. Rose provocatively suggests that in most battlefield conflicts, each soldier's view is limited to his own situation, so an overall picture requires a mosaic.
Weapons and strategy are an important part of Rose's story. The role of the bayonet, for example, varied greatly from battle to battle. The British carried the wrong ammunition to Bunker Hill at a crucial moment. At Iwo Jima, the "Gettysburg of World War II," U.S. troops learned to use flamethrowers effectively, while mines, "spider traps," and sniper fire posed hazards.
Imagery is graphic and thoughtful, reaching inside the mind of the common soldier. On Iwo Jima, sometimes the conflict resembled a "Golgothic madhouse." Rose also distinguishes between U.S. and Japanese training and structure. American troops were able, in his view, to function even if the top commanders were lost or injured. By contrast, the Japanese depended more heavily on leaders and floundered once they went down. Moreover, he notes that for the Japanese army, "the mystical dominated the logistical at every stage."
Clearer summaries at the ends of chapters would have been good. And the work does bog down a bit at isolated times, describing how the British drilled, listing the surnames of colonial forces, and so on. And I would have liked a brief discussion of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg.
We credit William Tecumseh Sherman with saying, "War is all hell." In Men of War, Rose gives says a reasoned, well-developed "Amen." It is highly recommended.
Brother Edward Sheehy, F.S.C., teaches history, including military studies, at La Salle University.