Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima

As a former soldier in the American Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “We have shared the incommunicable experience of war . . . . “ Alexander Rose attempts to communicate the incommunicable by analyzing the experience of the common American soldier in three battles fought during three wars, each about 80 years apart. Even if one has never been in combat, one still wants to know and to feel what combat was like. There are, too, the nagging and unsettling questions: what would I have done under similar circumstances? Would I have stood my ground and protected my buddies? How would I have measured up?

There is a prejudice often voiced—“you can’t understand the experience of combat unless you were there.” It is a prejudice that Rose confronts head-on. He clearly asserts that soldiers in these three different battles had contrasting experiences but ones that can be understood. That is, there is no universal American experience of combat. For instance, consider the duration of each of these three battles: an afternoon, three days, and five weeks. Also, the dominant weapons differed by the century of the battle: the smooth bore musket in the 18th, rifled muskets and artillery in the 19th and artillery, mortars, machine guns, and hand grenades in the 20th.

Even though no single soldier experienced even most of the combat associated with any of these events, it is relevant to repeat the epigram that “combat is hours of boredom followed by seconds of absolute terror. “ And terror was a common element in the three battles. Rose persuasively demonstrates that while terror was ubiquitous, it was more widely and repeatedly experienced at Iwo Jima than at Bunker Hill. More psychological distress was reported at the former than the latter. After a few days in combat at Iwo Jima, marines exhibited the “thousand yard stare,” a widely reported phenomenon but one that was rare in accounts of Bunker Hill or Gettysburg.

Combat at Iwo Jima differed from Bunker Hill and Gettysburg due to the former’s comparative human emptiness. At Bunker Hill and Gettysburg soldiers defended or attacked shoulder-to-shoulder. At Bunker Hill the American defenders fought from behind a wooden fence during one part of the action. The soldiers were a yard apart and three ranks deep. Or, in the case of Picket’s charge (and similar actions at Gettysburg) the soldiers fought in densely packed ranks and files. At Iwo Jima, by contrast, the marines were expected to maintain separation as they moved along a rocky trail or attacked a Japanese position. A squad of twelve marines occupied an area of about 6,000 square feet or 500 square feet per man as compared to an area of ten square feet in earlier wars. Rather than moving in cadence as in former times, the marines moved individually while keeping visual contact with their squad leader—some running, some crouching, some taking shelter.

The Japanese on Iwo Jima, thanks to the remarkable leadership of General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, presented the U.S. Marines with unexpected challenges. Japanese tactics there were notably different there than on Peleliu, Saipan or other islands stormed by the Marines since 1942. An elite military force, the Marines prided themselves on being a learning organization, and learn they did over the five-week campaign as Rose details. The tactics used by the British at Bunker Hill or those at Gettysburg were relatively predictable. Whatever else the soldiers in those two battles had to confront, new and challenging methods of fighting were not included.

As thoughtful and empathic as Rose’s research and writing are in this book, his central argument is likely to be met with skepticism. I am not one of the skeptics. At the heart of the historical enterprise is the assumption that we ought to try to understand people in the past as difficult as that may be. Rose’s Men of War is an outstanding attempt and provides nuanced views of the American way of war. – Neal Ferguson

Also available by Alexander Rose: Washington’s Spies; American Rifle; Kings of the North; Pay the Two Dollars or How to Stay Out of Court and What to Do When you Get There.

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