A close look at three of the iconic battles in American history, as experienced by the men on the front lines.
In the introduction, Rose (American Rifle: A Biography, 2008, etc.) writes that John Keegan’s The Face of Battle (1976) inspired him to write an American version of the same theme. The three battles chosen show the changing nature of warfare. Rose is skeptical of the concept that there is a universal experience of war, arguing that each era has its own ways of fighting and its own codes of military conduct. For each battle, the author draws on the accounts of ordinary soldiers to build the larger picture in mosaic fashion. At Bunker Hill, American militia went up against British regulars. Rose shows that the British were overconfident, while the militiamen had leaders experienced in the French and Indian War and plenty of time drilling. At Gettysburg, two seasoned armies were opposed. By the military doctrine of the day, emphasizing the frontal attack, Robert E. Lee’s army was almost obligated to assault the Union lines. At the same time, soldiers in a failed assault were allowed to surrender with honor, unlike their ancestors at Bunker Hill. Iwo Jima, the longest battle profiled here, produced a devastating body count on both sides. The U.S. Marines and their Japanese opponents gave no quarter; few Japanese survived the battle, and the Marines took losses that would have dissuaded almost any other body of men. Rose builds up a detailed picture of each of these battles, sparing few gritty details and romanticizing almost nothing. He writes vividly and memorably, with a good eye for the telling detail or anecdote as well as big-picture perspectives. It's particularly enlightening to have his detailed examinations of Bunker Hill and Iwo Jima, which have received far less attention from military historians than Gettysburg—but even that account benefits from the larger context in which this book places it.
A highly recommended addition to the literature of military history.