A look at the role of infantry and the common soldier’s experience in America’s wars.
McManus (Military History/Missouri Univ. of Science and Technology; American Courage, American Carnage: 7th Infantry Chronicles: The 7th Infantry Regiment’s Combat Experience, 1812 Through World War II, 2009, etc.) studies ten typical actions: four from World War II, three from Vietnam, one from the first Gulf War and two from the current war in Iraq. They run the gamut from triumph to near-disaster, although all are technically American “victories,” and they all show how infantrymen serve as the key element in warfare. The author makes it clear that he believes that war is ultimately about men doing the dirtiest of jobs—killing other men, often hand to hand, to secure control of some piece of ground their superiors have ordered them to take. In fact, McManus chooses several battles (e.g., Peleliu in the Pacific, Dak To in Vietnam) to demonstrate how the leadership’s trust in bombing, artillery and other methods of “softening up” an enemy ignored the harsh realities of what the grunts eventually have to do. At Peleliu, the U.S. naval bombardment of the island left the Japanese defenders in fortified positions strong enough to take a heavy toll on the Marines sent to expel them. At Dak To, U.S. forces were lured into a battle for essentially useless territory, where the Vietnamese could engage them on favorable terms and withdraw seemingly at will. Even while describing successful actions, McManus does nothing to prettify the brutal face of combat. Drawing on firsthand accounts of participants, he makes his case that, whatever the promises of the “techno-vangelists,” the infantrymen “have done almost all of the fighting and dying in America’s modern wars.” In particular, the author holds up as models the Marine combined action platoons of Vietnam, who lived among the native population, learning their language and customs—and were undercut by higher-ups’ intent on body counts. A similar approach has worked in Iraq, he argues. McManus ends with “A Plea for Change,” urging better recognition of the critical role and central importance of the combat soldier, without whom he says no nation can be safe or strong.
Not for the squeamish, but full of valuable insights.