A military history about the central fact of all wars: death in battle.
Stephenson (Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence Was Fought, 2007) begins with the prehistoric era, when warfare consisted of clashes between hunting tribes. Not surprisingly, early tactics were closely allied to the techniques of hunting: ambush of lone enemies or small bands, with little of what we think of as military strategy. That approach to warfare has survived into modern times, especially in conflicts where the resources of the forces involved are disproportionate, as in colonial or insurgent wars. What we would recognize as battles between organized armies arose with civilization, and from the beginning a distinction was made between weapons that strike from a distance and those requiring contact with the enemy: arrows versus swords, for example. Stephenson traces the tension between the modes of warfare dictated by these weapons, and their effect on combatants, working from both archaeological evidence and written sources. The result is a far-reaching overview of the visceral experience of soldiers in battle. The description of wounds is graphic; patriotic propaganda to the contrary, death in warfare is rarely sweet or decorous. Some widely held beliefs about what kills men in war may need revision; artillery, rather than machine guns, was the main killer in World War I, for example, and booby traps and mines have dominated American casualty lists since Vietnam. Stephenson includes close looks at the soldier’s experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and offers the viewpoints of German, Russian and even a few Japanese soldiers in the World War II sections. An interesting appendix covers the development of military medicine. Throughout the book, the author is evenhanded, clear and consistently illuminating; even those well-read in military history are likely to learn something new.
A first-rate addition to the military history canon.