The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle by Michael Stephenson is a bit of a morbid topic, but it is insightful about the nature of combat and the differences between cultures regarding combat. Stephenson tells the story of how soldiers throughout time have died in battle.
As the publisher notes in its description of the book, the book is organized chronologically with frequent comparisons between different ages. It covers the Greek phalanx and the Roman legion, medieval warfare in the West and Japan, the age of black-powder combat, the Civil War, both world wars, and the insurgencies from Vietnam to the current conflict in Afghanistan.
In the foreword, Stephenson delves into the quandary of writing about combat – whether to gloss over the effects of battle on the human body or get into the bloody gore of a post-combat battlefield. Stephenson admits that he wanted to walk that narrow line of not describing gore for the sake of writing about it, but also giving the reader a not too sanitized narrative of the bloody effects of combat. I think he does an excellent job of describing the results, but not glorifying the blood and guts.
As a side note, I think it is important for authors to not gloss over the details because too many readers get the sanitized version and do not realize (maybe they can never visualize) how weapons in any age can damage the human body. As a result, readers who are given a more romantic version of combat without the gore do not understand the true horrors of war.
The book is well-balanced in writing about each age of combat – obviously more can be written in the modern era than previous ages because of the vast amount of written primary sources. However, Stephenson gives a fairly good idea of combat in the Greek and the Roman eras – especially how intimate hand-to-hand combat could be. As with the other times before the invention of gunpowder, Stephenson describes the effects on the human body of bladed weapons – whether hand or missile.
Although the book is balanced regarding each age of combat, I think it is a little lacking in non-Western combat. Stephenson briefly discusses combat in Japan during the Medieval period and World War II and in Africa during the colonial wars, but other than that, there is not much else. Was combat in Medieval China or India different from that in Europe?
Also, Stephenson wrote a lot about World War I on the Western Front, but he did not write anything about combat on the Eastern Front between the Russians and the Austro-Hungarians/Germans. I know that the Eastern Front was more fluid than the Western Front – due to this fluidity, it begs the question how did that fluidity affect the tactics and types of weapons used?
Finally, Stephenson did an excellent job of comparing the soldiers from the different eras. For example, he compares the weight of armaments of a Medieval knight and a World War II paratrooper. The paratrooper carried more equipment that weighed more than a knight in a full set of armor plate. In the modern era as well, American soldiers are heavily weighted down with equipment, including body armor.
Stephenson’s prose is interesting and powerful. He covers the subject in an objective manner and brings intriguing insights into the subject of battlefield death. I think a reader will find Stephenson’s book engaging.