[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the publisher for purposes of reviewing it. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]
Michael Stephenson’s workÂ The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle follows somewhat in the tradition of classics such a Keegan’s The Face of Battle and Victor David Hanson’s The Western Way of War. Where it differs from these two works as that while Keegan and Hanson focus on specific battles or time periods this book aims to be a more general description of the experience of combat throughout recorded history. In that, the book is amazingly successful. The author has produced a volume that does the job of bringing home te reality of warfare to those who have never experienced it. What I finds even more refreshing is that he does without weighing the book down with moral judgements on the rightness or wrongness of war itself, instead he accepts the objective reality that war happens and goes about the business of explaining what it is like.
It is written in an easy free-flowing style that is almost a pleasure to read and the text is organized in such a way that it is also compelling to read. I found myself making excuses to my wife to keep reading to the end of the chapter before I did something else. The descriptions of combat and death, ultimately this book is about violent death, ring true. I was struck in particular by the realism of the combat descriptions in the section on the Iraq war. On page 361 he talks about the US Marines “Pine Box Rule” in which if someone has to go home in a pine box, it is not going to be Marines. In my own experience in Iraq in 2004 my unit had a similar rule except we called it doing the “Death Blossom” when we came under enemy fire. If his descriptions of combat and death hold as true to reality throughout the rest of the book as they do for modern war, and I have no reason, to think they don’t, then Mr. Stephenson has produced what should be an instant classic. It should also make its way to the official reading lists of all the services, especially the US Army and Marines.
At 406 pages of text the book is not too long for the interested layman and includes an index, extensive notes, and a truly impressive bibliography that together amount to 54 pages alone. The book is organized into eight thematic, chronological chapters that cover warfare from the Ancient World to the modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with an appendix discussing the state of military medicine through time. The only very minor criticism I could have for this book is that it is Western Centric in focus, that is true of much western scholarship thoughÂ and this book makes no claim to universal history.
As a combat veteran myself, I have said for years in private conversation and on some public forums that no one who has not been in combat can possibly grasp what it is like, this work goes a long way to roving me wrong. Michael Stephenson comes as close to describing the reality of combat as I have ever read from a non-combat vet. This objective and fair description of death in battle should be on the shelf of every military historian, whether they are a veteran or not. Anyone who wants to know what combat is like without putting their own skin on the line should read this book. If nothing else, they will gain a better understanding of the sacrifices made by those who don the uniform of their country and go forth to do battle. This is a good description of what George Orwell’s “rough men” go through to allow their countrymen to sleep safe at home.An outstanding book that is sure to remain the standard in its niche for years to come.