This book poses the inevitable question of how someone who has never worn a uniform, let alone fired a shot in anger, dares to write about men’s experience in battle. John Keegan’s severe polio precluded any chance of military service, yet he managed to write one of the classics of military history, The Face of Battle (1976), which dissected the experience of Englishmen on the firing line from Agincourt to D-Day. Alexander Rose, author of American Rifle (2008), now attempts to do something similar with the experience of the typical American soldier in three historic campaigns: Bunker Hill in 1775, Gettysburg in 1863, and Iwo Jima in 1944.
It seems pointless to debate whether Rose does as good a job as Keegan did, or whether he chose the best battles to illustrate his overall point that, while the nature of combat has greatly changed, Americans’ response to it remains (largely) the same. The fact is that Men of War moves and educates, with the reader finding something interesting and intriguing on virtually every page.
For example, Rose swiftly disposes of multiple myths surrounding the Battle of Bunker Hill. One is that the order “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes” was coined by the American commander on the scene, General Isaac Putnam. In fact, given the relatively short range of the firearms of the period, it was a standard rule for winning an 18th-century firefight, going back at least to the General Orders for the Prussian army in 1757.
Another myth is that the American militiamen who fought the early battles of the Revolution were largely untrained civilians. Rose points out that, “unfortunately for the British, age, experience, cohesion, and perhaps even training were all on the American side.” Nearly 40 percent of all Massachusetts males between 16 and 29 had some military training, including exercises with other militia units — and many more had long experience handling firearms. Large numbers of the militiamen from Connecticut and New Hampshire who faced the British that day had fought in the French and Indian War, which had ended just twelve years earlier; this was especially the case with the officers. New Hampshire captain Isaac Baldwin, for example, had served in no fewer than 22 engagements. The British commander, General Howe, by contrast, found himself surrounded by relatively raw recruits who had to advance against the withering fire of militiamen lined up on the rail-fence line at Breed’s Hill, the threshold to Bunker Hill overlooking Boston Harbor.
The Americans’ firepower advantage was based not on the accuracy of their Brown Bess muskets, which couldn’t hit a target reliably beyond 100 yards, but on the density of fire they brought to bear, with militiamen at some points standing four ranks deep. At 55 yards, the advancing British “fell in heaps,” one awed colonial militiaman noted, “actual heaps.” “They kept falling” until, as another eyewitness said, the “dead lay as thick as sheep in a fold.” The steady rain of fire (some militiamen remembered firing 40 to 60 rounds, as opposed to the usual 15 in a pitched battle) was also directed at General Howe. Every one of his twelve staff officers was killed or wounded, most at his elbow. Howe miraculously survived, but, Rose writes, “his uniform was soggy with his aides’ splashed, spurting blood.”
By the time the British reached the rail fence, 1,100 of them, or nearly one in two, were dead or wounded; after some short, sharp hand-to-hand fighting, the Americans melted away to safety. The surviving British were too exhausted to chase them. Bunker Hill, Rose concludes, was “perhaps the heaviest, fiercest combat of the 18th century.” This slaughter not only confirmed the ability of American militiamen to hold their own in a set battle; it also dented the morale of the British army for the rest of the American Revolution.
Bunker Hill was not a single battle but many battles. Dense and persistent gunsmoke and a weak chain of command (the two American officers in charge, Putnam and Colonel John Stark, loathed and barely spoke to each other) meant that most soldiers and their officers were barely aware of what was happening a few hundred yards away. In this regard, Bunker Hill closely resembles the experience of Americans 170 years later on the island of Iwo Jima.
Despite the huge forces and firepower involved, with three full divisions of Marines, 500 warships, modern artillery, and bomb-dropping airplanes, the struggle between the Marines and the heavily entrenched Japanese defenders on Iwo Jima quickly became a battle of squads and individuals set against a nightmarish landscape of smoldering black volcanic ash and “blasted plains, pyres of ruins, and cave-pocked ridges.” During the four-month battle, Iwo Jima resembled, according to one eyewitness, “hell with the fire out.” Five days into the fighting, lack of sleep and the exertion of hand-to-hand combat day and night meant that most of the Americans had lost all sense of time and of the duration of the battle, which dissolved into a series of horrific vignettes. One Marine said it was as “when a smoothly moving film on the screen change[s] to a series of color slides; some of them painfully acute. Slide on. Slide off. Click. Click. Nothing in between.”
The battle fatigue and mental collapse of Marines fighting on Iwo Jima was classic “shell shock.” It wasn’t unknown at Bunker Hill; at Gettysburg, it was euphemistically described as “sun stroke” (although, thanks to the widespread theory that the last thing one should do on a blazing-hot July day was drink water, many suffered from that as well). But on Iwo Jima, doctors and commanders recognized that there was only so much combat a man, even a Marine, could take. They became resigned to the fact that a growing percentage of their men would be out of action owing to combat fatigue and blast concussion. Many others were killed or wounded. Some Marine companies and battalions had a casualty rate of more than 100 percent, if replacements are included. For front-line troops, the average casualty rate in Iwo Jima was 80 percent, and for junior officers, sergeants, and corporals, life expectancy was 48 to 72 hours.
Yet even under these grueling conditions, the Marines adjusted and learned the brutal science of taking out bunkers one by one with hand grenades, satchel charges, and flamethrowers. While the Japanese were largely lost and confused after losing their officers, command of Marines passed seamlessly down the ranks until “it was common to see junior lieutenants or sergeants in charge of companies and privates overseeing platoons or squads.” As with Bunker Hill, it was individual skill and initiative, not mass firepower, that won, despite the frightening cost. (Seventeen days into the battle, of the 200 men in one company who had landed on Day One, there were only three left.)
From this point of view, by Rose’s account, Gettysburg and the Civil War are an outlier in the American experience of war. It was during that war, and particularly in those three July days in 1863, that Americans experienced what the British had experienced at Bunker Hill — being shot down in serried ranks advancing in close order, having cannonballs slice down six or seven men in a single row or grapeshot cut down swathes in an instant. When, on the second day at Gettysburg, the eight companies of the First Minnesota stormed down Cemetery Ridge to hold it against Confederate assault, 215 of the 262 Minnesotans were dead or wounded within five minutes — although the survivors, less than two out of ten, managed to hold the ridge.
Examining these conflicts, Rose finds it hard to escape the conclusion that, since 1775, Americans have brought something unusual to the waging of war, a virtue that, at least until recently, made us a potent democracy as well as a formidable fighting people: the power of self-discipline, as opposed to the formal discipline imposed from outside by military manuals and chains of command. Americans fight best, whether it’s on Bunker Hill or in Iraq and Afghanistan, at the squad and platoon level, where they can practice bottom-up innovation in which skills and experience mesh and rugged individualism comes through.
As for the horrors of war, they might find themselves in the situation of the chaplain in a New Hampshire regiment at Bunker Hill, whose experiences that day left him “sickened with pain and anguish [that] seemed without end” — yet who retained his faith that “on our part it was necessary” to fight for liberty. This chaplain, Rose writes, “eventually emerged into the light and found peace.”
– Mr. Herman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II.