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'How Soldiers Die': A History Of Combat Deaths

A U.S. Army honor guard stands at attention during a ceremony to mark Memorial Day, this week at Arlington National Cemetery.
Mandel Ngan
AFP/Getty Images
A U.S. Army honor guard stands at attention during a ceremony to mark Memorial Day, this week at Arlington National Cemetery.

In The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die In Battle, Michael Stephenson describes how soldiers fight and die, how those who have lived deal with the experience of combat, and what it reveals about warfare and human nature.

He acknowledges it's a sensitive subject, but he argues it's an important one. Understanding how soldiers die, Stephenson tells NPR's Neal Conan, "is central to an understanding of what combat is. And I think we have to engage with it."

Stephenson talks with Conan about the long history of soldier deaths in combat and the social, political and technological factors that have contributed to the changing nature of combat.

Interview Highlights

On why it's important, and even helpful, to glorify and romanticize tales of death in battle

"Those elements are in some way important to understand because they enable men and societies to commit themselves to battle and being killed. And so the heroic tradition, which in Western society goes back to the ancient Greeks, is a sustaining one. And it's no good just throwing that out. We need that.

"... I think that we need these narratives. We need these stories. And they go on throughout history about how we can deal with the fact that if we are, for example, competent, that we might be killed for perhaps a cause that we don't particularly understand. But we are sustained, I think, by something much greater, which is an idea that there is a meaning to our death. Well, hopefully for soldiers there is.

"But there has to be some kind of apparatus, intellectual and psychological, to sustain soldiers to go through what they have to go through."

On how the evolution of warfare has changed how soldiers feel about fighting

"The history of warfare ... to generalize, is about the distance between the combatants. In ancient warfare the distance between the combatants was very close. And as missile warfare — i.e., that is, you know, arrows or guns — became more sophisticated, the distance is lengthened.

"And then ... around about the Second World War ... you had something called 'the empty battlefield' ... That is, that you are killed by somebody you never, ever see. You are killed [by] a mortar bomb. You are killed by a sniper. In our most recent wars, America's most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ... most of the American deaths ... are caused by either improvised bombs, roadside bombs or by snipers. I mean, these men very rarely, very rarely have personal contact with their enemy.

"And there's a sense of frustration about that, that one can trace back in history. And it psychologically is very, very difficult for these men to deal with. They don't have any satisfaction about coming to grips with something that they can, you know, they can fight, they can see. They see ... their comrades killed by anonymous weapons. And this is very, very difficult."

On how and why modern soldiers seem to detach themselves from everyday society

"My feeling is that soldiers need to be sustained by some sense of what they're doing and the risks that they're taking is worth it. And ... in our most recent wars — I'd say from Vietnam onwards — there's an ideological problem ... where big chunks of society don't really support the wars. And therefore the soldiers sometimes feel very isolated.

"And then there's the nature of the warfare, which ... is so disassociated. And how do you create a heroic context for the fighting? And what these soldiers do — my understanding is — is that they create the heroic context within their units. And they, in a way, try and isolate themselves from what maybe the rest of society — or some part of that society that doesn't agree with this war — feels.

"So they just dig in, and they create their own value system. And it might not be one that the rest of us like very much. I mean, urinating on the bodies of dead soldiers maybe would repel most of us. And I'm sure it is repellent. But I think that they have rituals that support their group cohesion. And that's very important for them ... to be able to carry on doing the work that they have to do, whether we agree with it or not. But it's the work that they are told to do."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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