Men of War – Book Review
Inspired by John Keegan, the historian who moved away from the “great man” study of history with The Face of Battle, Alexander Rose tackles three iconic American battles, with an eye toward the everyday soldier and their typical experiences in combat and war. Keegan, a Brit, focused on three very European battles: Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme, giving his readers a view from the ground for all three battles. Rose does the same with Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima, explaining that he is more interested in “the overlooked and the ordinary, the men whose names are catalogued in muster rolls and inscribed on gravestones, the men who are otherwise forgotten.”
Rose justifies his choices by explaining his desire to adhere to the overarching theme of change and adaptation – how different generations of soldiers understood war, how they fought those wars, how they adapted to the tactics of their enemies, and how they came to grips with the realities of war.
Beginning with the Battle of Bunker Hill (or Breed’s Hill, if we are being technical), Rose explores various aspects of each battle. Bunker Hill, where the British attempted to break through the American stranglehold on Boston at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, is narrated in a typical walkthrough style: a step-by-step, chronological explanation of the leaders, the men, and the battle. Here, Rose focuses on the part-time militiamen who fought in the seemingly “minor affair” and the effect it had on British attitudes toward the colonial rebels. Before Bunker Hill, the British felt invincible, and rightly so – the British military was one of the strongest, if not the strongest, in the world. What chance did poorly trained, poorly armed civilian soldiers have against the mighty Redcoats? After the casualties were counted, Rose asserts, the British had their answer.
Rose delves deeper into the chaos of battle in his exploration of the Battle of Gettysburg, the 1863 battle that pitted Robert E. Lee’s seemingly invincible Army of Northern Virginia against the inept Union Army of the Potomac under newly installed commander George Meade. Rose not only explores the battle itself, including looks at attacking and defending infantry, but also how soldiers were trained during the Civil War – and how all of that training did little in the face of the chaotic reality of battle. How men died, how they survived wounds, how the dead were buried, and even the psychic toll the battle took on men from both sides appear in Rose’s account of Gettysburg.
From Gettysburg, Rose moves on to the Battle of Iwo Jima, another iconic battle that produced one of the most famous images from the entire World War II conflict – the raising of the American flag above Mount Suribachi. Rose points out the extremely chaotic nature of the battle on Iwo Jima as opposed to Bunker Hill and Gettysburg. Where the two earlier battles could be tracked by using specific units at specific times on specific days, Iwo Jima consisted of the Marines and the Japanese fighting each other not in “structured stages,” but instead through “dull, unvarying routines.” Instead of focusing on the individual Marine’s combat experience, Rose uses the Battle of Iwo Jima to illustrate the methods through which the Americans confronted the Japanese defenses and tactics, studied them, adapted to them, and ultimately prevailed.
Only two points in Men of War stand out as debatable. First, Rose’s assertion that he is writing about men who “are otherwise forgotten.” Since Keegan released The Face of Battle in 1976, historians have turned in droves to the individual soldiers, their experiences in battle, small clashes on otherwise forgotten battlefields, civilian experiences during wartime, and social military history – the experiences of women, African-Americans, and other minorities throughout history. While many still focus on the “great man” theory of history and birds-eye views of battles, the fact remains that military history has taken an extraordinary leap forward in focusing on individuals and their experiences.
Second, Rose firmly comes down on the side of Gettysburg as an ordinary, conventional battle in the midst of the Civil War, not as important to the overall course of the war as the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. While realistically outside the scope and intention of Rose’s book, the debate involving the overall importance of Gettysburg is nevertheless an important and interesting point, and one that has been a source of contention amongst Civil War historians since the war ended 150 years ago.
Men of War is a fascinating look at the experiences of the American soldier throughout three very different centuries and three very different wars. Rose takes the experiences of typical soldiers and uses them to build a compelling narrative surrounding the battles of Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima. While many of us may not know the realities of combat ourselves, we get a feel for what the Americans of previous generations thought, felt, and experienced thanks to Rose and Men of War.
Adam Koeth holds a Bachelor’s in History from Ohio University and a Master’s in Military History from Norwich University. He recently completed his Integrated Social Studies teaching certification, and is looking forward to beginning a career as an educator.