The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle (1)

“War is about many things, but at its core it is about killing or getting killed. It is not chess, or a computer game, or a movie, or a book about death. It is, implacably and nonnegotiably, the thing itself. […] “Military history must never stray from the tragic story of killing,” says Victor Davis Hanson with characteristic forthrightness. “Wars are the sum of battles, battles the tally of individual human beings killing and dying.… To write of conflict is not to describe merely the superior rifles of imperial troops or the matchless edge of the Roman gladius, but ultimately the collision of a machine-gun bullet with the brow of an adolescent, or the carving and ripping of artery and organ in the belly of an anonymous Gaul. To speak of war in any other fashion brings with it a sort of immorality. Euphemism in battle narrative or the omission of graphic killing altogether is a near criminal offense of the military historian.””

From the introduction of the book. It’s quite interesting – I like it so far. Lots of interesting observations and details. Some more stuff from the first third of the book below:

“Whether atlatl or bow, the long-range missile weapon radically changed battlefield prospects. […] It was the start of the great social leveling of combat killing. The ever-increasing sophistication of missile weaponry (the atlatl of the Aztecs defeated by the arquebuses of the conquistadors, the arquebus by the musket, the musket by the breech-loading rifle, and so on), and the concomitant reduction of high-risk, close-action shock combat is one of the core themes of warfare. Killing from a distance is invariably preferable to the riskiness of close combat. And so, over millennia the evolution of missile weaponry has all but rendered shock weapons redundant. […] As a consequence, the battlefield has become “empty”: In most cases the warrior does not see whom he kills or is killed by. […] Close-combat killing defined the heroic for millennia. There is a tension, constant for most of military history, between shock and missile tactics that arises from the constraints imposed by the physical properties of the weapons. Put simply, shock weapons—clubs, swords, stabbing spears, maces, et cetera—were more effective killers than missiles, but the warrior had to get close to his enemy, which is dangerous: “These very short ranges create severe psychological and social difficulties that render shock weapons the weapons of choice among only the more severely disciplined armies of high chiefdoms and states.… And more important, to reach this closure the warrior must pass through the killing zone of the enemy’s fire weapons.”[15]” […]

“In studies of forty-two primitive societies it has been found that the vast majority (thirty-nine) routinely killed all captured enemy warriors.[20] Zapotecs removed hearts and genitals; the ancient Chinese bound and buried their defeated enemies and, like the Aztecs, much preferred to capture an enemy for later ritual sacrifice than kill him outright on the battlefield. Sometimes these acts of torture were carried out by noncombatant women and children (particularly young boys, for whom it was an initiation rite), as was the case among some of the American woodland Indian tribes […] It was extremely rare that a captive warrior would be spared and incorporated into his captor’s tribe” […]

“Ever since the introduction of relatively long-range missile weaponry, the tactical shape of battle has conformed to a fairly predictable pattern. First comes the “softening-up” barrage. It was arrows in the Bronze Age; high-explosive shells, delivered either by artillery or by aircraft, in ours. Following that there has to be a closure, a physical confrontation that claims territory. In the Bronze Age it would have been a combination of chariot-borne warriors and infantry; in ours it is soldiery borne in a variety of armored vehicles, delivered by aircraft (and parachute), or, occasionally, by helicopter.” […]

“All bladed weapons—be they thrusting types like spears and certain swords and daggers, hacking types like axes and some swords, or missile types like arrows and javelins—employ a similar physics. The sharp point concentrates the delivered energy into a very small area for greatest possible penetration; the broader blade opens the wound for greatest possible tissue damage and blood loss [related link]. And if we look at the much broader tactical picture, we can see the same dynamic: The “physics” of attack tactics follows a similar transmission of force. The smaller, initial assault group punches the hole, and the larger follow-up force exploits the entry” […]

“[Alexander of Macedon] was not just the commander of killers but a frontline killer himself. He was an inheritor of a heroic tradition of combat leadership. Greek generals and kings fought in the phalanx, and “there is not a single major Greek battle—Thermopylae, Delium, Mantinea, Leuctra—in which Hellenic generals survived the rout of their troops.”[82] The Spartan king Cleombrotus was killed in the phalanx at Leuctra, for example, the usual fate of a defeated Spartan king. This exposure of commanders to the risks of the battlefield lasted until the nineteenth century […], when it was replaced by the bureaucratization of leadership: the commander-as-manager.” […]

“The practice of decimation, the execution of one man in ten in a unit that had performed particularly poorly, was not a Roman invention. Alexander had used it, and had himself borrowed the practice from earlier Near Eastern armies. […]

“Our fascination with the mounted knight has somewhat distorted his importance in medieval battle. Not only did infantry play an important part, but an argument can be made that they were, in fact, the predominant element. During the main span of the medieval period (from around AD 500 to about 1400, when guns first made themselves felt on the battlefield), infantry outnumbered cavalry “by at least five to one.”[8] Infantry was a cost-effective option compared with cavalry, and tactics, essentially through the mixed use of pikemen and missile firers (at first crossbowmen and archers, who were eventually superseded by arquebusiers and musketeers), developed to maximize the use of foot soldiers.” […]

“Crossbows are known to have been used by Chinese infantry in the fourth century BCE and were used as hunting weapons by the Romans. Their reemergence in Europe during the tenth century seems to have been linked to an upsurge in siege warfare (the Roman siege ballista were essentially huge crossbows), but the Normans took to the crossbow with enthusiasm as an infantry weapon. The advantages to the user were enormous. A knight in whom years of training and a huge amount of money had been invested could be killed by a dolt with a bolt at about 200 yards or less.
The crossbow is a forerunner of machinelike weapons such as the rifle in that although it was relatively easy to use it was of fairly complex construction […] The power of the crossbow, in one way, was considerably more than the longbow’s. It could “draw” about 750 pounds, compared with the longbow’s 70–150 pounds, but its released energy was comparatively inefficient because the span was short and its tips, whose whiplash movement turned stored energy into bolt speed and range, moved through a much shorter trajectory than the long and powerful expanse of the longbow’s. Also, the longbow’s arrow was heavier than a quarrel, which gave it greater penetrative power over a greater distance. […] These characteristics molded the tactical use of both types of bow. The crossbow tended to be deployed in relatively close action where the flat trajectory would have a potentially devastating effect (the problem was, of course, that the closer the crossbowman was to the action, the greater his chances of being ridden down or shot down during the relatively lengthy periods of reloading). The longbow, on the other hand, tended to be used at longer distance in arcing trajectories where its high speed of reloading (about twelve shafts per minute, compared with perhaps three per minute for the crossbow—about the same rate as a black-powder musket) could inflict a storm of harm on the enemy. […] The essential difference between the crossbow and the longbow had as much to do with relative cost as with relative lethality. A longbow, although mechanically simpler than the crossbow, was not necessarily cheaper. It was made from specialized wood, the supply of which presupposed land use dedicated to growing trees rather than more immediately profitable crops. The crossbow, even if made of wood, did not demand the exacting material of the longbow; in fact it could be, and was, made of a composite of materials. But perhaps more important, the crossbow also had a striking economic advantage that would be a preview of the age of the handgun: It did not take the great deal of training, practice, and physical strength to turn out a competent crossbowman that it took to turn out an archer.” […]

“At first the small arms were less lethal than the bow and crossbow, but they were noisy—and noise has always been a potent factor on the battlefield, both raising or reducing morale depending on whose side was creating the din. […] By the 1520s a handgun cost about 40 percent less than a crossbow.” […]

“the flintlock […] became the standard infantry gun for about 150 years (roughly 1700–1850) […] Flintlocks were notoriously inaccurate at anything over about 50 yards. […] Modern tests under laboratory conditions (that is, the guns were not fired by humans but clamped and electrically ignited) on actual eighteenth-century muskets have shown 60 percent hits on target at 75 yards; at 100 yards it was pretty much a fifty-fifty proposition. […] Misfiring was also a significant problem. […] As many as one in four discharge attempts were unsuccessful. […] At the battle of Vitoria (1813) during the Peninsular War, contemporaries estimated that the British fired 60 rounds per man (usually the total allocation) for an expenditure of 3.5 million rounds or 450 per French casualty.[37] […] But mortality rates in combat become misleading when they are expressed as a percentage of total combatants or casualties vis-à-vis total rounds expended. Battle is not fought in the statistical median but at the hot spots of localized violence. In these hot spots, casualties could be far higher. […] “It was by no means unusual,” writes Major General B. P. Hughes, for a unit to suffer 30 percent casualties in the close combat of the eighteenth century.”[43] And the majority of those casualties would usually be taken among the first two ranks at distances of less than 50 yards, and probably within a few seconds of the opening volley” […]

“A musket ball weighed about 1 ounce, and a hit at anything up to, say, 100 yards could inflict an appalling wound. Modern conoidal-shaped bullets make a clean entry but tend to tumble when they enter the body, leaving a trail of horrific damage, and create a large exit wound. A heavy round ball does not tumble but creates what in wound ballistics is known as “crushing” on initial impact. “Elastic” tissue such as muscle and skin is good at absorbing the kinetic energy of the projectile. A high-velocity bullet is not necessarily more lethal than a slower, heavier ball because kinetic energy is a function of mass. […] An infantryman was most likely to be hit on his left side, as this was most often presented to the enemy (a right-handed shooter turns slightly to the right, exposing his left side).[49] A full-velocity shot to the head or stomach invariably proved fatal. Stomach wounds were particularly feared (due in part to the almost inevitable death from peritonitis if the soldier was not killed outright).” […]

“Some modern historians have looked to the records of types of wounds of those soldiers admitted to the French national military hospital, Les Invalides, in Paris. The records of 1762, for example, show that the great majority of men (68 percent) were hit by small arms; sword wounds accounted for 14.7 percent; 13.4 percent were wounded by artillery; and only 2.4 percent by the bayonet.[74]” […]

“Disease, as in all previous wars, was a greater killer of soldiers than combat (it accounted for 66 percent of all fatalities in the Civil War).[5] Of the approximately 2,100,000 men[6] who took up arms for the North, 360,000 died (17 percent of all who served), of whom about 110,000 (5.2 percent) were either killed outright in battle (67,058) or died from wounds (43,012).[7] Although the high rate of death from disease is shocking, it was an improvement on the Mexican War of 1846–48, in which seven men died of disease for every one killed in battle.[8] Of the approximately 880,000 Confederates who served, about 250,000 (28 percent) died from all causes.[9] Of these Fox estimates that 94,000 (10.6 percent) were killed or mortally wounded […] The numbers may be merely indicative, but they suggest that the South lost about 11 percent of its soldiers killed outright or died of wounds, compared with just over 7 percent for the North—a 30 percent greater killed rate for Confederate warriors. […] It needs also to be borne in mind that the numbers of men killed outright or who died of wounds expressed as a percentage of those “who took up arms” needs to be tempered by the fact that not all who wore butternut or blue were involved in combat. Obviously, the death toll rises considerably when viewed as a percentage of combatants only”

November 24, 2013 - Posted by | books, history

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