The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle (2)

I finished the book.

It’s a great read, I gave it four stars on goodreads (average rating: 4.03). The book covers aspects of human warfare all the way from ancient times to the war in Iraq, so it covers a lot of ground. It ‘only’ covers the (lives and) deaths of ground troops throughout the ages – this is a completely natural line to draw and I see no reason to criticize it, but I should note that it does mean that one has to remind oneself during the reading of the book that even though a lot of different ways to die are accounted for here, many war deaths (and strategically important aspects of warfare, like naval battles or aerial warfare) still go almost completely unaccounted for in this book (also, civilians tend to die in war as well – he does touch upon this aspect of warfare as there’s sometimes simply no way around it, but many of the ways civilians have died in war are not covered here). The chapter on World War 2 is not that dissimilar from Fussell’s book Wartime – Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War (here are links to my coverage of that book) which I read a while back – he actually quotes Fussell in the chapter on World War 2 – but I liked Stephenson’s book significantly better. I think it’s better written, it covers more stuff (though less stuff about World War 2) and the ratio of interesting stuff to uninteresting stuff is much higher. The book is quite a pageturner; I went through this book faster than I do many books of comparable length. Although the book covers a lot of different time periods, the narrative is coherent and he’s good at pointing out both which things changed over time and how and why they changed, and which things didn’t change quite as much. The book is a good mix of interesting data and personal narratives and accounts; there are a lot of primary sources included in the book, and they generally do a good job of illustrating specific aspects of warfare of interest. I’m closer to five stars than three.

There’s way too much good stuff in the book to cover it all here on the blog, but some samples of the kind of stuff you’ll encounter in the book’s last 250 pages are included below:

“A Confederate officer, I. Herman, observed that most infantrymen went through their allocation of cartridges during an engagement of any length. Five thousand men might easily expend 200,000 rounds in a few hours (an average of 40 rounds per man), and in his experience it took 400 rounds for every enemy killed. General Rosencrans at Murfreesboro estimated 145 shots to inflict one casualty (and not necessarily a fatality).[47] […] at Gettysburg, the bloodiest Civil War battle in terms of the total number of casualties, 81 percent of Union and 76 percent of Confederate soldiers came through the three days unhurt” […] Of the 246,712 wounds from weapons that were treated during the war, the vast majority (just over 231,000) were from small arms. Next came artillery-induced wounds (13,518), followed by a very small number (922) of bayonet wounds. Obviously, if the wounds were treated the soldier had not been killed outright, but the proportion is at least an indicator of the most likely causes of death. […] In the Union army the ratio of officers to men was 1 to 28, but the ratio of officers to men killed in battle was 1 to 17. […] Fifty-five percent (235 out of 425) of Confederate general officers became casualties, and of those 73* were killed […] Fifty-four (70 percent) died leading their men in attacks.” […]

“The men who died with Custer at the Little Big Horn were thoroughly mutilated after death. Almost all (except George Custer) were scalped; some were decapitated and their heads taken to the Indian encampment (the Indians maintained that no men were tortured) but others were posthumously burned and further mutilated in the ritual celebrations following the battle.21 The wounded were dispatched either by warriors or by the women and youngsters who combed the battlefield afterward—a commonplace of battle in Europe up until the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Faces and penises, as might be imagined, were often the centers of attention — the faces bashed in, the penises either cut off or otherwise mutilated.” […]

Gatling viewed his brutally efficient (if sometimes stuttering) killing machine as in some way making warfare more economical of lives. In 1877 he wrote:
[“]It may be interesting to you to know how I came to invent the gun that bears my name.… In 1861, during the opening events of the [American Civil] war … I witnessed almost daily the departure of troops to the front and the return of the wounded, sick and dead. The most of the latter lost their lives, not in battle, but by sickness and sickness incident to the service. It occurred to me that if I could invent a machine—a gun—that would by its rapidity of fire enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would to a great extent, supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently exposure to battle and disease would be greatly diminished.[“][35]
The efficiencies of automated killing were particularly valued in colonial warfare, where the cost of maintaining armies far from the home base was onerous. Ironically, the very success of machine guns in killing cost-effective quantities of natives tainted them when it came to European warfare, where it was felt, particularly among the officer class, that mechanization would reduce combat to a competition between meat grinders […] The resistance was adamant, and it would take the cataclysm of the First World War to kill off the ancient idea of heroic combat.” […]

“[During World War 1] in France there were 34 deaths per 1,000 population; in Germany, 30; in Britain, 16.6 The ratio of killed to wounded for the whole war was 3 wounded for every combat death. […] Officers were twice as likely to be killed as the men they led. […] In the German army the infantry casualty rate as a whole was 13.9 percent, but for the officer class it was a staggering 75.5 percent. […] The greatest killer […] was artillery, hence the shockingly high proportion of men whose bodies were never recovered and who have no known grave. More than 300,000 British and British Empire dead of the Western Front — 40 percent of the total killed there—were never found. […] In one representative British division, 58 percent fell to artillery, 37 percent to small arms, and 5 percent to other agents (bombs, gas, and bayonets, for example).[20] Of those killed by bullets, about half fell to machine-gun fire, and of all casualties about 25 percent were inflicted by machine-gun fire.[21]” […] the incidence of bayonet-inflicted casualties was minuscule: .32 percent, for example, of one sample of 200,000 British casualties.” […]

“In October 1942, only 1 in 1,000 US Army members became a casualty. In November, it rose to 4 per 1,000, reflecting the fighting in North Africa, Guadalcanal, and New Guinea. By June 1944, it had soared to 50 per 1,000, hitting its peak in January 1945 with about 56 per 1,000.91 […] As a snapshot the statistics are interesting but hide a much grimmer picture. The rate per thousand is a percentage of the whole army. Unlike World War I, where a much larger proportion of the total armed services was exposed to combat, in World War II the logistical tail was fat and long and comparatively safe. […] Of the roughly 10 million men in the US Army by the war’s end, only about 2 million, or 1 in 5, were in the 90 combat divisions (of which 68 were infantry divisions), and of these, about 700,000 were in the infantry: 1 in 14 for the whole Army but absorbing 70 percent of the casualties.[92]” […] a soldier hit by a machine-gun round […] stood a 50 percent chance of dying, compared with 20 percent if hit by artillery. Of those hit by bullets, almost a quarter were killed, whereas slightly fewer than one-fifth of soldiers struck by artillery died, and only one in ten from mortars.” […] More than 77 percent of Soviet tankers (310,000 out of 403,000) were killed.[137] […] Burning to death was the greatest fear and the common fate of many tankers of whichever army.” […]

“Particularly in battles like Okinawa, where flamethrowers were widely used to kill the Japanese in their cave redoubts, too many men would have witnessed scenes like this:
“Horst von der Goltz, Maine ’43, who would have become a professor of political science, was leading a flamethrower team … when a Nip sniper picked off the operator of the flamethrower. Horst had pinpointed the sniper’s cave. He had never been checked out on flamethrowers, but he insisted on strapping this one to his back and creeping toward the cave. Twenty yards from its maw he stood and did what he had seen others do: gripped the valve in his right hand and the trigger in his left. Then he pulled the trigger vigorously, igniting the charge. He didn’t know that he was supposed to lean forward, countering the flame’s kick. He fell backward, saturated with fuel, and was cremated within seconds.[161]” [I decided against including a lot of these types of illustrative quotes in my coverage of the book, focusing instead mostly on the numbers, but I should note that there are a lot of these types of quotes in the book and they’re very helpful when it comes to the problem of translating the numbers into real human experiences.] […]

“A common way for a soldier to be killed “off the books,” as it were, was by his own comrades. The chaos of jungle warfare made friendly fire particularly lethal. On Bougainville, 16 percent of American deaths were attributable to friendly fire; and on Guadalcanal, it accounted for 12 percent of all casualties.[184]” […]

“The United States dropped three times as many bombs during the Vietnam War as it had during the whole of World War II. In 1968–69 alone it delivered one and a half times as many as the total dropped on Germany.[20]” […] “They [Viet Cong] booby-trapped our trucks and jeeps. They booby-trapped the trails they knew we’d take, because we always took the same trails, the ones that looked easy and kept us dry. They sniped at us. And every so often, when they felt called on to prove they were sincere guerrillas and not just farmers acting tough, they crowded a road with animals or children and shot the sentimentalists who stopped.
We did not die by the hundreds in pitched battles. We died a man at a time, at a pace almost casual. You could sometimes begin to feel safe, and then you caught yourself and looked around, and you saw that of the people you’d known at the beginning of your tour a number were dead … And you did some nervous arithmetic.[35]” […]

“In the first phase (“shock and awe”) of the Iraq War, starting in 2003, 148 US troops were killed in action, and of those a substantial number were from friendly fire; of the 24 British soldiers killed, 9 deaths were caused by US fire.[4] By comparison the Iraqi army had an estimated 100,000 killed and 300,000 wounded.[5] […] In the chaos of insurgency warfare there are wrenching decisions to be made. Captain Ed Hrivnak, a member of a medevac team in Iraq, recalls that a wounded soldier “confides in me that he witnessed some Iraqi children get run over by a convoy. He was in the convoy and they had strict orders not to stop. If a vehicle stops, it is isolated and an inviting target for a rocket-propelled grenade. He tells me that some women and children have been forced out onto the road to break up the convoys so that the Iraqi irregulars can get a clear shot. But the convoys do not stop. He tells me that dealing with the image is worse than the pain of his injury.”[14]” […]

“During the American War of Independence […] about a quarter of all patriot soldiers admitted to hospital died.[3] In the Civil War it dropped to around 14 percent,[4] but by the First World War the American soldier’s chances of surviving hospitalization for wounds had increased dramatically: Slightly over 6 percent were lost; in World War II, 4.5 percent; in Korea, 2.5 percent, and in Vietnam, 1.8 percent.[5] […] Several factors had to come together, each making a massive individual contribution but not a decisive one, until they acted in concert. They were the organization of medical services, the control of infection, blood transfusion, surgical procedures, and anesthetics. […] Before the age of asepsis, antibiotics, anesthesia, and blood transfusion, military surgeons were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. In order to prevent severe injuries to limbs from becoming gangrenous, amputation was widely considered prudent. However, the nonsterile conditions of the operation introduced its own risks […] After the battle of Waterloo, 70 percent of amputees died, and during the Crimean War, 63 percent.[26] […] the losses to amputation during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 were shocking […] Of the 13,173 amputations (ranging from relatively minor operations to fingers up to major ones to limbs) undertaken by the French, 10,006 (76 percent) died of subsequent infection.[27]”

November 25, 2013 - Posted by | books, history


  1. This seems like an incredibly interseting book. I’d wish I had an attention span, that would make me able to read something like this.

    Comment by Info2 | November 26, 2013 | Reply

    • Given that it seems incredibly interesting to you, why would you think that you don’t have the attention span to read it? I would assume that compared to a lot of the non-fiction books I read/cover on the blog this is not a particularly taxing book to read, so your comment surprised me a bit (..of course come to think of it you probably haven’t read many of the other books either..). I could easily see a potentially very interesting book being out of reach on account of being very technical or something like that (I feel that way all the time when deciding what to read), but I don’t think this book is anything like that.

      Incidentally the blog posts should be better than nothing – perhaps much better, I really try to give you guys some of the best and most interesting stuff from the books in these book posts. Given that you’re reading this, I wouldn’t feel too guilty about not having the attention span to read the book if I were you – you do have the attention span to read the posts, right? Lots of people don’t (trust me on that one, I have access to detailed blog stats..).

      Comment by US | November 26, 2013 | Reply

      • I just have to look at my book shelf and count the bookmarks around one third into a very interesting book to notice a pattern in my behaviuor. I buy more books than I ever have the time of reading, so I usually have quite a few books I am in the process of reading, finishing quite a few of them. And english books are especially time consuming. Although nothing indicates, that I would have any problem understanding the book, I also know from experience, that reading english takes a longer time and tires me faster than danish, often in a way so I just read af few pages at the time before not being able to concentrate, which makes the odds that I don’t finish a lot higher.

        The fact that you give me the highlights of very interesting books is one of the key factors in keeping your blog on my reading list (although even that in periods are more than I have time for, so I just read headlines except when it seems necessary for me to read.)

        My problem isn’t really solvable, I guess, as it is not for instance too many activities making me halfheartedly about reading. My job does impact somewhat on my ability in the sense that it uses up some of my ressources of intellectual capacity. But i doesn’t get more books finished when I have time of – instead I probably buy/start more books that I’m never gonna finish. The problem is the world. There is so much information, and I want it all, but I never really get around to digesting it because even more information is just around the corner.

        Comment by info2 | November 26, 2013

      • “… finishing ONLY a few of them.”

        Comment by info2 | November 26, 2013

      • “reading english takes a longer time and tires me faster than danish” – I’m curious, what’s your ratio of Danish to English reading? I know from the very limited number of Danish fiction books I’ve read over the last few years that reading English fiction takes much more time for me than does reading Danish fiction, but I’ve become far more used to reading English over time so the fact that I’m reading pretty much all my books in what’s essentially a foreign language means much less now than it did in the past. This is another way of saying that if done right, reading books in a foreign language should become significantly easier and less mentally taxing over time. You say that your ‘problem isn’t really solvable’, but it sounds to me as if improved English skills might at least alleviate the problem that you tend to lose focus due in part to the fact that reading English stuff is mentally taxing compared to reading Danish stuff. (In case you’ve missed the couple of posts where I’ve mentioned, this is in my experience an excellent resource!)

        “There is so much information, and I want it all, but I never really get around to digesting it because even more information is just around the corner.” – It seems to me that once you’ve started reading a good book it’s much more efficient/easier to just read another page in that book than it is to find another book to start reading. If I feel the urge to start looking around for another book to start reading while I’m reading a book, I’ll be very likely to draw one of two conclusions; either I’ll conclude that the book is not very good and that I should thus stop reading it, or I’ll conclude that there’s a mismatch between the required work effort to understand the text and the work effort I’m willing to put into it at this point in time. I’m pretty much never reading two books at the same time which are equivalent in terms of work effort required; if I’m actively reading more than one book it’s because they’re complements; I can read one book when I don’t feel like reading the other.

        I think ‘jumping around’ too much will tend to make the information set you’re exposed to less contextual/coherent than it otherwise would be, and I find it likely that this aspect might make it harder to learn and retain the information in question than it otherwise would be. It would be very easy indeed to argue that I myself jump around a lot, but on the other hand I don’t often stop half-way when I’m reading a textbook so I like to think that each work tends to add a significant amount of knowledge to my knowledge scaffolding. I engage in more book reading and less wikipedia reading today than I did a year ago, and although it’s hardly the only reason part of my motivation for changing my reading habits that way is that I believe that the book stuff sticks better than the wikipedia stuff. Of course I still forget most of the stuff I read, but that’s to be expected (see the first quote here).

        Don’t you incidentally feel guilty about not finishing those partially read books on your bookshelf? I generally feel guilty about not finishing books unless they’re really bad.

        Comment by US | November 26, 2013

      • It would be a guess, but I think the time consumed reading danish compared to english is at least 1:5, but perhaps as high as 1:10.

        And yes of course a lot of guilty conscience. I remember a time when I was reading Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis where the book didn’t catch on, so I told the book, that if it still was boring by page 400 (of aprox 600 I think) I would stop reading. So I stopped reading by page 400. And that was quite unusual. That must have been in something like 1999.

        What happened in the meantime is 1) that I started earning real money and 2) that buying books directly from England has become quite cheap. So whenever I see something interesting, I can just buy it. And I do. So there are more books, than I could read, waiting at my table at any given time (and not just books, it’s comics, computer games, movies, television series and the internet as well). So it is not like I am picking up a new book when I am already sitting with one. It’s more like I forget which one I’m already doing when I feel the urge to read. It’s bad habits really, fed by endless possibilities. More discipline is the cure, like NOT buying the book in this post just because it sounds interesting, because if I do that I’ll never finish the one about Mussolini I’m doing (alongside a collection of Storm P-drawings, a french/chinese graphic novel and a few other things)🙂

        Comment by info2 | November 26, 2013

  2. Aha, not as bad as my 1:100 or so (1:~65(?) in terms of books this year, but the Danish book was quite short..) however that still seems like a level of foreign language exposure which should be ‘sufficient’ to (have) ease(d) reading over time significantly.

    “More discipline is the cure” – Heh, I tend to think of myself as highly undisciplined but I guess in some ways I actually am not; rather that being undisciplined, maybe the problem is just that I’m channeling my discipline into useless activities. Part of the explanation for our differences in reading habits may be that I have deliberately more or less cut out of my life some of the alternatives to books you mention. If you don’t feel like you have a lot of alternative ways to spend your time, it becomes natural to spend more time reading (and finishing) books.

    Comment by US | November 27, 2013 | Reply

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