Is Military History Antiquarianism?: Alexander Rose’s Men of War

In June, Alexander Rose (known for Washington’s Spies which AMC turned into its drama series Turn) released his newest book, Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima. A direct successor of John Keegan’s groundbreaking The Face of Battle, Rose seeks to create the American version by focusing on American troops in the three iconic battles listed in the title. Like Keegan, Rose wrote the book determined to find the common participant’s experience of the battles, instead of a traditional, top-down military history of the tactics and maneuverings of the armies.

Essentially, Rose (and Keegan) present the modern version of military history, combining traditional tactical studies with the more current field of soldier studies to find the personal experience of battle. Rose gives brief overviews of the battles in question, but mainly focuses on the up-close tactics that individual soldiers would have experienced in combat.  In addition, he considers the physical and mental experiences of warfare including questions of physiological and mental reactions to combat stress, what types of wounds would have resulted from the period weaponry and how they were treated, and the aftermath of battle (how the soldiers treated the dead, etc.).

In July, the New York Times published a highly critical review of Men of War written by Andrew J. Bacevich. Bacevich tears Rose apart, even stating that were was no creativity or genius in the work. While every book deserves some critiques, his review sparked discussion and debate among historians, prompting a response on H-War from Rose himself.

Bacevich criticizes Rose’s choice of battles for the book. In choosing Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima Rose tried to pick three iconic battles (ones that most Americans had heard of) that represented three different time periods of American military history. Bacevich argues that these three battles have no point of comparison, being so dissimilar. Yet, Rose does not intend to compare them or offer a continuous narrative of how battle has changed. Instead, he treats them as separate studies in a way, just as Keegan treated Agincourt, Waterloo, and The Somme (also very dissimilar battles); while the chapters implicitly offer comparisons of the three battles, his intent is not to present a linear change-over-time argument. Bacevich would have preferred a more modern battle—he suggests Hamburger Hill or Fallujah—to create a more “illuminating” book.  Of course, there are plenty of battles that Rose could have picked, but the three in the book serve to get his point across.

In terms of Rose’s treatment of the battles, Bacevich complains that:

[a]fter providing the barest narrative overview, he [Rose] dives deep into tactical esoterica, eventually coming up for air a hundred or so pages later. So in providing his take on the three-day encounter at Gettysburg…Rose doesn’t trouble to explain how the events of Day 1 set the stage for Day 2 and culminated on Day 3 in a momentous Union victory. Instead, he delves at length into techniques common to both armies: how skirmishers deployed, how infantry regiments attacked and defended and how artillery batteries shelled enemy artillery in contrast to how they shelled enemy infantry.

This paragraph of Bacevich’s review suggests that he may have missed the point of the book, which was not to provide a traditional military history (full of strategies, tactics, and outcomes of battle), but to focus on the soldier’s view of battle:

It is a book about battles that is not about battles. As I am concerned almost exclusively with the combat experience of soldiers, I allocate only the minimum time necessary to discussing the course of the battles I’ve chose. I have instead included summaries of what happened and other pertinent details at the beginning of each chapter so that you can follow the action, but my focus is one what the soldiers went through. (6-7)

A soldier at the Battle of Gettysburg would not have seen or understood how Day 1 set the stage for Day 2 or how the course of battle led up to the infamous charge of Day 3 until later when they read reports and accounts. Much more pertinent to their experience would be how the artillery attacked oncoming infantry or how the wounded were treated on the field, which is what Rose relates in the book.

Bacevich also does not like Rose’s “gratuitous” references to the wounded and dead, writing “Indeed, the blood-and-gore quotient in ‘Men of War’ compares favorable, if that’s the term, with the violence-saturated movies and video games marketed to present-day male adolescents.” It seems silly to point out that war is violent, bloody, and surely saturated with grime and gore.  When looking at the experience of soldiers in combat, a work that ignored the bloody chaos that is battle would be romanticized and fake.  The very real experience of battle is not one of tactics and strategy, it is facing death and witnessing the destruction of human life.

Overall, Bacevich states that Rose failed in his purpose to capture the experience of battle for soldiers because his results are either familiar already or fail to pinpoint a single “face of battle.” Bacevich writes, “To say as he [Rose] does that ‘there is not one ‘Face of Battle’ but many’ amounts to a tacit admission of failure.”  Rather than a failure, admitting that there is no singular experience of battle is revealing the truth about the common soldier in warfare. Plenty of military historians have written about how the experience of battle is individual and varies widely across a battlefield. Soldiers have a narrow field of vision due to terrain, smoke, etc., and most of them only know their one piece of the action. One soldier could have a vastly different experience and memory of a battle than a comrade standing right next to him, or one on the other side of the field. The difficulty of soldier studies is that historians have to try to tie the entire experience of warfare into one book that is packaged up with a nice bow. By admitting that there is no singular soldier experience, Rose highlights the difficulties of the field. And he does a solid job in his conclusion of addressing a pitfall that many fall into, in assuming that there is a “universal soldier” whose experiences are the same through the whole span of history.  While some experiences are universal—being dirty, seeing the wounded and dead on the field, or the physiological responses to stress—each war has to be studied in its own cultural context. 

The portion of the review that produced the most debate among the historical community was Bacevich’s statement that the book was only successful as an “exercise in antiquarianism,” implying perhaps that military history was itself outdated.  While the field of history has changed to support more social and cultural examinations of warfare, military history is still a necessary core to studying any historical conflict. For those in the academic world, you cannot truly interpret a battle or a war in any context without at least a basic understanding of military tactics and the type of soldiering done in that war. Even if you approach the military with a gender or political lens, at the center is still an element of military history. Perhaps more importantly, military history is one of the best routes for historians to connect to the public, which is still fascinated with traditional military history. Bacevich charges that only “buffs” would find Rose’s book worthwhile. Even if this were true, why is targeting a public audience a bad thing? Military history is something that draws people’s interest and from that starting point historians can then introduce other social and cultural concepts.

Like every book there is room for criticism. For example, I also questioned Rose’s statement in the Gettysburg chapter that “to those living at the time assaults made sense and few complained about them” because “a willingness to suffer, rather than inflict, high casualties was considered evidence of a muscularly Christian and heroically masculine will to win…” (114) since there were plenty of complaints, and resulting low morale, if you look at campaigns like Fredericksburg and the Overland Campaign with high casualty rates. He also questions Rose’s account of the lack of trauma at Bunker Hill and Rose’s assertion that there was no racism present at Iwo Jima towards the Japanese.

Otherwise, the review seemed harsh and Bacevich appeared to miss the point of the book entirely in places. True, this book is not a groundbreaking argument or a paradigm shift in historical interpretation; it follows very closely in the footsteps of Keegan. Yet, it is an engaging work that would appeal to a large audience interested in history, the American military, or the experience of soldiering. It is a mixture of traditional tactical studies and modern social/cultural trends that attempts to find the individual and visceral experience of battle.  A brief search of customer reviews shows that consumers are pretty happy with Rose’s book, even if Bacevich is not. It just goes to show that one review is not everything.

In Rose’s response to Bacevich’s review, he leaves an open invitation to read Men of War and develop opinions on the book. I would also invite readers to read Rose and/or Keegan and evaluate their style of military history. You are welcome to leave your responses to the book or your contributions to the debate over the place of military history in the comments below.

Rose, Alexander. Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima. New York: Random House, 2015.

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson graduated from Siena College in May 2010 with a B.A. in History and a Certificate in Revolutionary Era Studies.  She earned her M.A. in History from West Virginia University in May 2012.  Her thesis “A Question of Life or Death: Suicide and Survival in the Union Army” examines wartime suicide among Union soldiers, its causes, and the reasons that army saw a relatively low suicide rate.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at West Virginia University with research on mental trauma in the Civil War.  In addition, Kathleen has been a seasonal interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park since 2010 and has worked on various other publications and projects.