‘Men of War’: What It’s Really Like to Be a Soldier

iwojimaflagplant copy

iwojimaflagplant copy

Historian Alexander Rose aim’s to give a grunt’s perspective on some of the bloodiest battles in American history in Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima. Rose takes material from memoirs and interviews with the men who survived those battles and puts those experiences into the broader contexts of their respective battles and wars to create a portrait that’s decidedly different from most war histories.

Rose is perhaps best known as the author of Washington’s Spies, the book that inspired the AMC drama series Turn: Washington’s Spiesbut he also wrote the excellent America’s Rifle, a book that uses the history of firearms to tell the story of the United States.

Rose says Men of War was inspired by John Keegan’s 1976 classic The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme, which tells the story of British soldiers by examining three of the most critical battles in English military history. Rose has the advantage of being an engaging writer. This is properly distilled military history for readers who don’t have the patience to wade through original sources and long-winded academic treatises on American history.



  • virgil2

    The following is a relatively long quote from Homer’s work, “The Illiad”, entitled: “The Death of Hector”.
    It’s description of what it is like to be a soldier is as relevant and accurate in Homer’s time as it is today. I served with the U.S. Army; 4th I.D.; 2/8th Inf.; Republic of Vietnam 1969-1970.

    “Thus to their bulwarks, smit with panic fear,
    The herded Ilians rush like driven deer;
    There safe they wipe the briny drops away,
    And drown in bowls the labour of the day.
    Close to the walls advancing o’er the fields
    Beneath one roof of well-compacted shields,
    March bending on the Greeks’ embodied powers,
    Far-stretching in the shade of Trojan towers.
    Great Hector singly staid; chain’d down by Fate,
    There fix’d he stood before the Scaean gate;
    Still his bold arms determined to employ,
    The guardian still of long-defended Troy.
    Apollo now to tired Achilles turns;
    (The power confess’d in all his glory burns.)
    And what (he cries) has Peleus son in view,
    With mortal speed a godhead to pursue?
    For not to thee to know the gods is given,
    Unskill’d to trace the latent marks of Heaven.
    What boots thee now, that Troy forsook the plain?
    Vain thy past labour, and thy present vain:
    Safe in her walls are now her troops bestow’d,
    While here thy frantic rage attacks a god.
    The chief incensed-Too partial god of day!
    To check my conquest the middle way;
    How few in Ilion else had refuge found!
    What gasping numbers now had bit the ground!
    Thous robb’st me of a glory justly mine,
    Powerful of godhead, and of fraud divine:
    Mean fame, alas! for one of heavenly strain,
    To cheat a mortal who repines in vain.
    Then to the city, terrible and strong,
    With high and haughty steps he tower’d along.
    So the proud courser , victor of the prize,
    To the near goal with double ardour flies.
    Him, as he blazing shot across the field,
    The careful eyes of Priam first beheld.
    Not half so dreadful rises to the sight,
    Through the thick gloom of some tempestuous night,
    Orion’s dog (the year when autumn weights,)
    And o’er the feeble stars exerts his rays:
    Terrific glory! for his burning breath
    Taints the red air with fevers, plagues, and death.
    So flamed his fiery mail. Then wept the sage;
    He strikes his reverend head now white with age:
    He lifts his wither’d arms; obtests the skies;
    He calls his much-loved son with feeble cries:
    The son resolved Achilles force to dare,
    Full at the Scaen gate expects the war:
    While the sad father on the rampart stands,
    And thus adjures him with extended hands:——
    Fierce at the word his weighty sword he drew
    And all-collected on Achilles flew
    So Jove’s bold bird, high balanced in the air,
    stoops from the clouds to truss the quivering hare.
    Nor less Achilles his fierce soul prepares;
    Before his breast the flaming shield he bears,
    Refulgent orb! above his fourfold cone
    The gilded horse-hair sparkled in the sun,
    Nodding at every step (Vulcanian frame!)
    And as he moved his figure seem’d on flame.
    As radiant Hesper shines with keener light,
    Far beaming o’er the silver host of night,
    When all the starry train emblaze the sphere:
    So shone the point of great Achilles’ spear.
    In his right hand he waves the weapon round,
    Eyes the whole man, and meditates the wound:
    But the rich mail Patroclus lately wore,
    Securely ceased the warrior’s body o’er!
    One place at length he spies to let in Fate,
    Where ‘twixt the neck and throat the jointed plate
    Gave entrance: through that penetrable part
    Furious he drove the well-directed dart:
    Nor pierced the windpipe yet, nor took the power
    Of speech, unhappy! from thy dying hour.
    Prone on the field the bleeding warrior lies,
    While thus the triumphing stern Achilles cries:
    At last is Hector stretch’d upon the plain,
    Who fear’d no vengeance for Patroclus slain?
    Then, prince, you should have fear’d what now you
    Achilles absent was Achilles still.
    Yet a short space the great avenger stay’d,
    Then low in dust thy strength and glory laid.
    Peaceful he sleeps with all our rites adorn’d,
    For ever honour’d, and for ever mourn’d:
    While cast to all the rage of hostile power,
    Thee birds shall mangle and the dogs devour.
    Then Hector, fainting at the approach of death:
    By thy own soul! by those who gave thee breath!
    By all the sacred prevalence of prayer!
    Ah, leave me not for Grecian dogs to tear!
    The common rites of sepulture bestow,
    To soothe a father’s and mother’s woe;
    Let their large gifts procure an urn at least,
    And Hector’s ashes in his country rest.”