Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg and Iwo Jima, by Alexander Rose, Random House, New York, 2015, $18

Much of the discussion in conventional military literature focuses on high-level strategy, tactics and leadership. Consequently, military historians often bypass the day-to-day experience of frontline combat soldiers. In Men of War Rose examines the lives of such soldiers through the unflinching prism of the Battles of Bunker Hill, Gettysburg and Iwo Jima. Through the use of eyewitness accounts and letters Rose constructs a frank and graphic account of everyday life in combat situations.

The author notes that soldiers not only see, feel and hear battle, but also perceive and interpret it differently depending on their respective personalities, culture and era. Along the way he reveals combat in its varied moods—exhilarating, horrifying, boring, terrifying, barbaric, noble, random, tragic and farcical.

Rose draws thought-provoking parallels between soldiers’ experiences across the different wars, noting that in all three battles they managed to adapt their tactics to defeat professional enemy forces that either outnumbered or outmaneuvered them. He eloquently explains the gradual hardening of soldiers’ emotions to unthinkable sights, which enabled them to develop emotional indifference and maintain combat readiness. Men of War also investigates how soldiers dealt with shifting attitudes about war over the course of two centuries.

Rose’s unsparing account of the experience of frontline soldiers is a compelling reminder of the human cost of war and the scars that linger when the firing stops. It also serves as a warning that, given the consequent toll on people, infrastructure and societies, the decision to enter war should never be made lightly.

—S.L. Hoffman