James Scott Wheeler’s workmanlike narrative of the First Division’s storied legacy begins with the unit’s July 4, 1917 parade through Paris en route to bloodier encounters along the line that would soon yield to the American bolstering of the Anglo-French defenses. It ends with the Division’s performance in the First Gulf War.
In between, Wheeler chronicles engagement after engagement with phenomenal precision. One thinks with gratitude of the after-engagement reports that became the dull but immensely valuable stock-in-trade of American infantry and the relentless effort required of historians like Wheeler in processing these and other sources.
One searches these pages in vain for the glorification of combat, as for the personal drama of the men and women who fought the First Division’s and its nation’s battles. In the same way, Wheeler touches only lightly on the political drama and the political masters who have ordered the the men and women of the First into harm’s way.
Rather, Wheeler is a student of military structure, strategy, and tactics. Other considerations represent at best a secondary objective of this stupendously well researched volume.
Even the Division’s low points must be discerned between the lines, chief among them North Africa’s hard-knocks learning experience and the sometimes purposeless drift that have made ‘Vietnam’ an abbreviation for disconnect between the political overlords and their military servants.
This reviewer is no military historian, just the father of a recently minted 2nd Lieutenant in the Big Red One who on the date of this writing is battling Florida’s swamps in the third of three phases of Ranger School.
For me, as perhaps for other novice readers of The Big Red One, Wheeler’s work drives home the degree to which military strategy–and the successes and failures of it–is a perpetual learning experience, the hardest lessons of which fall to the men and women who, with good leadership and bad, stare out at the reader from the volume’s images and climb hill after hill because that is what they were trained to do.
Their labor and, for many, their sacrifice are ennobled by chroniclers like James Scott Wheeler who dispassionately record what they accomplished and, as often as not, against what considerable odds.