Robert E. Jone’s frequent and almost thematic mention of the storied division’s ‘rendezvous with destiny’ combines with his subtitle (‘The first fifty years’) to suggest that he believes he and his co-authors have written the preface to continued achievements by the Screaming Eagles. The six years that have passed since this book’s 2010 publication debate suggest that his intuition was more than merely loyalty to a storied military unit.
In the book’s eloquent preface, Major General Francis L. Samson (Chaplain, USA, Ret.) writes that ‘Sherman was not quite right when he said “War is hell,” for in hell there is no compassion, no love, no generosity, no empathy for the suffering. I believe most firmly that the American serviceman (and service woman) in combat exemplifies more than any segment of our society the virtues of love, of self sacrifice, of courage and of fortitude in the face of danger and death”.
It is this story of non-hell at the gates of hell itself that Jones and others weave competently in four chapters that correspond to the 101st’s birth as the storming of Fortress Europe was on planners’ desks through to the development of the concept of Air Assault and its deployment in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. A fifth chapter presents the formal citations of Screaming Eagles who were awarded (sadly, many posthumously) the Medal of Honor.
The book’s reader will be best placed to absorb the often riveting history of the Scream Eagles if he or she has at least a modest command of ‘U.S. Army dialect’, for Jones does not pause to explain or to collect stragglers. In his story, the 101st was often ‘in first’ when nearly impossible—or at least profoundly unfamiliar—military challenges faced the nation’s civilian masters. This is a tale of rising to the challenge, of finding oneself equal to them, then of returning to one’s barracks knowing that the full story will only rarely be fully known or appreciated.
The book’s style is uneven, perhaps owing to the reality of multiple contributors that is revealed only by small-font attribution at the beginning of each chapter and in the appreciation that constitutes the volume’s concluding pages. The first chapter, ‘World War II’, provides the volume’s finest narrative. It is striking to be reminded how late in the conflict the 101st was created and brought to bear upon Europe’s darkest moment. The epic conflict in the European Theatre is too easily read as an inevitable ‘fait accompli’, for the modern reader knows how it ended. But the men of the 101st, thrown in to experimental modes of warfare as the ‘first to try’, did not. Over and above the massive emphasis on training that Jones chronicles, the newly airborne infantry experimented and adapted and re-thought convention in real time as the politicians and the generals (who by many modern accounts were not the heroes of WWII) did their best to get to Berlin and end this thing.
If Jones’ treatment of WWII represents the book’s best writing, his chapter (the author is actually John L. Burford) on ‘The Training Years’ turns over the soil that is most peppered with surprises. The nation was still weary of war and—beneath the general terror regarding a thermo-nuclear exchange—averse to thinking much about the possibility of its renewal. Yet at the 101st’s Fort Campbell (Kentucky) and a network of collaborating bases, planning for a new kind of mobile warfare continued apace, concealed from civilian life more often by a veil of apathy than of any active attempt to remain hidden. The skies, mountains, and cow pastures of Kentucky and North Carolina played host to Screaming Eagles on planning maneuvers more often than anyone but the locals who sometimes gathered to cheer them on cared to know. Yet these exercises allowed the chiefs of a reconfigured U.S. Army a sense for the potent force that, should its promise be developed and eventually deployed, would allow the newest superpower to order a confusing world at least partially according to its whims.
‘Vietnam’ (Chapter Three, by Gary Linderer) makes for a sad read. Linderer’s take alludes to but strongly counter-argues the reigning mythology of an underperforming military fragging its officers, smoking its weed, and generally exporting America’s worst decadence to a country whose name has been unrecognizable ‘back home’ just a few years earlier. The style is that of an expanded series of after-action reports, in which purposeful movement of helicopter-borne troops wreaked general havoc on the Viet Cong (VC) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), with occasionally helpful support from its allies in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). Yet despite the detectable stiff upper lip and military deference to civilian authorities that pervade Linderer’s story, one senses the growing critical mass of political indecision that turned the 101st’s performance in Vietnam into one summarized by a tone of ‘We did what we were told and we did it well, but …’. The author of this chapter allows his feelings to be glimpsed when he notes, laconically, that it was difficult for the solider in the jungle to sustain morale and high performance when President Richard Nixon had so clearly decided to end the war. The notion of becoming the last casualty has limited appeal.
During the warn abbreviated as ‘Vietnam’, the nation was grotesquely divided as to its purpose (or the absence of one) in Southeast Asia. How could those at the point of the spear endure the dilemma that was thrust upon them. Yet they did endure and, if Linderer’s story is read for its face value, they left a mission that became dire with the pride that comes from having met one’s rendezvous with destiny gamely, professionally, and without leaving anyone necessarily behind.
The story of the first Gulf War (Desert Shield and Desert Storm) provides the book’s most tactically gripping (Chapter Four: Air Assault, by Thomas H. Taylor) entry. What looked on CNN like an unmitigated romp through the desert turns out to have been built upon the scaffolding of bold and intricate plans that produced a gripping run of cliff-hangers before Saddam Hussein’s goose could finally be pronounced cooked.
The final chapter (Chapter Five: Medal of Honor Recipients) sustains the declaration in the preface that war is not yet hell. But nor is war far from that dark and hopeless doorway. One reads with a heart heavy for fallen soldiers whose best-lived moments were, more often than not, their last.
The book is marred only by a curious frequency of misspellings.
As a matter of full disclosure, this reviewer should disclose that he has no military training or experience (in case this isn’t supremely evident already!) and that he is the admiring and prayerful father of two sons who currently serve as officers among the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Infantry Division (Air Assault). These men serve regularly in places whose names may serve as chapter titles for this book’s sequel.