Sunday, February 5, 2017

Battle Now and Then

A trio of newly release books do an astounding job of capturing the intensity of war time action and the stories of the people in the battle. These books offering insight into the folks who believe in honor, duty and country and paint a vivid portrait of warriors in battle, now and then.

The Chosen Few: A Company of Paratroopers and Its Heroic Struggle to Survive in the Mountains of Afghanistan – Gregg Zoroya – (Da Capo Press)

For those without a military background, a company is comprised of two platoons which you can break down into the number of squads and from there sections, but suffice to say it generally amounts to somewhere above 100 but below 250 military personnel.

That small number puts into perspective the story that award winning journalist Gregg Zoroya tells about - C Company, or Chosen Company, of the 2nd Battalion – “the Rock” – 503rd Parachute Infantry regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade, Sky Soldiers Paratroopers; or simply the Chosen Few. Zoroya recounts the story of this band of brothers, who fought and died, side by side in the mountains of Afghanistan, in his new book, The Chosen Few: A Company of Paratroopers and Its Heroic Struggle to Survive in the Mountains of Afghanistan.

Historians and journalist have penned many books about what Tom Brokaw dubbed “the greatest generation” those men who came from simple lives to the battlefields of World War II and left a sense that those kinds of men no longer walk among us. Zoroya makes the case that that assumption is entirely incorrect, that we indeed have a new generation of heroic men who fight to overcome the overwhelming odds that are thrown against them.

Is it the men or the situation they find themselves in the forge these heroes in the fire of battle? One cursory look at many of these guys would likely leave you doubtful, but when faced with the insurmountable odds of war they rise to the challenge for both themselves and the brother warriors at their sides.

At just seventeen, Ryan Pitts needed his mother’s signature to enlist in the Army, using the ploy of being a Forward Observer rather than being an infantryman to gain her approval. A few short years later, Pitts was on his second deployment in Afghanistan with the Chosen Few. Zoroya describes in chilling detail as Pitts, unable to walk, laced with shrapnel wounds to his arms and legs continued to fight as his position at a FOB (forward operating base) was overrun with a hoard of Taliban fighters. Pitts, propped up against a wall, convinced this would be his last stand continued to lob grenades and radio details back to his command. Zoroya describes the hopeless position, with no help forthcoming, as Pitts fought on. Finally with a pair of rescuers on the way, Pitts valiantly fought on.

As the Navy SEALs are fond of saying, there were no easy days for the Chosen Few as they faced nearly non-stop, daily battles; only to come out the other side as one of the most decorated military units in history, including; two medal of honor winners, Pitts being one.

The Lost Eleven: The Forgotten Story of Black American Soldiers Massacred in World War II – Denise George and Robert Child – (Caliber/NAL)

Given the current state of what is being called patriotic; a bunch of misfit protesters breaking windows and wearing stupid pink hats, it good to be reminded of what real patriots look like. That is the underlying, almost forgotten story, of a group of soldiers dubbed the Wereth Eleven.

Their story takes place during World War II and is recounted in The Lost Eleven: The Forgotten Story of Black American Soldiers Massacred in World War II, by Denise George and Robert Child. The Eleven, members of the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, offering crucial support to Allied Forces at the Siege of Bastogne.

In the heat of battle, they managed to escape the devastation a sought refuge in the small Belgium village of Wereth. Taken in by an Allied sympathizer, a farmer who offered them shelter and food as the tried to recover from the ravages.

Later, ratted out by the farmer’s neighbor, these brave fighters were tortured and executed in a nearby field. Their murder was left out of the post tribunals that documented war crimes. It wasn’t until 7 decades after the war that files documenting their story were finally unsealed and their heroism was recognized.

Their stories are stitched together from interviews with family members and those files and the common thread was their willingness to serve, to protect this country even in the face of Jim Crow laws that limited or prevented them from enjoying all of the freedoms Americans enjoy. It is a sacrifice of the highest order, that deserves this long overdue recognition.

Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat – Giles Milton - (Picador)

So much has been written and filmed about the impact that Sir Winston Churchill has had during his tenure as Britain’s prime minister and his leadership during World War II and the ultimate defeat of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, that it seems no stone was left unturned.

In what perhaps will be the last great story about Churchill and World War II comes Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat, by Giles Milton. Again the contrast then and now is absolutely striking. We live in a world in disarray, where our warriors are expected to live and fight within a set of rules of engagement when they take on sworn enemies bent on their destruction. It seems more than a little absurd to even say that.

Things like collateral damage and protecting lives were never the goals when Churchill stitched together a disparate collection of folks from a wide range of backgrounds and experience to build what amounts to a brain trust whose sole purpose for existence was the ungentlemanly arts of mayhem, destruction and death. I found myself smiling as Milton recounts the story of this rag tag band of folks who developed, honed and executed the dismantling of Hitler’s forces brick by brick and body by body.

While so many moving parts went into the eventual defeat of the Nazi forces, it cannot be underestimated the impact these mavericks and their contribution to the cause had in Hitler’s eventual downfall. Much like the Monuments Men, brought to the big screen the efforts of soldiers charged with recovering art and treasure plundered by the Nazis, I can see this tale making for a big screen epic.  


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