Saturday, April 29, 2017

Building a Team in Fact and Fiction

The Devil’s Brigade and The Dirty Dozen are two stories from World War II about creating a cohesive combat unit from differing, antagonistic, or hostile individuals. Both novels were adapted for cinema. The all-star cast and tighter plot of The Dirty Dozen made it the more memorable of the two. Arguably realistic, if not real, The Dirty Dozen was fiction, whereas The Devil’s Brigade is history.

The Dirty Dozen is iconic, but the movie was sanitized for Hollywood’s audiences.  I believe that the book could not have been published ten years before landmark Supreme Court cases on obscenity and pornography released literature from the confines of Puritianism. (See Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 1964; and Citizen’s Guide to Federal Obscenity Laws here.) In addition, characters were renamed, and two characterizations were merged. The story remains compelling.  Like everyone, I knew about The Dirty Dozen as a movie. Having seen it a few times, I watched it again, and when the credits rolled, I saw the author’s name.  So I looked for the book and found it at the UT library.  It is very much different from the movie.  You can find an excellent synopsis comparing the book to the cinema production on the blog, From Novel to Film here. 

I saw Devil’s Brigade in the DVD stacks at the city library and figured that it was just a knock-off of The Dirty Dozen. I was pleasantly surprised.  And, more to the point, the credits listed the novel. Googling revealed the book, but finding it at a library was harder.  I finally ordered two copies in hardcover first edition (2nd printing) on Amazon.  After reading it (carefully), I gave them to two of my officers, one for Christmas, the other for separation.  Then, further digging on WorldCat revealed the U.S. Naval Institute edition; and I am a USNI member. So, I bought my own copy from them.
The Devil's Brigade by Robert H. Adleman and George Walton, 
(1st eds. Corgi 1968 (ppb); Transworld 1968). 
Naval Institute Press, 2004; ppb $21.95.  
(Not pictured: The Dirty Dozen 
by E. M. Nathanson (Random House, 1965).
“The first special service forces of World War II were known as the Devil's Brigade. Ferocious and stealthy combatants, they garnered their moniker from the captured diary of a German officer who wrote, "The black devils are all around us every time we come into line and we never hear them." Handpicked U.S. and Canadian soldiers trained in mountaineering, airborne, and close-combat skills, they numbered more than 2,300 and saw action in the Aleutians, Italy, and the south of France.  
“Co-written by a brigade member and a World War II combat pilot, the book explores the unit's unique characteristics, including the men's exemplary toughness and their ability to fight in any terrain against murderous opposition. It also profiles some of the unforgettable characters that comprised the near-mythical force. Conceived in Great Britain, the brigade was formed to sabotage the German submarine pens and oil storage areas along Norway's coast, but when the campaign was cancelled, the men moved on to many other missions. This World War II tale of adventure, first published in hardcover in 1966 and made into a movie not long after, is now available in paperback for the first time.” – USNI Press.

The salient difference between the two stories is that the twelve outlaws never gelled into a real team.  Although some did find redemption in death, collectively they never achieved the sense of brotherhood that makes one man give his life to save another. In my opinion, the movie version of The Devil’s Brigade overplayed the myth of transformation. These were not a bunch of American losers who were dragged upward to British standards. And the Canadians were not an amalgam. (They came from two different components with three – or four – different uniforms.) The fact that each of the soldiers was individually acculturated by previous training to the warrior’s ethos allowed the brigade to discover and exploit its internal strengths.  Finally, in both the book and the film, the commander’s solution was firmly rooted in laissez faire: he let them work it out; and they did. That, too, occurred in the movie version of The Dirty Dozen in the shaving scene, though the book was different.

In modern real life, military teams are built from the ground up, making each member always responsible for someone else.  But even as boot camp “tears you down to build you up” some ineffable factor of personality may be unalterable. The problem remains salient: some people never learn the important lessons. In the original Dirty Dozen the Georgia cracker, Archer Maggot, and the disgraced Black lieutenant from Louisiana, Napoleon White, never rise above their differences before being dropped together in an unresolved scene after the attack on the chateau.  In the movie version of The Devil’s Brigade, the Canadians and Americans find a common cause in a barroom brawl with some lumberjacks. After that, and one other leveling scene in the mess hall, the men find personal reasons to buddy-up across the components.  

Our component has been planning a complex exercise for over a year. To evaluate the actors and their actions, we have a white cell. When we met last weekend, two friends from different units were chatting.
“What are you working on?” 
“I’m on the white cell.”
“What’s that?”
“Do you remember The Dirty Dozen? I have George Kennedy’s role.”


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