Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book Review: The Last Ridge

The Last Ridge is McKay Jenkins's account of the 10th Mountain Division's training and combat experiences during World War II.  It's a tremendously inspiring and sad account, based on a combination of official and unofficial correspondence as well as on what I can only imagine were an exhaustive set of interviews of the division's survivors who were willing to sit with Jenkins and talk about their experiences.

The Last Ridge by McKay Jenkins
The best thing about the book is also the hardest to tolerate.  Jenkins spends fully half of his story getting to know many of the division's members personally. He goes into detail about the division's recruiting and early training, spending time not only introducing personalities but also showing us why mountain training was (and is) different than regular infantry training--and why that's important.  This then makes the division's experiences doubly frustrating. In McKay's words, the 10th Mountain "was an unprecedented force of elite soldiers that the [A]rmy didn't know how to recruit, train, or employ, and they were inserted into a campaign that American strategists were never completely sure they wanted to fight."  They arrived almost too late to do any good and were deployed without much of their equipment, which dramatically degraded their effectiveness early in their campaign.  They triumphed in amazing ways, but it was in a campaign that both sides considered little more than an Economy of Force mission meant to distract the opponent from the primary theater of war. On top of that, the story becomes personal once you get to know the men who fought and died.

This, then, is the best and the worst of the American Army all in one book. It is a story of fantastic courage, of motivated men doing the impossible in the company of their brothers, of the importance of fitness and athletic skill to the combat soldier. But it's also a story about waste, about good men whose talents are under-appreciated and underutilized, and it proves once and for all that war kills indiscriminately.  It makes for a tough read in spots.

The 10th Mtn Division's Patch
If I had to critique the book, my critique would be in the way Jenkins chronicles the actual battles.  The maps are not at all detailed, and because Jenkins's focus is on the individual soldier, the tactics and maneuvers are hard to follow.  We learn what happened to select individuals, but sussing out what exactly happened and why is much more difficult. Considering that this is the chronicle of one of America's most storied battle histories, that's a shame.

This is a minor critique.  The Last Ridge is a readable, deeply personal account, and given what Jenkins is trying to do with the story, that's a better way to tell it. It's also one of the few military history books I've ever read that focuses uniquely on New England's part in World War II, which I found satisfying on a personal level. I recommend it strongly to folks from the North who have an interest in military history and especially to ski and mountaineering buffs who want to understand the place of their sport in the context of war.  I enjoyed the book thoroughly, and I expect you will, too.

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