A Book Review
of Michael F. Dilley and Lance Zedric's
Elite Warriors: 300 Years of America’s Best Fighting Troops
By Kenn Miller
Behind The Lines: The Journal of U.S. Military Special Operations
For almost a year now, Behind the Lines Executive Editor Gary Linderer has been telling me that BTL [Behind The Lines] staff writer Mike Dilley and some guy named Lance Zedric had a book coming out soon—and for just as long, I’ve been begging Gary to send me a copy as soon as he got his hands on one, but not to ask me to review it. The reason I didn’t want to review any book by Mike Dilley was because I had good reason to expect it would be as good as his work for BTL. And as I’ve got a chronic case of the gripes at the world at large these days, I want to trash books, not to praise them.
Well, once again, I was out of luck. I got Dilley and Zedric’s Elite Warriors: 300 Years of America’s Best Fighting Troops in the mail today. I rated it one sitting, and now I’m doing my duty by telling you the honest truth—this may be the single best overview of American military special operations history ever written.
Now, I know I’ve praised what might appear to be somewhat similar books in somewhat similar fashion—most notably Ed Evanhoe’s Dark Moon and Greg Walker’s At the Hurricane’s Eye. There is no contradiction. These books are complements to each other. Dark Moon and At the Hurricane’s Eye our close looks at specific periods of fairly recent history, while Elite Warriors is a much broader look at a much longer stretch of history—more than 300 years of it.
Whether they like to admit it or not, all truly qualified Behind the Lines readers know that “Ranger” is America’s oldest and most illustrious military title. Though they are almost certainly unknown to all current candidates for President of the United States and 90% of the history majors in our finest universities, most BTL readers have heard of Rogers’ Rangers, or Church’s Rangers, back in the 1670s, 100 years before there was a US of A? We’ve heard of Swamp Fox Marion’s Rangers in the Revolutionary war so many times we just accept it as a given that his men were called Rangers, even though they probably didn’t use the title much more than pre-1969 Lurps used it in Vietnam. Some of us have heard of Morgan’s Rangers from that period, but how many of us ever heard of Knowlton’s Rangers? We know something about Mosby’s Confederate Rangers during the Civil War, and we might even have heard a thing or two of McNeill’s Rangers. But what do we know about the Loudoun Rangers unless we find it in Elite Warriors? We know that Texas and Arizona Rangers were high-speed cops out of Marty Robbins songs and Chuck Norris TV series, but if you want to know about the military role they performed, your best bet is to read Elite Warriors.
But this ain’t just a good book about Rangers—not by a long shot. You’ve probably seen that old painting of George Washington crossing the ice choked Delaware River standing up in the bow of a boat like a proud, vain fool. You probably know that painting is about as accurate historically as an Oliver Stone movie. Being an educated person, you surely realize that since Gen. Washington was nobody’s fool, he would have had the good sense to sit down in the boat instead of posturing like Napoleon or MacArthur. But unless you know something about the Marblehead Mariners, you don’t know what this crossing entailed. The Marblehead Mariners are given full credit in Elite Warriors. And believe me, this is only the beginning of the amphibious spec ops history to be found in this book.
I really hate to say it, and I hope Dilley and Zedric and everyone reading this review won’t take it wrong, but Elite Warriors is one hell of a fine “multicultural” book—not in the politically correct fashion being pressed on our schoolchildren and graduate students, but rather in the inclusive way a real patriot might desire. For example, I knew that Swamp Fox Marion Pat and integrated force, and I knew that Mosley was not a racist bigot by the standards of his time and place, but until I read this book, I had no idea that there were “soul brothers” in Rogers Rangers. I didn’t know the names of the Indian Scouts who won the Medal of Honor, but I do know after reading this book. I didn’t know much about the Navajo “Code Talkers,” and I never even heard of the Alaskan Rangers World War II, but now I’ve read Elite Warriors. Sure, there is no specific mention the fact that men with Hispanic and Asian surnames have been more than normally well represented in American special operations units from World War II onward, but there doesn’t need to be. Dilley and Zedric keep stressing the fact that these units draw America’s best as volunteers, and that says all that has to be set on the subject.
This book is comprehensive, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t focus and close when it ought to. Over the years of reading about American special operations involvement in World War II China, I’ve come to expect most accounts to fall into one of two easy categories. There’s the Evans Carlson camp, where the Chicoms were the “good” allies, and there’s that John Singlaub camp where the Nationalists were the good guys. In Elite Warriors, you’ll find a more sensible picture of our Chinese friends—neither side was very dependable, nor very “good”, but both had a few good guys among the crooks and tyrants, and the smart Americans made the best of whatever hand was dealt them.
Elite Warriors is one of the quickest reads I’ve come across in five or six years of reading five or six books a week, but it still gives an amazingly full and comprehensive look at more than 300 years of American special operations history. I did my best to look for faults, and about the only major one I could find is the failure to give full play to the historical irony of American OSS support for Ho Chi Minh in light of later efforts against his forces—that, and the subtitle, “300 Years of America’s Best Fighting Troops.”
Sure, I by the elitist line that the men (and rare women) who volunteer for military special operations are a full cut above the average, but I think this subtitle gives a certain backhanded insult to whole legions of conventional American fighting men whose combat record qualifies them for inclusion among America’s historical best.
Now, carping about a title is nitpicking carried to an extreme, so don’t take it too seriously. Even if you serve in some elite conventional unit that isn’t covered by this book—even if your father or grandfather or great-great-great grandfather gave his life for America and some bloody conventional fashion and your enormously proud of—the fact that you’re reading BTL shows that you’ve got an interest in the history of American military special operations, and Elite Warriors is one book that most certainly belongs on your bookshelf.
Sure, Mike Dilley is my colleague here at BTL, but I never heard of Lance Zedric before, and I think he’s got a funny name. This is no put up job of pushing the colleague’s book. I’m telling the truth here—Elite Warriors is worth whatever the publisher’s charging for it. If Dilley and Zedric want to send me an autographed copy after this review, I’ll accept it in good conscience, and feel honored to show it to my kids. It ain’t a bride if I get the payment after a good review. And it ain’t a bribe if I’m giving you my honest, heartfelt, opinion.
If I were Minister of Compulsory Reading, every American would read Elite Warriors, and every immigrant would have to pass a test on it before becoming a citizen. It doesn’t matter how much you know, you’re still going to learn something new reading this book. And more important than that, you’re going to enjoy the experience immensely.