Alex Nibley has taken his training as a playwright and filmmaker to bring readers an important book about his father’s wartime memoirs as well as the larger context of war and its meaning. The format of the book is unusual; it reads like a screenplay or a documentary film that has been maneuvered and cajoled onto paper. Readers are guided in such a way that the authors’ voices are interrupted often in order to bring attention to ancillary material. Some may find this interweaving of several narratives frustrating; but if readers are patient, they will be rewarded.
A highlight of the book is Alex Nibley’s solid sense for story structure and form. It is refreshing to find creative use of literary devices in a history book. There is exposition, development, foreshadowing, and a recapitulation of earlier philosophical themes that punctuates the contradictions of war. This structure successfully heightens emotion in a way that the pages of a well-crafted book of fiction might.
Readers follow Hugh Nibley from his schooling at UC Berkeley (a period of time that was almost not covered in the book due to Nibley’s reticence to publish letters that he felt betrayed his youthful arrogance) to his mission in Germany, where Nibley served the people he later fought during World War II. The book is full of personal letters and diary entries that reveal Nibley as articulate and moody with a sharp, downright biting wit. Readers are also given insight into Nibley’s keen spiritual senses as they follow his “five o’clocks,” the vivid and oracular dreams that often occurred at that morning hour (26).
The greater part of the book chronicles his wartime experiences, where Nibley is vaulted into the perilous mission of the 101st Airborne Division, the first division to land in Normandy. Nibley was in the thick of it all: he distinguished himself in advanced intelligence, helping to write Invademecum, a top-secret guide used in the invasion of Normandy; he landed on Utah Beach on D-Day in a jeep he had waterproofed; and he survived the near-suicidal air invasion of Holland (part of Operation Market Garden) despite his Waco glider being hit by excessive machine-gun fire. Readers interested in World War II, as well as the harrowing campaigns of the 101st Airborne, will not be disappointed in this narrative.
The book ends in philosophical reverie rather than historical detachment, an unusual but effective approach considering the milieu already established in previous chapters. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s prescient warnings on the “military-industrial complex” as well as his feelings on preemptive war—“I wouldn’t even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing”—are timely reminders, considering the current deliberations on the ethical use of war (318, 335). His reminders have extra rhetorical zing when placed toward the closing of the book. Considering Eisenhower’s positions as the supreme Allied commander in Europe and later as the U.S. presidential nominee of a party that was firmly promilitary, he had ample reason to hide his bitterly won wisdom concerning the strife of nations. Instead, he gave candid warnings as one who knew, a sage who had seen everything of war. If Alex Nibley hopes that readers might find their understanding of war somewhat refined and reshaped, the author has succeeded at least with me.
As a professor at BYU, Hugh Nibley wrote an editorial during the Vietnam years renouncing war. It created a small firestorm, and most responding editorials disagreed with his argument. He gained a reputation as antiwar, but Nibley was not a stereotypical pacifist—he volunteered to serve his country in World War II and did not shirk when war’s horror encroached upon him. “He was proud of his association with the Screaming Eagles,” writes Alex Nibley. “He held soldiers in high esteem, but he had no admiration for the industry of war” (331). Eisenhower understood that war was sometimes necessary, but having suffered through it, offered this: “I hate war only as a soldier who has lived it can” (333). Likewise, Nibley’s pacifism was an outgrowth of experience, epitomized in these words: “I saw the war. It’s the saddest thing there is. I renounce war not because of what I have read, but because of what I have lived” (329).