Soldiers By Reputation
Now that Firebox has been out for a week, some additional historical notes seem in order. But be suitably warned: these notes may contain spoilers about the story, so I’d advise against reading them until you’ve finished the novella.
We last spent time with Colonel Robert Adams, Sergeant Eric Turner, and the storied 25th United States Infantry Regiment in The Badlands, the fifth His Majesty’s New World novel. At that point, the black soldiers fought alongside the Newfoundland Regiment, the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs and the 1st King George’s Own Gurkhas in a brutal battle against the Hubrin. Most of the American soldiers were killed during the engagement; Adams was a survivor.
The victory, though, was complete: a Hubrin assault against the Pacifica Territory was destroyed, and Sir Andrew Skeen committed to making certain the contributions of the black soldiers would not be overlooked. The men of the 25th were, after all, some of the most professional fighting men in the poorly-regarded United States Army. Now, at last, they were to be respected as such.
As Skeen hoped, the black soldiers became heroes, their importance never again to be questioned. Other black units were disbanded after the war (while the 25th held the country’s attention) but no matter –– surely the famed regiment would carry the mantle for all black men in the United States. In pursuit of this aim, the War Department assigned Colonel Adams’ men a vital task: they would guard Fort Eustice and the Robinson Institute. After all, who better than the most elite savage-fighters to protect the Champions of the United States?
Sounds great, of course –– and it was a perfect, politically-correct way to condemn good men to never again seeing combat. After all, the installations under guard were in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, well away from any danger, and protected from all sides by numerous military posts. The men of the 25th would never again be expected to see combat, and as such, they would never get training time, or any opportunities to maintain their soldiering skills.
In so many ways, it was no different than digging ditches… and the men suffered for it.
The 25th that marched with the Newfoundland Regiment was elite because its men were black. Obviously, this is not a comment of racial quality –– black men don’t possess any special quality that makes them better soldiers. Instead, it was a reality derived from the context of 1919-20. At that time, only the toughest, smartest and very best black soldiers could survive in an Army that was largely prejudiced against them. These men always had to be ready for the thankless tasks, and they had to pull together to stay alive.
Not so in 1941. Guarding a well-positioned base in home territory, new recruits have no way to gain combat experience, and no reason to pull together for survival. Indeed, the biggest battles they face are in the jazz clubs of Newport News, where they compete with each other and men from other formations to gain favor with local ladies.
So the men of the 25th United States Infantry are, by the time Alex, Stephanie and Strong see them, soldiers by reputation only. Some veterans remain, but for the most part the ranks are filled by a new generation… and many of those young men aren’t fit to wear the insignia of the regiment that fought at Promised Town, and the Badlands.
The obvious question therefore must be asked: can this damage be undone? Can a regiment turned into a mascot be turned back into a fighting unit? And in light of recent casualties, who could manage the transformation?
Much work lies ahead if the 25th can ever hope to rise again. As always, time will tell.