About Those White Devils


You could see the poor little anchorette's eyes bug out when she read that the 82nd Airborne's "white devils" had initiated Operation Valiant Strike in Afghanistan. The news release from the unit's HQ in Bagram evidently didn't explain the background of the nickname—or no one bothered to read it.

Malcolm X or any racial element has nothing to do with it. Think flag, not race. Then go all the way back to the 82nd's formation in 1917 when it got the "All Americans" nickname, ostensibly because every state in the union was represented in its ranks. That also explains the 82nd's distinctive "AA" shoulder patch.

With the division "All Americans" it was only natural for its component regiments to get red, white, and blue nicknames. Jump to WWII where the paratroopers of the 504th regiment fighting at Anzio earned the nickname "devils in baggy pants" from the Germans. Put it all together and you get white devils, along with red devils, and blue devils.

This etymology shows how military units build up an identity over the years quite apart from civilian culture. Morale and unit cohesion are greatly improved by the sense of being part of a distinct unit tradition. So it is black and Hispanic troopers are proud to go to war as white devils even if stateside news anchors—and probably some in the audience—are bewildered by it all.