Friday, October 3, 2014

Band of Brothers: Some Thoughts About Warriors and War

In my adult years, I gravitated away from TV. As a kid, I watched tons of it, but other things took precedent later in life, I guess. But, ever since we got rid of cable TV, my wife and I have been delving back, on streaming channels, into the critically acclaimed stuff. We started with Lost, which we really enjoyed, despite the many objections people had to the later seasons. We watched and liked Deadwood and Rome. Deadwood got old for me at the end -- I found the over-the-top foul language started to make me feel numb after awhile. Still, it was good writing. I liked Rome better; I thought the characters and their portrayals were excellent. Most recently, we completed Band of Brothers.

My favorite interaction with art is when it stirs my emotions. While watching Band of Brothers, I was brought to tears at least once, every episode. 

Richard Winters
Having been based on Stephen Ambrose's book, the miniseries was sort of a different animal than the other shows we watched. Sure, Rome was based on history, but it was ancient history. That feels different, from the start. But Band of Brothers is about a war that family members of mine were in. My great uncle, Vince, may well have actually been saved by the central characters, members of "Easy Company" who, in a heroic effort pitting twelve men against fifty German soldiers, took out the guns at Brecourt Manor, overlooking the beach on D-Day. It's close. My great uncle, Bobby, was not as lucky in Europe. 

Most affecting, though, for me, were the interviews with the men, several of whom were still alive in 2001 when the show was made. Humble (and I do not throw this word around lightly) heroes, each and every one of them.

I don't do full-on critiques here. I loved the series (and, by the way, the fine music by the late Michael Kamen) but...what is it about these guys -- about World War II -- that makes war seem about as right at is possibly can? Why do these guys seem so much more -- what? -- legendary than soldiers from other conflicts and wars? 

(Before I get angry comments from vets of other wars, you will notice I picked my word with care and purpose. I used "legendary" and not "better". I am simply referring to the status that these soldiers have in my own mind, owing to whatever baggage I might bring with me into the interpretation of modern history, --  including my relationships to beloved, now-deceased, D-Day vets, I am sure.)

As always, we need to be careful about Romanticising things. But, let's face it: Hitler was evil. Hitler rounded up Jews (and anyone else he felt was undesirable and/or un-Aryan) and treated them in the most inhumane ways possible. (The scene in Band of Brothers that depicts their discovery of a prison camp made a wreck of me, I'll admit.) Hitler wanted world domination.

So, I guess we can see the guys who fought him as undisputed heroes; they wanted to stop an evil. But (and someone more astute in American history might be able to correct me on any errors I might commit, hence) the truth is, many of these men really didn't understand the level of Hitler's evil; only that he was a threat to freedom for America. In short, many of them signed up for the same reasons guys do today: an unquestioning sense of duty to their country. 

In fact, many, like Dick Winters (who was the decorated commander of Easy Company) signed up to get it over with; to avoid having to serve later into the war if they were eventually drafted. With the information these guys had, they wind up being not much different than soldiers today, I suppose.

But...there was just something. Maybe it is just a result of what we now know. We now know they were truly fighting evil. We also know we are fighting evil when we fight the Bin Ladens and Husseins of the world, as well as  ISIS and Al Qaeda, but Hitler's evil at least had the decency to present itself for honest combat. The evil we fight today is slippery and bows not to the honor conventions of war. 

The men of the German army in WWII were regular guys doing what their country had either convinced them or compelled them to do, same as ours. They, themselves (outside of the insidious SS), were operating under traditional points of soldierly honor. They were a worthy foe that surrendered with honor -- many of whom, I am sure, were even relieved by the fall of Hitler and were just as eager to get home to their families as our guys were. 

I suppose there was simply more Romance is all of it, then. Our soldiers, today, are forced to chase enemies that behave like roaches, scattering into the corners when lights are on; operating under a system of beliefs that holds no respect for human life. That just makes things feel different. It is no fault of our soldiers; it's the fault of an enemy that runs on insanity as opposed to an enemy that was run by those who were insane. (This is not, in any way, meant to underplay the atrocities the Nazis committed, but to simply point out that the insane leading the obedient is different than an entire crusade infected in its very blood with insane beliefs.) 

Can you imagine our fight against extremist maniacs ending like this, as Major Winters, himself describes the German surrender? I'll leave you with the voice of a real hero:

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