Memorial Day is coming up, and I wrote a military themed column for today’s paper:
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be never so vile. This day shall gentle his condition. And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
That quote is from the Shakespeare play King Henry V. It is also where the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” took its name. The series is based on a book by the same name written by historian Stephen E. Ambrose. It follows “Easy Company,” the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division of the Army through World War II.
I have always loved Band of Brothers, and I’m not alone in this. Many people my age are fans of the series. However, not everyone understands this fascination. Once my dad asked why I like World War II stuff, Band of Brothers, “Saving Private Ryan,” etc…
I’ve never been able to answer that question well. Oh, it would be much easier if I were a young boy; I could just say “I like tanks!” But somehow that doesn’t cut it at 25.
I’ve had family in the armed forces, but to think of my family as a military family would be mostly inaccurate. That’s not to diminish their service, though. Both of my grandfathers served during World War II, one in the Army in the China Burma India Theater and one in the Air Force in the European Theater. My uncle also served many years in the Navy. My family just didn’t talk about their time in the military very often, so I doubt that’s the source of my interest.
It might be that I don’t rightly know, but in the interest of filling the rest of this column, I’ll try to provide the best answer I can.
One of the main attractions of the series is that it feels so foreign to me, and I don’t mean the European landscapes. Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan depict men younger than I am today—18, 19, 20-years-old—dropping everything to go overseas and fight.
I can’t even imagine that. At 18-years-old, I was still adjusting to moving from the suburbs of Chicago to Missouri for college. I dealt with it fine because I’m not one to get homesick, but I suspect an ocean apart from home rather than a few hundred miles of corn and soybean fields would change that. Comparatively, complaining about getting up for an 8 a.m. English class seems pretty damn selfish.
I don’t know that I would have been equipped to deal with the things Easy Company saw. One episode, called “Why We Fight,” in particular comes to mind. It focuses on the liberation of the Landsberg Concentration Camp. A handful of soldiers go to investigate the camp and find mass graves and people that are more skeleton than human.
The commanding officers find one of the only soldiers that can speak fluent German, Liebgott, so they can get some answers. Liebgott asks a frail man with shaved head and bones jutting out beneath his dirty, grayish skin what the place is and whom it’s for. The man responds that it is a work camp, not for criminals, but for “actors, musicians, tailors, writers, clerks, farmers, intellectuals…Jews…Jews…Poles…Gypsies.”
Of course I knew what it was when they opened the gates, but in that moment, it felt like I was finding out for the first time with Easy Company. I’ve watched that episode many times since it originally aired, and each time genuine feelings of horror wash over me.
And that episode made me realize why I’m so drawn to World War II TV shows and movies. I’m drawn to them because they make me realize and appreciate that many young men and women were forced to do things I would never have the bravery or wherewithal to do.
I’ll always be grateful that so many picked up a rifle, so, today, I can pick up a pen instead.