The Brits, some of them at least, were peeved, not simply because of the price Dreamworks set for British broadcast of Band of Brothers, but because HBO's 10-part series followed the war experience of a single company of GIs as they traveled the bloody road to Germany. By featuring a single company, the Brits whined, HBO suggested that Yanks had single-handedly won the war.
As our President would say, "Sad."
Band of Brothers is story-telling at its finest--relentless in its pursuit of authenticity, determined to give honored dues to every human emotion, every bit of what Easy Company was and what we are, even as we witness the wearying experience of war from the ease of our armchairs. It is simply marvelous television, a war story so compelling that I couldn't look away long enough to remind myself that it wasn't unfolding in front of me, that it was staged and scripted, that it wasn't real.
The objecting Brits are wrong. Band of Brothers is not about who won the war, it's about who fought it. It's about the truly extraordinary heroism the Second World War drew from very ordinary people.
Years ago, near Arnhem, the Netherlands, we stopped at a World War II cemetery some travel agent suggested we take in. We showed up just as a bus full of British tourists appeared, old vets in dressed up in their uniforms, some in wheelchairs, most with walkers. They gathered just outside the rows of graves, then marched--or attempted to--up toward the tall, white monument at the far end. There, militarily, they paid their respects. It was immensely moving to be there right then, a stroke of luck or providence to happen along when the vets who remembered what they couldn't forget honored those who didn't return. The Brits suffered immensely during Operation Market Garden, where the goal was "a bridge too far."
But Band of Brothers' immense strength is that it doesn't tell everyone's story, doesn't use only a wide-angle lens. Band of Brothers stays with "Easy Company," the 101st Airborne's 506th Regiment, from their unique paratroop training, through the monstrously dangerous drop behind the Reich's massive defenses on D-day. It stays with the guys who fought their way into Germany, who walked blindly into a concentration camp, a human wasteland, then risked sporadic fighting all the way through to the Bavarian Alps, to Berchtesgarden, the place where so many Nazi officials had summer homes when finally the war ended. Band of Brothers is a Second World War drama that's only secondarily about the war; what it's really about it the hearts and souls of the men who fought it and their selfless, harrowing heroism.
When Easy Company was formed at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, it listed 140 men. Throughout the war, some 300 served under its insignia. At Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, Operation Market Garden, and the company's push to the end, 49 had been killed in action. Band of Brothers doesn't skimp on the wrenching horror of seeingbuddies die. It doesn't glorify war, not in the least; but it does glorify those who fought it. None of them are armed with superhuman powers, but all of them heroes of the highest rank.
Easy Company has no women. Not one of the men is black or brown or red. They're all white males, and they're all heroes, even the ones who lose out to their own fear or leave so much of themselves on the battlefield that they simply can't go on. The red caps--"Make America Great Again"--mean to conjure this world.
I get that. In the time that we watched the ten-part series, I couldn't help thinking of my own father-in-law just behind those lines, an Iowa farm boy plucked out of cornfield and put down on European soil for an experience the likes of which he'd not see again. Just last week, in the throes the senility that's threatening him, he asked me, "Were you in Germany too?" What he knows and what he doesn't can't be known, but he does know is that he was, for sure and memorably, in Germany with his own "band of brothers."
But I know a woman who was there too in the medical tents just beyond the snowy Belgian forests at the Battle of the Bulge. I know a woman who, like so many others, heard "buzz bombs" overhead and waited in icy fear for them to hit, like everyone else, waited to die. I know a woman, a Lakota woman, who was cited by the French government for her work as an army nurse on the same roads to Germany.
And I know also know that, when she returned stateside after the war, when she took a job not all that far from her home on the Cheyenne River in a hospital in Rapid City, South Dakota, she was repulsed, sickened to read a sign in a window of store downtown said "No Indians."
Band of Brothers is all about the Second World War, a time and a series of places and the people who were there. But more importantly it's about heart and soul, and selflessness, about people giving more than they ever thought they could or would. Finally, it's about peace and what it requires of us.
I'm not someone drawn to war stories. There were moments when I turned the volume down because I couldn't stand to hear what Easy Company heard so much of.
But I loved Band of Brothers.