This year, HBO’s Band of Brothers turns eighteen. To celebrate its birthday, I revisited that theatre of war, only to discover that it hasn’t aged well.
As Ulysses S. Grant (or the Fallout series) once said, war never changes.
I myself have been to war, nor will I ever be to war, the battles I fight are mostly against boredom. As a failed historian and a habitual procrastinator, I tend to binge watch a lot of programs, especially those that are entertainment masquerading as historical fact. Band of Brothers was one of my primary watches. Framed as the television version of Saving Private Ryan (which is still difficult to watch, in a positive way). I remember being blown away at the same moment Carentan was shelled to shit by the krauts. The production values were spectacular, the lines between good and evil were clear, and the performances were great.
But, this was the morning of last decade, where the articulation of American self-love was a noble pursuit and I didn’t understand the terrible things that have done in its name. The show was a trip across France, across Holland, to Belgium, with nothing but your buddy in the foxhole next to you, and a rifle in your hand. It was the good war fought by the greatest generation, God’s Christian soldiers snuffing out the fascist dickfuckery of Uncle Adolf.
However, wind the clock forward to yesterday, and I find this war particularly changed.
For those who missed it, the show chronicles the deployment of the Airborne Infantry, an elite group of dudes who jumped out of planes and swung their carbines off their broad shoulders and did the same for the war. Easy Company were famous, so much so, that the producers of the program, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, apparently rushed out of a crowd to shake the hands of these men in a parade. Obviously, these men were the heroes of young Tom and young Steven, and BoB reads a lot like that. It’s not that far off the tones a gleeful child would anonymously send any soldier overseas their well-wishes. Dear Mister Army Man, if I was old enough to fight the Nazis, I’d be you. Aided an abetted by author Stephen E. Ambrose (who wrote the book the series was based on, and a repeated proponent of pull-quote jingoism “they wanted to shoot .22s, not an M1, they wanted to throw baseballs, not hand grenades”), and later congratulated by Paul Fussell, who fought in WW2, and later wrote a book titled Thank God for the Atom Bomb and other essays. He likened the series as “Saving Private Ryan for grown-ups“; it all sets the tone. Nazis bad, America great, war is hell, but this war was great, but you know, we were the victims.
The ripples caused by Band of Brothers has been titanic. Apart from it being one of the Horcruxes of HBO, it also launched the Call of Duty franchise, owing to the decision to mimic the assault on Brecourt Manor from Episode Two, allowing you to pop the Germans as a member of Easy Company. Just like on the television. To be honest, at the time, it was brilliant. I bought that game purely on that basis. Call of Duty 2 took the connection further, employing the television members of Easy to voice characters in the game. Despite the growth of the series, CoD returned to its roots, recently focusing on the squad-based nature of an American platoon invading Germany via France. Sound familiar? On multiplayer (because who plays the campaign, noobs), they popped in an extremely faithful rehash of the Carentan map, one that was visually based on the episode of the same name.
But back to the show.
From the outset, we’re greeted by the aged faces of these warriors, with the patriotic tones dangerously close to a Rockwell painting. It’s a shifting line of faces that unequivocally state the same thing, the mindset of that generation. “It wasn’t like Vietnam or Korea, we was (sic) attacked”, or “we came from a small town and three fellas who were 4F (ineligible for service – Ed) committed suicide because they couldn’t go…a different time.”
The latter was pitched as a large piece of large regret, in that those suicides were noble, clearly lamenting the death of not those men, but that America. Clearly, the future examples of resistance to war were foolish, or even, juvenile. The future kids were not worthy of the sacrifices they made. But, again, the benefits of foresight are valuable, and I safely say that through the half-century of nonsense wars after the bomb dropped, but as they were filmed as old men, so did they.
Now, I’m not daring to criticise the filmmaking nous of Hanks, HBO, or Spielberg. They, of course, teamed up years later to bring us The Pacific, an American, albeit, a far more horrific version of the good war. The golden sepia BoB is painted in is stripped away to favour the visceral pale hideousness of war. Perhaps the issue is with the source material it was sourced from. BoB was cribbed directly from Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, which garnered us this money quote: “In one of his last newsletters, Mike Ranney wrote: “In thinking back on the days of Easy Company, I’m treasuring my remark to a grandson who asked, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ No,'” I answered, ‘but I served in a company of heroes.”
Conversely, The Pacific was taken (in part) from Eugene Sledge’s autobiography With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, which birthed this quote: “To the non-combatants and those on the periphery of action, the war meant only boredom or occasional excitement, but to those who entered the meat grinder itself the war was a netherworld of horror from which escape seemed less and less likely as casualties mounted and the fighting dragged on and on. Time had no meaning, life had no meaning. The fierce struggle for survival in the abyss of Peleliu had eroded the veneer of civilization (sic) and made savages of us all.”
Obviously, one author fought, and the other didn’t, but they’re extremely different foundations to build a series on. While The Pacific addresses the pointlessness of war, the damage it causes, and the brutal acts that normal people commit, its older brother suffers from a denial of that horror. In that, it was mostly good if you were tough enough.
There’s a difference in both series how they portray the effect of war on the individual. In BoB it is shown as a momentary hiccup, or a lasting weakness. In The Pacific, everyone suffers. In the former, we meet Albert Blithe, a paratrooper who is clearly having a psychological breakdown as a response to what he sees. He can’t handle the war, so he tries to avoid it. He can’t fire his weapon, he falls asleep, and he can’t see, but in the uber-masculine hero landscape BoB shoots through, we think he’s faking his vision issues. Later, he speaks to Ronald Spiers, a wartime alpha male who is rumoured to have gunned down unarmed POWs, who later runs through a German-held town for lols, and takes a gun emplacement single-handed.
Essentially, the duality is our own. We all want to be Spiers, but we’re probably going to be Blithe. Later in the episode, lead protagonist Dick Winters yells at him to fire his weapon. Blithe kills a German, he regrets killing aforesaid German. His arc is finite, however, as he’s gone by episode’s end. Similarly, Winters suffers from a bout of PTSD as a reaction to gunning down a field full of Germans. He keeps seeing the face of the kid he killed first. He goes to Paris, he keeps seeing the kid. However, Winters being Winters, he just sort gets over it. Whereas, in The Pacific, the suffering is palpable and long-lasting. It’s a condition. When Bob Leckie is pulled off the line, while he doesn’t believe he has a problem (he does), he meets other members of his unit who are far more ruined than he is. Similarly, cardboard cut-out ubermarine Gunny Haney, a man made for war (much like Spiers) is completely broken by it.
The same can be said by the way looting is depicted by both series. In BoB the trophy of a luger is coveted, whereas in The Pacific it is literally the gold out of their victim’s teeth. Both happened, both were in the book. It’s both looting, and they’ve both killed to enable it, but one act makes it seem normal, the other makes it subhuman. The latter is what war is, the former is what we believe it is.
The trope of the lost dog is something that exists in both series, one where Lewis Nixon (BoB) receives a letter informing him of his wife’s desire for a divorce, the issue is not the lost marriage, but rather the pooch.
Similarly, Eugene Sledge in The Pacific faces the exact same reverse.
The difference is the setting. Obviously, the life of one fine American dog against a platoon of subhuman Japs is the subtext. The purity of death of something wholesome (Sledge’s dog) clashes against the hideousness of Okinawa, where many were brutally slaughtered over nothing, but they could shoot back, evidenced by stretchers of dead soldiers being hauled away in the background. BoB’s equivalent scene is in a town, in safety, The Pacific is an unsafe one, as artillery booms in the background. The difference in reaction of Nixon’s pals, Winters and Welsh, and Sledge’s pal, Snafu is telling. One attempts to understand, the other’s roll their eyes. It’s just a dog to Easy Company, to the Marines, it’s the final shred of Sledge’s humanity.
To close this, it’s probably best we close with theirs. Band of Brothers goes Hollywood and rubs some Shakespeare on it, as a German officer addresses the remnants of his troops with a sterling reference to the show’s title, as the victors group to play America’s game. It’s a happy ending. Where the ends justified the means, and if those Nazis came around again, they’d give them another great whoopin’
The Pacific closes with the return of Eugene Sledge to his childhood Alabama, no longer a hopeful child, but a ruined adult. A jigsaw of guilt, nerves and fear. His war, ostensibly starts now. His foe is normalcy, the warm faces of the townsfolk who ask him how it was, and the faces of the ghouls in his dreams.
In the final analysis, despite being of drinking age, Band of Brothers has not aged well. In the modern realm, jingoism bristles, and two-dimensional murder grates. That, and punching Nazis isn’t what it used to be. It might be the grandest compliment you can pay the series. BoB is what America wants to remember the war as, The Pacific is closer to what it was.
But, accepting that dirty war on one telling of it is the easiest of companies to fall into.