Monday, July 04, 2011

Our Bravest Patriots

After a few weeks off, I am back writing my weekly column. I could have written all kinds of sappy patriotism for July 4th and gotten flowery about freedom and flags and God Bless America. But I chose to talk about Band of Brothers instead. Husband and I have just finished watching the series, followed by The Pacific, and there is a striking element that runs through the stories, as well as the interviews that introduce them—throughout the war, the soldiers of World War II might have known the war they were fighting was as just as war can be, but the death that surrounded them became increasingly senseless. A telling scene—as the Americans drive in and the Germans walk out after surrendering, an American perched on an approaching tank screams at the dejected Nazis, saying, "What were you thinking? Dragging our asses half way around the world, interrupting our lives... For what, you ignorant, servile scum! What the fuck are we doing here?" With that in mind, here is today's column:

On July 4th, we celebrate our nation’s independence, and we applaud the best of the United States with patriotic zeal. Most Americans will probably spend the day outside or with friends and family, but in honor of today and its meaning, I’d suggest staying inside and watching “Band of Brothers” instead, all 11 hours of it start to finish.

I realize this HBO mini-series is ten years old, and that I’m behind the times in only just recently seeing it, but it’s worth a plug even now. Based on Stephen Ambrose’s book of the same name and produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, “Band of Brothers” tells the story of Easy Company, paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division who landed in Normandy, fought the Battle of the Bulge and liberated at least one concentration camp before Germany surrendered.

Unlike other war stories, the series is not a propaganda film. It relies on first-hand accounts from survivors of some of the worst battles fought in World War II, and the creators made great effort to tell the story as accurately as possible. In fact, some veterans who have watched the series said they had difficulty sitting through it because it was so realistic and brought back such dreadful memories.

I am no soldier—never have been and never will be—so when I watched “Band of Brothers,” I had no reference point for the horror portrayed in each scene. My husband would pop in a DVD, and I would start out sitting comfortably in my chair, ready with a cookie or two and a cup of coffee as if I were about to watch a musical or a game of baseball. But as the scenes progressed, I found myself curling up into an ever-tighter ball, flinching with each mortar attack and grimacing with each ghastly explosion that would take out an entire group of young, frightened soldiers trying desperately just to get off the beach and find cover.

As you follow the main characters, most of them based on actual members of the company, you watch them join up as boys; and by war’s end, they are hardened men, forever marred by what they have seen and done. In one harrowing scene, a calloused soldier offers advice to a still sensitive one about how a soldier functions. “Without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends on it,” he says.

You believe he meant it at that very moment, but what strikes me about this business of functioning as a soldier is how these young men took on the characteristics that would help them survive in battle but kept their eye on the day they could walk away from the whole awful mess. What they wanted most of all was to return home and to live in peace with their humanity intact.

Clouded by ignorance and inexperience, the men of Easy Company were eager while at boot camp and had visions of short campaigns and by-the-book maneuvers; but beginning with their first landing and their first taste of fear and death, they quickly realized that fighting a battle was not quite like training, and there would not be a quick end to their mission.

In “Band of Brothers,” and in its counterpart “The Pacific,” soldiers often scorned those who appeared to relish the job of killing because being bloodthirsty doesn’t make for a good soldier, but banding together for a cause does. “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” The best soldiers did their jobs out of duty, but they saw no glory in war. They saw no honor in killing another man, even an enemy, and the faces of those enemies they killed haunted them.

The story of Easy Company is a reminder of what war does to flesh-and-bone human beings. The actual paratroopers, now elderly, recall war’s horrors in detail, still tearing up decades after the fact as a testament to the permanent scars they carry.

Independence Day isn’t about glorifying war, but it is about demonstrating our patriotism and praising our bravest patriots. It’s good for us to remember that when our soldiers return from fighting our wars for us, even if they bear no external scars, they will be forever changed because of their sacrifice.

1 comment:

dive said...

A refreshingly sobering piece for the Fourth of July, Robyn. There are some truths in there that need to be read and meditated on, especially on such a jingoistic and triumphalist day as today.
Beautifully balanced.
Happy Fourth of July!