Memorial Day Reflection: Band of Brothers

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One of the first times I stayed at Andrew Peterson’s house, he insisted I watch Band Of Brothers and made me take his DVD box set of the HBO miniseries home with me, assuring me “It’ll change your life.” He was right.

World War II veterans are currently dying at a rate of more than a thousand a day, and it was in the interest of honoring and remembering their extraordinary courage and sacrifice that this series came to life. Even if you’re not a fan of war films, there’s much to love about Band of Brothers – just ask my wife, Taya, who refuses to watch these kinds of films but loves it as much as I do. I think that’s because the series is less about the war than it is the personal stories of individual people and the deep bonds of friendship that carried them through one of the darkest times of the 20th century. Band of Brothers is more than just a film, it’s an experience and an invitation to be witness to the kind of community, brotherhood, and love I think we all long for, but rarely know.

You can get more in depth information on wikipedia, but in short the series focuses on the exploits of Easy Company whose men were among the first paratroopers in military history. They dropped behind enemy lines on D-Day to help take Normandy, fought the Battle of the Bulge, and engaged several other high profile missions including the taking of Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest”.

The most rewarding aspect of the series is the depiction of the relationships between the characters and the lengths they go to to watch out for each other. When given an opportunity to leave the front line, many of the soldiers would insist on staying – even in the face of imminent danger and suffering – in order to be there for their fellow soldiers. There are some characters that you come to know a little better than others, but the real star of the series is the brotherhood that these young men shared and still share to this day. Before each episode you see snippets of interviews of the soldiers as old men, and their deep love for each other is still apparent as many of them are still choked up as they share their experiences.

With a running time of nearly 12 hours over the course of 10 episodes, there is time to develop these characters and bring them to life. The film maker’s canvas is colored subtly and blessedly absent are the broad strokes of red white and blue nationalism. Instead we’re treated to unexpected and nuanced colors, even as we witness some of the callous cruelty of our own troops while dignity is given to our enemy. It’s been said that one of the spoils of war is the right to record the history, and the film makers have done so empathetically. While the film’s rendering of World War II is uncompromising in it’s depiction of the evils of Hitler’s Germany, it also lends an occasional humane eye to some of the young German men who were caught up in a war that was theirs to fight by virtue of living in the wrong place at the wrong time. A moving speech by a General in the German army towards the end is one of the more memorable moments in the series. This filmic empathy is mirrored in many of the interviews with the real life soldiers now as they look back on the war. “Under different circumstances, I might have been friends with some of those young men” says one veteran.

Speaking of veterans, another reason I love this series is because I’ve been blessed to become an acquaintance of one of its more prominent heroes: Buck Compton. Buck’s character looms large in the episodes he’s in, and we learn that his exploits during the war are only the beginnings of an extraordinary life as he went on to be the lead prosecuting attorney in the trial of Sirhan Sirhan. Though he’s been depicted in at least three different films (at different stages of his life), he’s a humble and gracious man and I’m grateful to know him.

I was inevitably moved to tears in every episode of Band Of Brothers, as much for the story on the screen as how the story revealed a poverty in my own life of the deep kinds of friendships that the series pays tribute to – friendships that I have failed to cultivate (because I’m on the road all the time? Because I’m afraid to let others get too deep inside my life?). In spite of the hardship these men endured, I still couldn’t help but feel they were somehow blessed to need each other the way they did. I could be in danger of romanticizing their adversity, I know, but in the interviews with the actual characters that we are treated to at the end of the series these men bear witness to the fact that they have an unusually deep friendship with one another that lives on to this day. It makes me want to work harder to forge deeper friendships and to be a better friend myself.

I think of Andrew Peterson’s song “Tools” and the lyric: “it ain’t war, but it’s a fight…” I don’t mean to be melodramatic, or in any way diminish the sacrifices of the soldiers of Easy Company by equating their battles with my own, but the truth remains that each of us has our own battles to fight – the fight to be faithful and true in our own adversity, the fight to tell the truth and not lose heart, the fight to not fall back into complacency or be ruled by our fear and insecurity, The fight to remain hopeful, and maybe most importantly the fight to not give in to cynicism and hurt, letting our hearts harden when in fact God has given us hearts that were meant to feel, to break, and to love – especially when it hurts to do so. Band of Brothers reminds me that we are not meant to fight alone, and that the Kingdom of God is made up of brothers and sisters who fight together, and in whose weakness and brokenness God’s strength is perfected. Against this Kingdom the gates of hell will not prevail.

This memorial day weekend, you could do worse than to pick up this DVD, engage these men’s story, letting it speak into your own story, and remember that nothing worth living for comes without a fight.

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
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.
– Shakespeare, King Henry, V

(PS – for any who’ve already seen Band Of Brothers, I’d love to read what some of your favorite moments were in the series.)


9 Comments

  1. Jim A

    Jason,

    When the series originally aired on HBO my wife and I sat transfixed on the TV every Sunday night. After the first one, we made sure we were in front of the tube ahead of time so as not to miss any of the pre-episode discussions by the actual veterans.
    This may be one of those rare cases of the book, by Stephen Ambrose, being just about as good as the movie. As soon as the series was over I went out and got the book and the movie series does the book right.
    I’m not sure I can give you my favorite moments because there are so many of them. The mission in part 2 which occurs on D-Day+2 is just an incredibly scene of war, of men doing something when told without questions, of strength and stamina (how much sleep do you think they got that night?) and bravery.
    One other scene/moment that just occurred to me is the one where one of the soldiers in the 101’st gives the little kid a piece of his chocolate. (I love how most all of the actors that were not big names and so you never knew when you might loose one of them that – I spent much of the series worrying abut Bull 🙂

    Great great movie series with a fantastic musical score.

    Jim A

  2. Peter B

    Jason,

    Thank you for posting this today. I’m also not a war movie guy, and having finally seen Saving Private Ryan last year, I’m still not sure that I’m better for having seen it. Band of Brothers, however, leaves no such ambiguous mark on my memory.

    Though great moments abounded (the part where Spiers — I think — ran his amazing reconnaissance through the field of battle, Bull’s fight in the stable with a bullet in his back), my favorite part was during the chapter called Breaking Point. Perhaps “favorite” is not the right word, but the simple beauty of the scene cannot be denied. The tired honesty of Carwood Lipton’s narrative in the abbey, over the sweet singing of the sisters at prayer, gave a perfect frame to the remembrance of the disappeared… those who breathed their last on foreign shores, or — like Compton and Toye — were so wounded that they could not serve further.

    My wife and I each are descended from WWII veterans — maternal grandfathers in each case, and both now passed on — and even so, I know we don’t sufficiently appreciate what they gave us. We took a moment to celebrate them tonight, at the urging of our oldest daughter. How I wish she could have known them… and someday I hope she will.

  3. David

    i haven’t been back to the Rabbit room in about 5 months, and i deeply regret it now! so many of the forms of art that resonate with me are discussed and recommended here.

    i am just getting to the last episode this week. i had been wanting to watch this miniseries for months, and finally was able to borrow it from a friend about a month ago, and in between busy-ness i was able to begin watching. Like Jason, i was and am moved to tears during pretty much each episode – sometimes just during the opening score (what a beautiful theme)! It is certainly tough to pinpoint specific moments since the whole series is rife with poignant moments, but the one that is most fresh on my mind is Liebgott’s reaction after having to tell the camp inmates to go back inside…

  4. Caleb Land

    Great film and great review/recommendation. I loved the Dick Winters story line throughout the film. He modeled great leadership and was a true hero. He was acted superbly by Damian Lewis.

    Great quote at the end of the film from the real life Winters, “I’m not a hero, but I served in a company of heroes.” Good stuff.

  5. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Jason,

    Thanks for writing this. Band of Brothers helped me to appreciate the epic courage of these men like no documentary, book or film I’ve encountered before. After watching this series I decided that whenever I saw one of those grizzled old men wearing the WWII VETERAN hats I would give them my heartfelt thanks for their service.

    I thanked a man named Lou Rudolph on an airplane a few years ago and heard a story I’ll never forget. Lou was in a battle on and island in the South Pacific somewhere and was injured by a land mine; it took a chunk out of his forearm, he said, then he rolled up his sleeve and showed me the scar. While he lay there bleeding, he realized he was pinned down by a sniper in a tree not far away. He said he laid in the grass and could see the bullets whizzing over his head. He was shot in the ankle while he waited for his band of brothers to take out the sniper and carry him back to his camp. He remembered that when the medics took off his boot, they poured his blood out of it. That was how he got his purple star, he said, pointing at the pins in his hat with a smile.

    Lou was a sweet, skin-and-bones old man, whose heroism I never would’ve discovered if not for Band of Brothers.

    AP

  6. Tony Heringer

    Jason – Good word my man. I’ve seen about 3/4s of this series and intend to go back to it at some point. However, I did take in another Stephen Ambrose inspired creation in New Orleans called the D-Day Museum (now referred to simply as the WWII Museum). If anyone gets a chance to go to New Orleans, do not miss a chance to go here.

    Why is the D-Day Museum in New Orleans? Well, I’ll let Ambrose fill in that blank here: http://www.nationalww2museum.org/about/founder.html

    I took my son there a few summers back and we spent about half a day in there. You could spend a couple of days looking through all the exhibits.

    Our family has been blessed to befriend a few WWII vets. Our favorite is a fellow named Peter. Peter stormed the beach at Normandy and lived to tell the tale. He relates a funny story about carrying a sandwich with him into battle and when he was finally able to sit and enjoy it, the darn thing was ruined!

    He certainly tells the story with more vigor than that, but it struck me, that even though this guy literally fought through one of the most epic points in our history as Americans, his needs are pretty much like ours are today. So, Jason you’ve focused in on a point we’d all do well to remember. We are all in a fight and our enemies aren’t taking a break. That is why we all need our band of brothers (and sisters) to fight together with us.

    Thanks again for another great post bro!

  7. John Barber

    Man, it’s good to know that there are other people in the world who were equally as affected by BoB as I was. When I watched it for the first time, the episode Why We Fight so bothered me that I had to leave the house for a few hours. Webster stands on the back of the truck screaming at the retreating Germans yelling “Why did you make us come here?” And then, hours later, they liberate the concentration camp. Completely beautiful and completely heartbreaking.

  8. Matt

    I was blessed by having the opportunity to see this miniseries in November, and, like so many others, was moved to tears in so many of the episodes. In fact, watching it alone, I was bawling like a baby by the time the second round of shelling started in, “The breaking Point”. Also haunting, and already mentioned, was liebgot telling the pows they had to stay in the camp…The final scenes of the final episode were perfect, as the men play baseball and we find out what became of them after the war. And the big payoff at the end, where the veterans themselves come back on and their names are finally revealed…again i cried.

    About a month later, I watched the series again, and was moved even more the second time around.

    A hobby of mine is “backyard theater”, I have a 16’x9′ screen that I bring out and a video projector, and speakers, and we watch movies out under the stars during the summer with friends, family, and neighbors. I am very seriously considering using this miniseries to kick off the 2009 season by playing two episodes a night every night leading up to memorial day, with the final two episodes being played on memorial day itself. This is a aseries that has vastly impacted me and I have this overwhelming urge to get as many people to see it as possible.

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