Friday, January 04, 2008

Band of Brothers

Pope Paul V1 died on 6th August, 1978. During his speech to the United nations Assembly on 4th October 1965 he expressed his belief that "one cannot love while holding offensive arms". Also, I recall it having been said by a lecturer at college, that the Pontiff departed from his prepared script and seemed to make a plaintive cry: "War, never again, War!"

Over the Christmas season I have watched the complete series, plus the documentary, called Band of Brothers. This latter is an acclaimed 10-part television World War II mini-series based on the book of the same title written by historian and biographer Stephen Ambrose. It was co-produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks after their successful collaboration on the Academy Award winning WWII film, Saving Private Ryan.  This mini-series first aired in 2001 on the HBO channel.  It is a slow paced meditative series of ten episodes with each episode concentrating on the reflections of a soldier on their particular experiences of war.  Needless to say, it does not spare any details about the horrific nature of war and shows it with all its starkness and random indifference to human suffering.  A memorable episode is where one soldier (Bill Guarnere: whom we meet in the documentary) has one of his legs blown off in the Normandy forests during the depths of winter - the graphic nature of the scene with red blood on pure virgin snow along with the dismembered leg is moving.  An interesting technique (if it can be called that) is that of pertinent anonymous interviews with the actual surviving paratroopers before each episode.  It is also commendable that they chose not to name them before each series until the final Documentary where they are all named - that was a good plan indeed, and makes the viewing all the more riveting.

Band of Brothers gives the history, told with some poetic and literary licence, and outlines the story of Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army. Drawn from interviews with survivors of Easy Company, as well as soldiers' journals and letters, Band of Brothers chronicles the experiences of these young men who knew extraordinary bravery and extraordinary fear.  Easy Company (E Company) were an elite rifle company who parachuted into France early on D-Day morning, fought in the Battle of the Bulge and eventually captured Hitler's Eagle's Nest at Berchtesgaden. They were also a unit that suffered enormous casualties, and whose lives became legend.

I am reminded as I write these lines of W.H. Auden's wonderful poem September 1, 1939, which he composed after hearing of Hitler's invasion of Poland.  I am copying the first three apt and moving stanzas here (There are nine stanzas altogether, and anyone interested can read the rest elsewhere.)



by W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Wherever we sit - in comfortable armchairs in a hotel, in fine sitting rooms in big houses or on a simple kitchen chair in a worker's house or, God forbid, on a wooden box in a shanty in some developing country - we are probably all "uncertain and afraid" when War is proclaimed.  I am also continuing to read Jonathan Glover's magisterial work Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century.  This is one of those books which I read slowly as I must digest all he says as he writes beautifully and profoundly.  Today I read a couple of chapters on tribalism and on the sad, sorry and bloody break-up of former Yugoslavia.  The litany of crimes against humanity delineated therein was blood-curdling and horrifying to say the least - enough to give any ordinary decent human beings nightmares.  Hence, it's not a book I can stay with for long periods of time as it upsets me too much.  However, it is a deeply enriching book of deep moral and humane insight which is a great tonic for the shallowness and superficiality of the present Christmas season.

It is also salient to note that one episode of the Band of Brothers deals with the liberation of Concentration and Work Camps.  Episode 9 depicts the liberation of one such camp near a town called Landsberg.

All in all I found this series riveting viewing and taken in tandem with Glover very inspiring and insightful into the human condition.  One would almost be inclined to become a pessimist about the same human condition given these types of experiences as delineated in both media.  I'd almost be inclined to become as negative as Freud was about our essential human nature.  Heroism as depicted in Band of Brothers is realistic, all too realistic - it comes at a high price.  When the retired commander of Easy Company, Major Richard Winters is asked by his grandchildren whether he was a war hero he replies: "No, child, no, but I served with many heroes who died."  There is some food for thought there, I should imagine - especially from one such obvious hero who does not like the term.  Soldiers know what War is like and so "heroism" is much different for them than it might be for armchair soldiers.

I'll finish with a quote from William Shakespeare's Henry V from where the title for this marvellous mini-series comes. The title for the series and the book on which it is based comes from a speech delivered by Henry V of England before the Battle of Agincourt in William Shakespeare's Henry V; Act IV, Scene 3.

However, be warned, it does contain the "lies" kings like Henry V,Generals and Politicians tell - "It's sweet and fitting to die for one's country" - soldiers whom they want to go out and fight and die for their various countries.  I have already quoted the famous WW I poet, Wilfred Owen's famous poem against war in these pages where he excoriates those who tell the old lie: "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,"

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.

King Henry, V.iii

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