NOT A TRUE WAR STORY

I recently bought on DVD the 10-part miniseries Band of Brothers, which first aired on HBO in late 2001. The production is based on the nonfiction bestseller by the late historian Stephen Ambrose and follows Easy Company of the highly decorated 101st Airborne from D-Day to the end of the war. Hailed by critics, it won a Golden Globe, an Emmy and a Peabody Award.

I’ve seen the whole thing twice now, and I cried at the end both times.

The only problem with Band of Brothers—and it’s by no means an insignificant one—is that it’s not true.

Here’s what I mean.

In 1990, Tim O’Brien reached deep into his knapsack of Vietnam horrors and came up with “How to Tell a True War Story,” a chapter from his book, The Things They Carried. He argued his point with powder-dry prose and the fierce moral clarity of someone who had picked his way through the jungles around Than Khe and Chu Lai.

“If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie,” O’Brien wrote. “There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

Of course, for O’Brien “truth” is different from “what happened.” Sometimes it is what seemed to happen, and sometimes it is something else again. Truth is what “makes the stomach believe,” he insisted. “You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you.”(1)

Here, then, is a moment from We Stand Alone Together: The Men of Easy Company, a feature-length documentary that accompanied Band of Brothers. (The anecdote recalled in the documentary is faithfully re-enacted in Episode 2 of the miniseries.)

A self-effacing older man, whose service nickname was “Popeye,” is telling the camera about a terrifying incident behind the lines on D-Day. Easy Company had stormed the trenches of a German artillery position when, in what seemed like slow motion, a “potato-masher” grenade came falling out of the sky.

“And that thing fell right down in the trench with me, and I was trying to scuttle my way out of the way of it when it went off. And I felt like it blowed my butt over my head—and it pretty near did.”

Cut to Popeye’s commanding officer, the stoic Dick Winters: “He’s behind enemy lines on D-Day. Does he holler help? No. He hollers, ‘I’m sorry, Lieutenant. I’m sorry. I goofed.’”

Back to Popeye: “I felt like I’d kind of let him down. But, you k now, that’s neither here nor there.”

Winters (holding back tears): “My God. It’s beautiful when you think of a guy”—here, cue strings in the background—“who was that dedicated to his company, to his buddies that he apologizes for getting hit. But that’s the kind of guy he was, that’s the kind each one of them was. They were all the same.”

According to O’Brien’s formula, it matters not a bit that Popeye (a.k.a. Robert Wynn) and Winters are honest and honorable men, that what they say happened to them did, in fact, happen. The story they tell does not do justice to the reality of war, and when we pretend that it does—and make no mistake, we do pretend—we dishonor ourselves, especially as war with Iraq grows more imminent by the day.

In his book Wartime, literary critic and World War II veteran Paul Fussell recalls a survivor of the fire-bombing of Dresden who asked him whether there could possibly be any sense to the German city’s annihilation, military or otherwise. Couldn’t some “humane bomber crews” have chosen to drop some of their bombs off target?

“The problem,” Fussell writes, “is that this questioner has somehow been led to expect ‘sense,’ not to mention decency, in a war actually characterized by insensate savagery.”

To Fussell, the phrase “humane bomber crews” is a “palpable oxymoron.” It underscores the lesson that men must actively participate in war’s evil to survive. A true war story accounts for this.

Even Ambrose, maligned in some circles for ordering up his history without the nuance, understood as much. In his memoir, To America, published shortly after his death last year, he wrote about the brutish war in the Pacific: “On both sides the men descended into hell, and not as visitors but as participants. To these depths the burden of racial hatred carried them. It also made them into fierce soldiers.”

In his memoir With the Old Breed (as true a war story as anyone will ever have the courage to write), Marine Corps veteran E. B. Sledge recounts scenes on Okinawa too obscene for this newspaper. In fact, he writes, “They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans … It is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane … To me the war was insanity.”

It needs to be said that the war in the Pacific was significantly nastier than in Europe, due in part to the racial hatred mentioned by Ambrose. However, Fussell was speaking of both theaters when he wrote that “in the Second World War the American military learned something very ‘modern’—moderns because dramatically ‘psychological,’ utilitarian, unchivalric, and unheroic: it learned that men will inevitably go mad in battle and that no appeal to patriotism, manliness or loyalty to the group will ultimately matter.”

Such an insight, which is as important as it is forgotten about World War II, cannot be derived from Band of Brothers. For all its obsession with special effects—whizzing bullets, severed arms and legs—its combat sequences, as harrowing as they are, hardly induce madness.

Over the course of the miniseries, two GIs suffer from what was then called battle fatigue. One of them, Private Blithe, is traumatized and rendered temporarily blind. His cure arrives immediately after he tells Winters: “Sir, I didn’t want to let anyone down.”

The other victim is Lt. Buck Compton, whose breakdown can only be described as quiet and dignified. No madness here, no violent insanity—only heartbreak. Having seen too many of his buddies get shot, Compton drops his helmet and just stares. He is soon transported to the rear.

This is all played for maximum dramatic poignancy, but does it, in O’Brien’s words, made the stomach believe?

Something else needs to be said: To argue that Band of Brothers does not live up to the “truth” of war need not be seen as an insult to the men of Easy Company or any other veterans of World War II. Sledge put it well: “They suffered and they did their duty so a sheltered homeland can enjoy the peace that was purchased at such a high cost. We owe those Marines a profound debt of gratitude.”

Indeed we do, and when films like Band of Brothers remind us of that, they perform an important service.

But it raises the question: Is it even possible to both celebrate those soldiers and do justice to the horrors of war?

This is the tension that makes With the Old Breed so dark and compelling. How does one reconcile our debt of gratitude with its “horrible and obscene” price? Sledge seems to suggest that it is precisely this obscenity—and our soldiers’ participation in it—that fashions that debt. But in Band of Brothers, with few exceptions, the men of Easy Company are victims of war rather than complicit in its evil.

Even those moments that would suggest otherwise are ultimately redeemed by the script.

Take this scene from Episode 2: Easy Company regroups after dropping into Normandy on D-Day. On the way to a hastily assembled headquarters, the men pass a clutch of German prisoners. Moments later, it appears that the mysterious Lieutenant Speirs(2) has murdered them.

We see Speirs borrow a pack of cigarettes and proceed down the road to the Germans. (Who is guarding them?) He passes the pack around and even offers them lights. Then, from the perspective of a nearby GI named Malarkey, we hear machine gun fire. Were the Germans gunned down? Was Speirs the one to do it?

These questions aren’t taken up until the next episode, when Malarkey tells his buddies, “I didn’t actually see it.”

One of the men responds: “What, Speirs shooting prisoners or the sergeant in his own platoon?”

Faced with expressions of disbelief, he continues: “Well, supposedly the guy was drunk and refused to go on a patrol. Who knows it it’s true.”

Fast-forward now to Episode 7 and (remarkably) the next and last mention of the incident. Easy Company has seen the worst of the war in Europe and for one night takes a break, huddling in a candle-lit Belgian church.

By now Speirs is a hero, having shown uncommon bravery in the Battle of Bastogne. He turns to his first sergeant: “You want to ask me, don’t you?”

“Ask you what, sir?”

“You want to know if they’re true or not, the stories about me. You ever notice with stories like that, everyone says they heard it from someone who was there, but when you ask that person, they say they heard it from someone who was there? Nothing new, really. I’ll bet if you went back 2,000 years, you’d hear a couple of Centurions standing around yakking about how Tercius had lopped off the heads of some Carthaginian prisoners.”

“Well, maybe they kept talking about it because they never heard Tercius deny it.”

“Well, maybe,” Speirs says finally, “that’s because Tercius knew there was some value to the men thinking he was the meanest, toughest son of a bitch in the whole Roman Legion.”

We have inherited a romanticized vision of World War II—one where the prisoners are never killed and a small bit of rectitude can always be salvaged—that is unimpeachable, even in the face of the best television.

To point out that police stations and detention centers across Britain were packed full with deserters during the Normandy invasion or that looters robbed the dead during the Blitz is not to deny or denigrate those, like the men of Easy Company, who served with distinction. It is only to place their deeds in perspective.

At bottom, the agenda to elevate such heroes out of war is the same agenda that seeks to hide the reality of war from us, that seeks to parse the world neatly between good and evil, us and them.

But why, you ask, should we even accept Tim O’Brien’s definition of a true war story? Why shouldn’t we accept the easy and patriotic truth over the more embarrassing one?

In the end, only your stomach can decide.

Band of Brothers (HBO miniseries)
Concord (NH) Monitor, February 2003

 

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1  My uncle, a retired attorney possessed of great wit and intelligence, responded to this piece by suggesting that Tim O’Brien is full of shit and psychobabble. His argument—all the stronger for its common sense—is that if something is factual, then it’s true. And if it’s true, you should be able to write about it without self-righteous critics giving you a hard time.

O’Brien, of course, addressed this point. He said he isn’t concerned about whether stories are factual—since when is that a prerequisite of a story, anyway?—but whether they have the courage to tell us the embarrassing truth about ourselves.

My uncle (who was fortunate enough to serve in the military post-Korea and pre-Vietnam) responds that war is not so simple. It can be fought for good reasons; its violence can be honorable. Soldiers, meanwhile, are not by definition war criminals. Many, perhaps most, serve honorably, regardless of whether their war is just. So why can’t a story that recognizes such honor be considered true?

O’Brien’s point, I think, was that given any opportunity, we will deceive ourselves about the reality of war—for personal reasons as well as political. These deceptions have consequences. Every time we pretend that war is less horrible than it is we undervalue the experiences of men and women in combat. We undervalue the humanity of those killed, combatants and civilians. We also make it easier for us to be lured into the next war. This essay (along with pieces I wrote about Civil War and Vietnam War photography) was written in the run-up to the Iraq War and with that impending conflict specifically in mind. It is our obligation as citizens to be honest about war and its consequences. We journalists, obsessed with being good patriots and supporting the troops, fail to meet it almost every day. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

At this writing I’m not working as a journalist but as an editor at an educational publishing company. In our workbooks, we instruct kids that nonfiction informs, while fiction entertains. I suppose that’s okay for fourth-graders, but it’s amazing how many people grow up and still think it’s that easy. If Band of Brothers was entertaining, they say—and I agree, it was—then I should relax already.

I am reminded of a Cynthia Ozick essay, “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination” (in Quarrel & Quandary, 2000). She states the problem this way: What obligation does a fiction writer have to the imperatives of fact and history? Presumably none. She writes:

On what basis can I protest a novel that falsifies memory? If fiction annihilates fact, that is the imagination’s prerogative. If fiction evades plausibility, that too is the imagination’s prerogative. And if memory is passionate in its adherence to history, why should that impinge on the rights of fiction? Why should the make-believe people in novels be obliged to concur with history, or to confirm it? Characters in fiction are not illustrations or representations. They are freely imagined fabrications; they have nothing to do with the living or the dead; they go their own way.

Before I go any further with Ozick, let me say that for argument’s sake, we’re going to call the miniseries Band of Brothers fiction. It’s not entirely fiction, of course, because it’s based on real men. All the main characters have real, in some cases living, counterparts. Ultimately, however, the film is a story and not a documentary. Its power comes not from its connection to these real people but their connection to these real events. In other words, what matters is not that its characters are true, but that its history is true. So at what point do the rights of history assert themselves? This is what Ozick has to say:

If there is any answer at all to this argument (and the argument has force), it must lie in the novelist’s intention. Intention is almost always a private, or perhaps a secret, affair, and we may never have access to it. Besides, the writer’s motivation does not always reveal itself even to the writer. It would seem, though, that when a novel comes to us with the claim that it is directed consciously toward history, that the divide between history and the imagination is being purposefully bridged, that the bridging is the very point, and that the design of the novel is to put human flesh on historical notation, then the argument for fictional autonomy collapses, and the rights of history can begin to urge their own force.

It is risky, as Ozick points out, to attribute motivation. How do we know when “the bridging is the very point”? In my review of Ha Jin’s War Trash I expressed frustration when the assumption was made that a novel was acting, perhaps was even intended to act, as history. In our politically charged culture, reviewers seem more and more incapable of treating fiction as fiction (I’m thinking, too, of critical response to Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint and J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello). There hardly seems to be much risk in taking that leap with Band of Brothers, however. It was conceived and marketed as a tribute to the Greatest Generation. Accordingly, it serves up as representative men who were, in fact, history’s great exceptions: soldiers who witnessed, but very rarely actually participated in, the obscenity and evil of war.

2  File this letter to the editor (from the Concord Monitor) under: You never know who’s reading.

THE FATE OF HEROES

I was fresh from my outing at the State House and feeling good about having joined many others around the world in standing up for world peace when I happened upon the article in the Feb. 16 Sunday Monitor about Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers. Brendan Wolfe brings up an important point regarding the realities of war.

Wolfe tells a story from Ambrose’s work about Lt. Ron Speirs, my uncle. He could never talk about the war and its atrocities. He continued as a military career man after the war, became superintendent of Spandau prison and trained hundreds of men to become fearless paratroopers.

He also led a tumultuous personal life, including four marriages, estrangement from his only child for much of his life and a battle with alcoholism lasting many years until he finally conquered it and retreated into a happy (?) seclusion in retirement in Arizona.

Was it all worth it? Was being a hero and having to live with a questionably dubious moral past worth all the pain—his and others? I doubt it.

Let us hope that the realities of war and what they do to real people, not movie people, can be brought to the forefront so that this generation of soldiers and families do not have to go through what our “heroes” of the past have endured.

Great article! Keep working for peace!

Sukey Oleson
Canterbury, New Hampshire