For better or for worse, the increasing political polarization and extremism we see today is no more than a reversion to the American norm.
The most beloved, almost revered TV series in America is now in its 20th anniversary. The HBO production Band of Brothers told the true story of the soldiers and officers of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division from the creation of the regiment in 1942, through D-Day, and all the way to V-J Day. This was an elegy for the time when America became a national democracy and a world power, when morality was crowned by victory in war, when men could be proud of their different ethnicities and assert all-American loyalty at the same time. Viewers, critics, and veterans all loved the series, pop culture’s best case for “The Greatest Generation.”
Band of Brothers was made by Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and historian Stephen Ambrose, the trio behind Saving Private Ryan, the great success of 1998. A curious movie, it got every detail right, to present the war as those men experienced it who stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day—but made up an entirely fictional story, replacing the grand story of Eisenhower’s Crusade with one squad’s quixotic quest to rescue a single paratrooper. This nonsense, punctured by violence, is finally dispelled when Private Ryan says his fellow soldiers are his brothers. He needs no saving.
Band of Brothers embraces the American love of the military and the ambiguity of imperial democracy. The men are sent into terrible danger like so many Davids, but American industrial-technological might is the Goliath eventually dominating the war and the world in an attempt to make excellence, virtue, and equality come together. In this vision of a dignified political liberalism, authorities, institutions, and leadership are treated with respect even as the focus is on a small number of men who only became famous because of the series—and were never important in public life. Yet this noble effort premiered two days before 9/11 and became another presage of the contradictions that would tear American politics apart.
Education for War
We turn again to WW II and to Band of Brothers with a broken heart therefore, confused as to America’s purpose and justice, to reflect on the American way of waging war and its place in American politics. The first thing we notice is that the men of Easy Company are not ordinary soldiers, but volunteers for an elite unit. They seem so familiar to us because they have less in common with the millions of men drafted in American history than with the Special Forces operators we admire today. They suggest the coming of the small volunteer army that depends more on technology than the patriotism of citizen soldiers. These men are patriots by habit, by instinct, because their country is at the same time a world without alternative in their imagination. But these children of the continental democracy, with little education or ambition, realized higher virtues through war and found an extraordinary form of community. For Americans of the new millennium, they replaced the cowboys as the image of American manliness—they became aristocracy growing within American democracy, the theme of the first part of the series.
Arduous training most obviously sets these men apart, but we also see loyalty, competence of command, and the all-American innovation required for survival after D-Day. Under their commanding officer Dick Winters, Easy Company achieves what is essential to American manliness. They act autonomously, often in small groups, they hold on to each other without fail, however difficult the fighting, and so their love of freedom turns these boys with no experience into hardened veterans remarkably quickly. They prove just how important training is in preparing for action, above all by instilling men with the courage to work through the danger and the violence, and thus to be able to set aside fear of death to accomplish their mission.
The second thing we notice is that there is no place for these heroes in the war-making bureaucracy. America fought WW II as a democracy whose principle of reward is merit, which requires an easily acceptable definition of competence and achievement. Accordingly, industrial power and bureaucratic organization largely replace or conceal honor. So in the second part of the series, we see that our protagonists are honorable in secret, among themselves, since the hard fighting isolates them from the chain of command. Whenever they come back to the organization that gives them their orders, they lose their identity and can only wait to be deployed again, one strategic allied mistake after another—first Operation Market Garden, then the Battle of the Bulge, failing in an offensive and succeeding in a desperate defense which both reveal Eisenhower’s severe limits as a fighting general. For example, near the end of the war, Dick Winters simply refuses to obey an order to send a patrol into enemy territory to capture Germans for intelligence purposes. Winters thinks it’s no use, that he’s risking the lives of his men even though the Germans were defeated, so he simply gathers them together in a silent oath that they will all lie that the patrol their superiors callously demanded happened, but couldn’t capture anyone.
These men seem especially impressive because after D-Day, they deal almost exclusively with Eisenhower’s worst failures rather than the Allied effort’s great successes elsewhere. War, after all, is not simply a matter of organizing men, material, and intelligence. Band of Brothers shows us the ways that war threatens to turn men into beasts. Even at the end of the war, we see a man going mad murdering his fellow soldiers; we see Easy Company men torturing him and we fear for a moment they will murder him in turn. We witness the desperate longing for God, in the pulling apart of the soul which itself only becomes obvious when everything a man loves is threatened. This is why the center of Band of Brothers, the siege of Bastogne, the most desperate fight in America’s European war, features almost no fighting, but instead a combat medic looking for God on Christmas. Something close to a spiritual Christian love is portrayed here—the medic is almost a monk, his fellow soldiers feel he is too formal, as though he treated them like children. He opens his heart not to them, but to a young woman who is a nurse in the cathedral in Bastogne and is presented as a nun. The one thing veterans need even more than justice among themselves is piety, and it is the most difficult thing for an army.
The American Way of Life
The third part of the series features almost no fighting and instead looks at Americans as conquerors in Germany. The men are now professionals, which is paradoxically only obvious because they have no enemies left—after all, in the midst of fighting, necessity makes a warrior of you, but after victory, only professionalism can do so. There is no more fighting, but they have to live their lives in training, in an order whose regularity seems absurd. They follow procedures that no longer serve any other purpose than keeping the bureaucracy satisfied. These men represent America, a multi-ethnic, egalitarian, lawful force against Nazi Germany, which is partly wealth, luxury, and splendor that make our American soldiers look petty—and partly the death camps which the men struggle to comprehend even as they liberate their survivors.
The show makes this starkly clear in depicting Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s private resort for the most important Nazis, which is a ghost town in 1945, but still retains its Alpine beauty. The soldiers conclude everyone’s left because in this case it wouldn’t be possible for them to deny their guilty association as all the other Germans they had met. In the comparison, the American lack of sophistication seems preferable to German rottenness, and is indeed a likelier nurse of freedom, because it preserves the distinctions between right and wrong, holy and unholy. Germans on the one hand have a marvelous history that makes Americans look like bums—but on the other hand, their servility is both contemptible and maddening. The men of Easy Company force Germans from a town near a camp to go there and work to bury the dead Jews and thus admit the guilt of knowing what had been perpetrated by doing the minimum duty of piety, to treat corpses as though they were holy.
The liberation of Europe by an America led by FDR is liberalism’s noblest accomplishment in the 20th century and Band of Brothers shows that the war was even more important for its effects on Americans than on Europeans. We see that the rich Yale kid is not better than poor Italian kids who had to work to keep their families from starving; we see officers who have the right social connections be replaced by heroes without any such recommendations; we see a Jewish kid fight anyone who expresses any prejudice and that the men not only respect his spirit, but admit he is right to expect equal treatment. We see the men admire among them the toughest fighters, regardless of poverty, ethnicity, social class, or region. The principle of democracy, the equality of man, triumphed and the country was rearranged accordingly. The military put together men in a new way and made demands and promises that transformed everything—it took people from their habits and communities and Americanized them, so to speak. Of course, after the war, the GI Bill became the sign of the importance of veterans and of the government’s dedication to them as the newest development in democracy, to be helped to a success they more than deserved.
Even during war, this is not all good. Equality makes the veterans strangers to the replacements, who both admire and want to imitate them, getting themselves killed in the process and breaking the hearts of men who know war, but can’t teach it, since they have no authority. The show also brings evidence from the survivors among Easy Company men, both veterans and replacements, that instead of learning, the replacements were trying to prove themselves equals and it got many men killed. And again, we see veterans run out of hospital to return to their company, not just because they want to fight together with their own and reject others, but because their unit is elite and all the others are contemptible, even from the practical point of view of survival. And again, we see veterans sustain wounds that take them away from their brothers, and they can never be together again.
Equality in the highest sense, the equality of the Band of Brothers, is no match for the dangers of war, nor is it the rule in America. Equality as understood by the military is bureaucratic and soulless, it means simply that everyone is ordered to do whatever invisible decision-makers say. This sometimes makes it seem that war is nothing more than an exercise in logistics where soldiers are moved around just like tools—denying their capacity for freedom or self-government. This makes the end of the series very melancholy—the men know that the powers that brought them together must now tear them apart and nothing can be done about it. They are one of the units superior to the Germans not only morally, but militarily. Yet they have something in common with the Germans, whence the most shocking scene in Band of Brothers—a German general, surrendering his men, gives them a speech about honor and the reward they deserve, life in peace. The Americans feel the same, it seems. Though victorious, they cannot really be rewarded, only treated as though the war never happened. The virtues of war will not fit in peacetime America and democracy, though it will be ennobled by the veterans of a just war, will not learn much about their virtues.
Band of Brothers starts with the pastoral beauty of the countryside, in Georgia, and ends the same way, in Austria. Paradise to hell and then back to paradise—the sequence suggests that men make the hell through which they slog, whereas the world is comparatively a place of rest and joy. This brings out the contradiction in war’s beauty, that men sacrifice for the sake of putting an end to the activity that most brings out their virtues. War’s virtues are very dangerous and we can only deal with them for so long. Band of Brothers transforms the men’s deeds into speeches—in a script, with dialogue and narration, an order with beginning and end—to honor them in a way not done at the time, perhaps in a way only hindsight makes compelling. It adds to patriotism an intelligent interest in what it means to be American. In the process, the beauty of war turns into a reflection on various meanings of equality and freedom. We learn both about how America achieved amazing successes and how it lost some of its heart to bureaucracy, technology, and a certain ideological opposition to manly heroism.
At the same time, there are very serious limits to America as a political association. The silence of the veterans was for a long time the most important sign of that limit. Since everyone might be a patriot, but most do not really serve the public in any way opening them up to sacrifice, you can either have equality, for example in freedom of speech, or you can have the special dignity that we call by the name ‘Band of Brothers,’ suggesting the rest of us are cowards, as in the famous speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V which gave us the phrase. Ordinary citizenship inspires no poetry, but dominates our way of life.
Peace and Silence
Each episode of Band of Brothers has as prelude interviews with the veterans of Easy Company —indeed, the show comes with a full-length documentary of these interviews, called We Stand Alone Together. The title is a translation of Currahee, the Regimental Motto, but it also reminds us, we’re all alone in America. Whatever we do or say, life goes on in the vast continental democracy, with barely a splash. We hear of a man whose fury destroyed many Germans, whose men loved and respected him, and then he went back to driving a cab somewhere; or perhaps he was another one of these men who did astonishing things, then disappeared into private life.
The documentary also features children who didn’t know anything about heroism because their fathers kept silent. One reason is, brotherhood is sacred and civilians cannot understand it. Just look at American life: Where is there anything like brotherhood? We have pretty much abolished manliness and we are afraid even of the words man, manly. A vision of equality glimpsed in war seems to animate our dearest political hopes, but we can neither live up to it nor hold on to it despite our shortcomings. Partly, it’s because it excludes women; but partly, because it puts loyalty above commerce. Perhaps we began to remember the WW II veterans when we first feared that American politics had grown too decadent, in the 90s. These men democratized America and prepared for a world where American empire would eventually even overcome Soviet opposition, but by the time of their senescence, our elites had made it impossible to make such men again! How much of our admiration is mixed with pity for these men is hard to say—watch the documentary and you will be forced to ask whether our elites have any moral right to speak on behalf of the America that nursed such fighting men.