Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book Review: Band of Brothers (1992)

I picked up this paper (!) book after Fragrant Husband's earnest recommendations. "You should see the HBO mini-series," he added. After reading the late Stephen E. Ambrose's very person-driven history of Easy Company in World War II, I will definitely check out more of the TV show (I've seen episode 1 so far, and it's good).

Easy (or E) Company, of the 101st Airborne Division, was born in 1942 and existed for three years. In those three years, the young men who volunteered (often motivated by the bonus pay and the perception that the Airborne was composed of the best) underwent absolutely grueling ordeals. Their initial training alone was brutal, under the strict and almost tyrannical Captain Sobel (played by David Schwimmer on the show). But Ambrose, here exploiting the privilege of the historian, emphasizes the results of Sobel's otherwise hated methods: the men of Easy Company were in superb physical condition, bonded tightly together in their shared dislike for their leader, and learned the discipline that would carry them through times of near-unendurable stress.

Their first jump, on D-Day over Normandy, was a nerve-wracking affair, but they assembled and disabled four German machine gun batteries. They were then dropped in the Netherlands to support the British. During this time, Richard Winters (Damian Lewis on TV) rose to be an outstanding leader of the Company, having earned the respect of all the men with his courage and personal leadership. The company's reputation grew after they successfully rescued over a hundred British troops in Arnhem. Then came the Battle of the Bulge, where Easy Company, now reduced, fought in France during the winter. They were inadequately clothed and fed, but managed to hold the line. Afterwards, they were off to Germany and Hitler's base in the mountains. Lootin' time!

Ambrose supplies minute details during the campaigns -- seemingly small things, like a soldier who had a Luger in his pocket that he accidentally fired, which ended up killing him. Ambrose also mentions an officer who wanted merit points and led a patrol without telling anyone, which got him shot by his own people. The narrative is peppered with senseless deaths like that, or tragic ones like the two soldiers who invited another comrade to share their foxhole. The man refused and dove into his, only to find out later that the other foxhole had taken a direct hit. Death is everywhere, and there is the requisite explanation of what it does to men. Ambrose underlines their different backgrounds: there are Ivy Leaguers mixed in with hunters from the mountains of Virginia, farmers, and the fabulously rich. The Army is not spared; the author describes how the men hated the bureaucracy and the favoring of West Pointers.

What I found interesting was the process of diminishing supplies: apparently, goods meant for the soldiers on the front lines were raided at every step of the way, from the railroad to the supply trucks to the quartermaster. By the time the soldiers got their packages, they only contained the crappiest cigarettes, no chocolate bars or beer, and K rations. Incidentally, it looks like the daily recommended nicotine intake for soldiers was 12 sticks. Oh, tobacco industry.

Another noteworthy detail was how the soldiers perceived the various European civilians they encountered. Easy Company adored the Dutch, liked the Belgians, and disliked the French. As expected, the Germans were polarizing.

Anyway, the book ends on an absolutely perfect line, which I won't spoil, but I will confess that it made me tear up a little.

Ambrose describes his methodology at the end of the book. The men of Easy Company kept in touch, and Ambrose interviewed many of them, some multiple times. Winters, who was promoted to major during WWII, helped to make the accounts as accurate as possible, which of course is difficult because memories fade or change, and the Army couldn't keep perfect track of the constant rotation of soldiers in the front lines. In any case, I think Ambrose and the vets' labor of love is a spectacular work of history: it respects its subject matters, illustrates the nuances of wartime, and educates readers about a type of human bond. Band of Brothers neither glorifies nor sensationalizes; it tells a story as simply and clearly as possible. Readers might get lost with all the names and personalities, but that helps ground us in the level that the author likely intended: that of the individual's point of view.

Bottom line: Recommended read, and then after you can watch the HBO mini-series! Or do it the other way around, whatever floats your canoe.

This post brought to you by 17-degree Fahrenheit (minus 8 Celsius) weather with terrible winds and my complete unwillingness to step foot outside.