Category Archives: Band of Brothers

“What do I have to do to die?”: Death (or lack thereof) in Band of Brothers

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For those wondering, the quote featured in the title of this post reportedly belongs to WWII Easy Company veteran Joe Toye, who said the words within moments of losing his right leg to a bomb blast. This incident is portrayed in ‘The Breaking Point’, one of the more visceral episodes of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers.

Death is ever present in BoB, but is manifest in ways largely unexplored by film and televisual works that have preceded it. For one thing, the series acknowledged and exploited my expectations in ways that would bring about from me a very introspective response – one that makes me believe that Band of Brothers stands as one of, if not, the most cultural and morally important texts of the twenty-first century.
 
 
Friendly Fire
The fifth episode of Band of Brothers, ‘Crossroads’ opens with and repeatedly revisits a sequence where protagonist Dick Winters shoots and kills an unarmed German soldier. It’s a moment which the rest of the episode – and our understanding of Winters – hinges on. Of all things to haunt Winters, it is the death of a German soldier that earns the series’ deepest scrutiny. It seems to suggest that, in war, even the best made plans incur loss to the victor – in the lives of the “enemy”.

"... they were doing what they were supposed to do, and I was trying to do what I was supposed to do... under different circumstances, we might've been good friends." - Darrell C. "Shifty" Powers

“… they were doing what they were supposed to do, and I was trying to do what I was supposed to do… under different circumstances, we might’ve been good friends.”
– Darrell C. “Shifty” Powers

At the start of each BoB episode, the intimate interviews with Easy Company veterans shape the major theme examined in the hour of television to follow. Ironically, the above extract from an interview with veteran “Shifty” Powers does not feature in ‘Crossroads’. The episode’s theme, as suggested by the interviews, is the leadership that Winters’ peers believe him to demonstrate through his consistently correct decisions or bravery on the frontlines. This is subterfuge for the episode to examine a kind of leadership that can’t be spoken of. In displaying a resilience that every one of his followers must adopt, Winters’ hides his emotions stemming from the incident with the unarmed soldier. Through the window into Dick Winters’ internal conflict, we see that the psychological damage dealt to the combatants of war is inevitable. However successful the men of Easy Company were in their missions, the tragic reality is that they suffered in any case. Most of the intertitles that close a BoB episode celebrate the achievements of an ‘E’ Company assault or tactical display. This comes on the back of a show that readily exposes the fatal cost to Germans unwillingly dragged into defending Hitler’s cause. I guess that, in rightfully praising the fight to prevent the slaughter of millions of innocent people, we have to justify some of the more deadly acts of the Allied Forces.
 
 
Fighting the War Genre
By the time I’d reached the halfway point of Band of Brothers, I reckon I’d become vicariously chummy with a host of ‘E’ Company soldiers. There were the witty quips of William “Wild Bill” Guarnere, the infinite number of impersonations from George Luz, and there was even something in observing the solace that quieter men like Lewis Nixon or Eugene Roe took in watching others. This mediated relationship I had developed with the soldiers of Easy Company had the makings to leave me soulless – should they meet their deaths in the battles to come.

So when the impending doom of the Battle of the Bulge rolled around at the end of episode five, I thought we were heading into a particularly emotionally trying bit of the miniseries. I wasn’t wrong, but the tragedy to come was not quite what I had expected. Amidst the wooded desolation on the outskirts of the town that the episode takes its name from, ‘Bastogne’ opens with the grating sound of boots crunching through brittle snow. This soundscape and other foreboding cues had me asking which character was going to die, particularly in an episode where the central character was a man most likely to witness the casualties of war: ‘E’ Company medic Eugene Roe. As it turned out, the first excruciating death of the episode came to John Julian; a soldier first introduced to the audience only minutes before he’s killed. Later on, Roe and a French nurse with whom he shares a special connection, fail to save the life of a nameless soldier. The weight of his death has profound an impact as any – and his anonymity is representative of the ever-growing number of lives lost in the war.

Reaching the end of this episode, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for having hoped for the survival of soldiers I’d grown attached to. A sprawling war drama depicting real events could easily draw a dichotomy in value between central characters and peripheral (or altogether off-screen) figures. Band of Brothers elicits such a perception but subsequently criticises it by focusing on the deaths of soldiers of less renown. We are forced to think of the thousands of other soldiers’ journeys just like (or worse than) those we are watching. By drawing attention to the dire circumstances that surround but don’t entirely implicate the central characters of Easy Company, the story tries to tell us that their experiences are one of an unimaginable many. We cannot comprehend the sheer brutality of war through watching, reading or listening to any number of texts.

In a way, this barrier to reality touches on how, in semiotics, the signifier betrays the signified by trying to replace its completely unmediated form. In other words, recalling the past produces a distortion of reality, because we can’t be 100% faithful to exactly how things have happened. In Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959), the central male character’s recurring dialogue is intended for his female companion as much as it is a reminder for Resnais’ peers:

“You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.”

Dick Winters’ aforementioned encounter with the German soldier in ‘Crossroads’ has merit in this discussion. The episode’s opening sequence offers no context as to why Winters has run to the top of a hill and executed the trooper. It’s a rather abstract moment in the scheme of the show’s structure. One might think of it as a dream sequence or something entirely imagined. The search for the reality of this situation is intensified rather than resolved in the next two iterations of the same event.

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The reality of this German soldier's final seconds is made unclear through contradicting recollections of the incident.The reality of this German soldier’s final seconds is made unclear through contradicting recollections of the incident.

The first of these plays out in real time when Easy Company execute an ambush on a small German contingent: Dick Winters is the first to enter the fray, running several seconds ahead of his assault team following a breakdown in communication between members of the latter. This time, when Winters finds the isolated German soldier, we see a slight sense of hesitation register on his face before he kills the man. As in the first instance, the victim shrugs at Winters moments before being killed, as if to ask ‘what are you waiting for?’ The whole sequence is over almost as quickly as it were at the start of the episode, and the gunfight to follow between the American and German forces leaves little room to reflect on what’s just happened. Later whilst aboard a train, Winters’ mind returns to the incident, where we see an entirely different response from the German soldier. A close-up of the soldier’s face reveals him to be a boy of roughly twenty years. The amicable and friendly expression that greets Winters degenerates into a look of horrified realisation just seconds before he is shot and killed. The pair’s exchange lasts several seconds longer than the earlier installments of the shooting. Which of these visions shows the true event? No one can be sure because the reality of it has been lost to time. The contradictory visions form a mise-en-abyme: with the two interpretations mirroring and yet destabilising each other to the point of deconstructing the reliability of any one person’s subjectivity. It’s a sad concept that ultimately justifies any event depicted in Band of Brothers. When we see the concentration camp in episode nine: ‘Why We Fight’, it forms a recollection belonging to the soldiers of ‘E’ Company rather than being classified as a completely unadulterated ‘reality’.
 
 
We Lucky Few
Joe Toye had experienced several brushes with death prior to the blast that claimed his leg. It’s insensitive to think that his words – given seemingly as a quip to fellow soldier Bill Guarnere – were a plead for a mortal release from the harshness of war. His words do, however, evoke a sentiment felt by all those ‘fortunate’ enough to return home from the war:

”… The real heroes are the fellas that are still buried over there and those that come home to be buried.”
– Babe Heffron

I get a sense of self-inadequacy from the veterans being interviewed in Band of Brothers. To have returned home from the war is a curse. The veterans seem to think that they would have best served their purpose in bringing about the Allied victory – or in at least saving the lives of some brothers in arms – if they had laid down their own lives in the battlefield of the Second World War.

“… you could do just about anything, and after the war was over… you lost a lot of that, or at least I did – I lost a lot of that confidence.”
– “Shifty” Powers

“I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day, when he asked me: ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said: ‘No, but I served in a company of heroes’.” - Mike Ranney, quoted by Dick Winters

“I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day, when he asked me: ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said: ‘No, but I served in a company of heroes’.”
– Mike Ranney, quoted by Dick Winters (pictured above)