Book Review - Band of Brothers
Stephen Ambrose, known for his biography of U.S. Pres. Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, ventures into a semi-biographical work entitled Band of Brothers. Chronicles the American military experience during World War II from the incomparable participation of the Easy Company, part of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment during Operation Overlord, more popularly known as D-Day. The overall objective was to establish a foothold in France and liberate every Nazi occupied territories west of Europe. Ambrose’s focus of the story was real men behind the war from how they volunteered, trained, and dropped down towards Normandy. In order to bring this book, Ambrose began his story of how the 506th P.I.R formed in Camp Tocca in Georgia. He details for several chapters how Easy Company trained during jump school. Afterwards, the author focuses on their preparation on June 5, 1944, when Operation Overlord received the go-signal.
The second half of the book chronicles Easy Company’s march from Normandy up until the Battle of the Bulge and the capture of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. After the success of Operation Overlord, Ambrose narrates Easy Company’s attack on the town of Caretan and the subsequent occupation duties. The regiment then follows this with their participation in Operation Market Garden, which should have ended European war theatre by Christmas 1944. The following chapter shifts their involvement in the occupation of Bastone and their services during the Battle of the Bulge. Easy Company and the rest of the 50st Regiment sustained the most number of losses of American soldiers during World War II. Ambrose makes it a point in his final chapter to devote the story on what had happened to the surviving members of the regiment. Ambrose endearing approach to the whole chapter of war won praises and eventually led to its television equivalent in HBO.
How the book fits into the overall context of the American Military Experience is not so much on how Ambrose connected real accurate events to his semi non-fiction, but on real emotional experience the soldiers had to go through. If looked from a purely academic lens, Ambrose would receive a lot of flak. Many historians contend that Band of Brothers are far from historically accurate. But they are simply missing the point. What Ambrose wants to deliver was how ordinary, courageous men had to go through extraordinary difficult situations. Band of Brother as a literary piece is no different from Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels or the short story Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong by Tim O’Brien. In all these works, we could understand that the driving force behind the stories is not the historical accuracy and technicality, but the emotion and the most probable thoughts confronting the characters. In doing so, Ambrose puts into perspective the American Military Experience by capturing the essence of what could have been for these men. There may not have been so much detailed facts here, but there is the truth. Even more so, Ambrose can be credited for focusing the stories of survivors and what they recount is painted by subjectivity, but we are really looking at the war the way they saw it—which is something Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. So what we have here is a book that takes us to war and, without special effects, we taken within the universe of that memorable D-Dau and the Battle of the Bulge like no other. From there, we understand what heroism is.
Ambrose thesis for the book is simply to tell a story and tell it in a way that accurate historians could never dare to do—tell it differently. We know D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge completely, but we see it from the eyes of those who examined it from afar. What they lack is that they have not entirely grasp the thick of it. Therefore, Ambrose employed a different kind of historical narrative, one that is subjected to witnesses and participants themselves. The main point of the author is that details of the past are always incomplete. If present day Americans would soldier on with only an encyclopaedic knowledge of World War II, they will never appreciate patriotism, nor will society inspire heroism. If we would want to deal with tomorrow, the only way forward is look backward in different set of eyes.
The style of the book and how it examines the topic was purely in creative non-fiction. Creative non-fiction blends both fictional elements to historical fact. Ambrose included several historical touchstones during those times such as Eisenhower’s speech before Operation Overlord launched, the profiling of the many soldiers of Easy Company in the first few chapters, the accuracy of the jump training and the technicalities required to accomplish an airborne assault at night. However, Ambrose ups the genre by actually interacting with the real people who became subject of his story. The style is a bit rebellious in its genre, but it has its benefits. By doing creative non-fiction, Ambrose is venturing on an ideal that becomes more protruded than plain historical narrative. The problem with pure historical narrative is that historian would like to see history like Latin, as if it was like it was an academic subject you had to deal with in high school. Professors who did not give much credit to the importance of history wrote curricula on the subject with a note saying, “go learn them, for they will be the same forever.” So, we were taught about the fundamentals, then the laws, and then some more text, and we search the Web for more fundamentals. Once mastered, that was it. And so we move on to the next history at point. History, when learned, was history. Creative non-fiction gives more credence to the events by another dimension to it. As mentioned, history can be portrayed by emotions, and not just flatly through providing who, what, when, where.
Criticisms abound with this Ambrose work precisely because of its perceived inaccuracy. These critics look at history as something immutable, not open to subjectivism. And here is where it really goes wrong. But the truth is, the purpose of history is for those lessons of the past to be renewed constantly, to be interpreted relative to the present course of history, as what Ambrose did. Therefore, history is a way of thinking or a moving target. The conclusions reached by authors like Ambrose, when looked at closely, should be far more provisional and tentative than most of the assumptions made by historians, because they employ different human experiences. But historians do not employ such style and are afraid to explore this side of history.
They tend to say that that was history and those are the facts that signify them.
In utilizing this style, a major issue of the author and its significance is about the experience of the men and what has become of them. After the war, Ambrose chronicles how the survivors returned to their homeland and lived normal lives. The portrait shows them as something more. They were soldiers, but the reasons for their war amounts to something more. The normalcy, provided in the last chapter, signifies that the men of Easy Company are not war-mongers or violent people, they are a band of brothers who fought for peace. They fought for the idea of family, neighborhood, and solidarity. This seems to be a contradiction. But there are no better peace-keepers than soldiers, there are no better people to understand the damages of war.
Thus, we come to the overall significance of the work. It is plainly and simply, the appreciation of the soldiers that gave everything so that they could preserve the American ideals and world peace. It is also a message that these band of brothers are not only the best dreamers of solidarity and courage, but acted as the very agents and catalysts of these dreams. Ambrose wanted that part of history to mean something and strike a nerve to everyone of his audience. Thus, one of the survivors, Mike Ranney, was asked by his grandson, Granp, were you a hero in the war?” He answered, No, but I served in a company of heroes (Ambrose, 2001, 3). To us here in the present, we have to preserve that idea of service in the name of something bigger than ourselves. And so when asked “Why me?” we tell them our resolve: because this is our duty.