Band of Brothers and Beyond


Stephen Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers : E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest brings World War II down to a personal level.  Limiting the scope of the story to one company from their training at Camp Toccoa and their preparation for D-Day in England to several fierce battles to Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s mountain resort, provides a panorama of the war experience for a small group of citizen soldiers.  The parachute infantry was a new concept in soldiering.  Many men chose the Airborne because of the extra $50 pay per month; some craved the physical challenge; others wanted the respect and status that came with their reputation for daring exploits.  Since the HBO mini-series, this story has become famous.  Reading this book makes me want to read more all of Ambrose’s WWII books.

There is a limit to how long a man can function effectively in this topsy-turvy world.  For some, mental breakdown comes early; Army psychiatrists found that in Normandy 10 and 20 percent of the men in rifle companies suffered some form of mental disorder during the first week, and either fled or had to be taken out of the line.  For others, visible breakdown never occurs, but nevertheless effectiveness breaks down.  The experiences of men in combat produces emotions stronger than civilians can know, emotions of terror, panic, anger, sorrow, bewilderment, helplessness, uselessness, and each of these feelings drained energy and mental stability.  p.203

One man stands out as an incredible leader: Major Dick Winters.  His courage, leadership, humility, wisdom, and spunk are remarkable.  Two words, Winter says, encapsulate a good leader:  Follow me.  After reading Band of Brothers I wanted to know more about the Major.  In 2006 he wrote his memoirs, Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters.  I was bewildered by the overlap between the two books (a few paragraphs are almost identical) until I realized that Ambrose got much of his material from Winters himself.  Winters limits the scope of his book to the memoirs of the war time and follow-up of soldiers in the company.  He treasures his privacy and doesn’t reveal personal details.  At 91, Winters is the only officer still alive from the Easy Company.       

These two quotes interested me enough to transcribe them from the audio book.  Doesn’t physical exhaustion leading to combat fatigue have applications in everyday life?

Physical exhaustion leads to mental exhaustion which in turn causes men to lose discipline.  Loss of self-discipline then produces combat fatigue.  Self-discipline keeps a soldier doing his job.  Without it, he loses his pride and he loses the importance of self-respect in the eyes of his fellow soldiers.  It is pride that keeps a soldier going and keeps him in the fight.

This quote about combat fatigue is poignant in light of the opening theme in the HBO mini-series based on the book Band of Brothers which shows a helmut fall to the ground and a man dazed.  I have seen this messing up of hair, pressing hands against the temples, hands-on-the-head behavior in people who are stressed out.   Shoot, I’m sure I do this myself.

When you see a man break, he usually slams his helmut down and messes up his hair.  I don’t know if it is conscious or unconscious.  But a soldier massages his head, shakes it, and then he is gone.  You can talk to him all you want but he cannot hear you.

These books are part of the War Through the Generations Reading Challenge.


14 thoughts on “Band of Brothers and Beyond

  1. Hi Carol,  After I recover from the WWII book I just read I’ll read an Ambrose book I got from our school’s book sale (for 50 cents!)  I’m glad you like him as an author; I’ve never tried him before.

  2. Carol, Major Winters’ quote on physical exhaustion reminded me of a story my Dad tells often.  Dad was taken from a regular army unit and placed in a special army college program (due to high test scores).  For over a year in 1943, Dad was in this program (I’ve heard the acronym initials hundreds of times but can’t remember them now) and at Ball State in Muncie, Indiana, taking college classes.  As the invasion in Europe drew near, the Amy disbanded the program and sent all the men to the regular army.  Some of the guys had not gone through extended military maneuvers training like Dad had before joining the program.  A high percentage of the men from the program were killed in combat because they hadn’t been properly trained to survive the harsh physical conditions.  Dad credited his training with saving his life.  He said when you have been through extended training where you are slogging through mud and you’re cold and hungry and you survive, then you know it can be done.  When a man encounters it for the first time in combat, though, he tends to get very discouraged and to give up.I have started Ambrose’s book several times but never got through it. Thanks for this post!

  3. I read both of these books, too- but with some time between them, so I didn’t notice the almost word-for-word similarity that you did. I was – and still am – impressed with the leadership of Winters. That’s what stands out each time we watch Band of Brothers – and Damian Lewis’s portrayal of him was wonderful, I thought.My husband read Undaunted Courage – the Ambrose book about Lewis and Clark – and said it was very good, too.The only other Ambrose I read was “To America: Personal Notes from an Historian” – which was really a book of essays. I think it was the last thing he published before he died.Carrie

  4. Engineer Husband and I have been watching Band of Brothers, and I’m wondering if I should read the book just so that I can get a handle on exactly who’s who and what’s going on. I also wondered how the families of those men who were not portrayed too flatteringly felt about the book/mini-series. I suppose as Ambrose talked to WInters and to others of the company Ambrose came to see Winters as a “hero” and some of the other officers as screw-ups.

  5. If you’re curious about other “universal behaviors” in body language, the new TV series on Fox “Lie to Me” educates and entertains (some adult material and modern morality, of course).  Reminds me why I majored in Psych…TY also for the “Planet Earth” recommend- we’ve been enjoying it!

  6. I watched most of the HBO series when it was first shown.  Didn’t know then that there was a book.  These sound interesting.  I’ve posted about them here.  Thanks for participating!

  7. @hopeinbrazil – Let me know what you think, Hope.  I like David McCullough better, but I have enjoyed Ambrose so far.  Just yesterday we were at a friends and I saw D-Day by Ambrose winking at me from the bookcase.  We are now borrowing it!I’d love to read Pegasus Bridge which follows a British troop through D-Day.  And Ambrose’s biography of Ike.A librarian friend told me about a retired man who came into her library.  His goal was to read a biography of each American president.  Ambitious and interesting project!

  8. @secros60 – What an interesting story.  Add your dad to the list of friend’s dads I’d love to visit with!  Your dad’s story is sad but true.  So many soldiers went into battle unprepared.  Another thing to admire about Dick Winters: on weekends when other soldiers were partying, he would stay home and study infantry manuals.  He said that if his studying saved one life, it was worth it.  He also kept himself in top physical shape.  When his host family went to bed (in England) he would excuse himself to take a walk.  Instead of walking he would run 3-5 miles in the dark!

  9. @nnjmom – Girlfriend, you know what I think about Damian Lewis.  Jawdropping. The similarity between the two books wasn’t constant, but it cropped up with regularity.  I’d think, “wait I’ve heard this story before.”  I have Undaunted Courage and To America on my shelf.  Waiting.  We were at friends yesterday and Ambrose’s D-Day winked at me from the bookshelf, asking to be picked-up.  It’s home with us now until we’ve read it.  I’d like to read his biography of Eisenhower too. 

  10. @essencesthree – the book helps understand the miniseries and vice-versa.  I kind of took them all in at once.  I always prefer reading the book first, but in this case, it was better to have some pictures in my head first.  I’ve thought about the negative portrayal too.  I suspect the telling of the story was delayed while some participants were still alive.  In Sobel’s case, even his family didn’t seem to care about him; they didn’t even go to his funeral. 

  11. @R1R2ish – “Lie to Me” sounds downright fascinating.  I found a few shows available to watch on Fox for free.  Someday I’ll slow my husband down long enough to watch with me!I’m glad you are enjoying Planet Earth.  We are too!Still thinking about your request for books about the 20th century for upper elementary age.  I would try to find anything written by Albert Marrin.  He wrote books on Vietnam, WWII, WWI…  He has the ability distill a zillion facts into a comprehensive summary.  He’d be accessible to your kids.  That’s a beginning, and I’ll still think about it as I read.  There are some memoirs that would be possibilities, too.

  12. If you liked band of brothers i really recommend picking up ‘Pacific’ when it comes out on DVD or watch it with skyplayer if you have sky. Id rate it better than Band of Brothers personally

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