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.