One of the most convincing elements of good art is its ability to draw the viewer into the full depth of its subject. In the realm of film and television, HBO’s Band of Brothers (2001) stands in a class of its own. Based on a book of the same name (which takes its title from the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V), the World War II drama chronicles the true story of the men of “Easy Company,” an elite company of U.S. Army Paratroopers, from their days at bootcamp in the Georgia heat through their brutal, battering campaign across the European Theater, culminating in the capture of Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” in the Bavarian Alps.
Seventy-five years ago tomorrow, those very men of Easy Company, along with nearly 160,000 other Allied soldiers averaging a mere 22 years old, first descended upon the beaches and fields of Normandy, France, commencing the historic D-Day invasion and the Allied advance into continental Europe. World War II possesses a unique mystique in the American imagination. As a Dominican brother once put it, the war was like an opera: the stakes were astronomical; the righteousness of the cause was clear; the training, equipment, and combat tactics made for dramatic, exacting engagements in battles and shaped military strategy in ways not seen before or since; even the names of the forces—the Allies versus the Axis—had a theatrical irony. And out of it all, the United States emerged victorious and heroic on the global stage, having earned in the process the new self-image of world superpower, which largely endures into the present day.
On such anniversaries, then, the temptation toward nostalgia runs high—for a “different era,” a “simpler time,” when good and evil were ostensibly more self-evident, when “men were men,” when the United States was unequivocally an international lodestar, and so on. There is also the more superficial patriotism of American military “might makes right,” best captured by ‘Merica slogans and the especially inane “Back-to-Back World War Champs” tank tops worn by flippant fraternity bros.
Yet it is precisely the gravitas of war—and World War II, specifically—that makes a proper appraisal of the sacrifice of our veterans, past and present, so important. And that is why Band of Brothers is such a compelling series: it portrays with critically-acclaimed accuracy both the highs and lows of war—the comradeship, discipline, and practical virtue, as well as the carnage, nihilistic hedonism, and desperate savagery that combat and the apparent absurdity of fate can unleash. Further, it shows how, over the course of their encounters with Nazi atrocities, the men of Easy Company themselves came to grasp more confidently the real meaning of patriotism—a love for the patria (fatherland), its citizenry, and the truth of its values—and the fact that they were fighting for a just reason: to preserve the genuine common good of political freedom, which is part and parcel of a healthy society and, when governed by the natural law, facilitative of salvation.
In remembering the D-Day heroics 75 years ago, we would do well to contemplate the wise words of Major Dick Winters, the revered commander of Easy Company and a paragon of leadership and integrity: “Wars do not make men great, but they do bring out the greatness in good men.” Yes, in a singular way in the early-mid 1940’s, the world demanded extraordinary feats from ordinary civilian men. To be sure, many good men rose to the occasion and became bona fide heroes. But as the series well portrays, not every Allied soldier was good nor Nazi bad, though nearly all were excellent soldiers. Each man, afflicted by original sin, struggled in his own manner with the existential avalanche that is total war. Some fought valiantly and then nobly went on to rebuild their countries; others fought just the same but quite humanly struggled for much of the remainder of their lives; and others still made the supreme sacrifice, the final state of their hearts known only to God. The one thing certain is that, in the grand mystery of providence, sufficient grace was offered to all, even in the most hellish of circumstances.
Today, though the names and faces have changed, the cosmic battle remains fundamentally the same. Good and evil are real, evident, and ripe for the choosing daily. In the spiritual crucible of our own time, men and women are called, just as then, to true greatness—not simply to military prudence (or economic or political prudence) and its accompanying virtues—but to the supernatural greatness of the saints made possible by the grace of Christ. After all, the natural virtues, good as they be, are not salvific.
The men of D-Day and Band of Brothers, as with our own contemporary veterans, bear witness to the deep courage that motivates one to answer the call to give up everything for the patria. For that and their deeds, they merit our esteem and our prayers. And for the Christian especially, they serve as prefigurative types of our ultimate vocation—to give up everything out of perfect love for our supernatural patria, the eternal abode that is the Father’s House.
Photo: Robert F. Sargent, Taxis to Hell – and Back – Into the Jaws of Death