World War II has always been fascinating to me. As a kid it was because of the aircraft. I loved looking at pictures of the famous bombers and fighters that plied the skies over Europe. I loved drawing (or, probably more accurately, trying to draw) those same airplanes. One of my favorite books as a kid was one that had also been a favorite of my dad’s, The Winged Watchman, about a Dutch family and their experiences in the war, including some resistance activity. I read it multiple times and often had the vivid pictures it brought to mind in my head. Later in life, I came to appreciate the amazing lives of so many ordinary Americans who answered the call of their country during the war. Later, they would come to be known as the “greatest generation” because of their amazing accomplishments, usually from very humble beginnings.
Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose (ISBN: 978-1-5011-7940-2) tells the story of a few of the soldiers from that greatest generation. It traces the story of one company from the company’s formation through their intense training, through their roles in some of the most decisive battles of World War II, and then through their march across Europe right to Hitler’s famed headquarters, where they secured and watched over the allied territory. Like the based-on-a-true-story movies that always have a few words about the movie’s heroes before the credits roll, the book had a final chapter about how America’s heroes went through life after the war; with very few exceptions, they lived up to their well-deserved moniker as America ’s greatest. The stories detailed training and then the adrenaline rush of first combat as part of the invasion of Normandy. The men had little use for the French, but a much higher respect for the Dutch. After the initial surges and excitement, they spent months in trenches on the front, and more than a few lost their lives. There was a lot of pain and suffering, but a few light moments were had, too. Throughout it all, the stories weave together a solid narrative of unity and support for each other that comes only through bearing great tribulation together. That unity was one of the men’s greatest assets as they faced their enemy on the battlefields of Europe.
I enjoyed the book. It was a pretty good read that told an overall story, but had some individual focus in many places that often gave it a personal feel. I found myself overwhelmed at times by the constant use of so many organizational names and numbers, but realize that such a layout serves the true military history fans out there well. There was a lot of that at times, which I tended to just gloss over because it meant so little to me. I found the stories, both the personal ones and the larger overviews of battles and operations, to be well done and very interesting to read. It was easy to picture oneself hiding behind a hedge in rural France or slogging through the mud of western Germany. The vivid experiences also included commentary from the author’s extensive interviews with the men from the band of brothers, a lot of which struck me because of its wisdom and because of it’s tone, which was often, as evidenced by the two quotations at the top of this post, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the world today. While universally declared to be the greatest generation, their ideas are roundly criticized today, and I wonder if there isn’t something to be learned that could be applied today, a time when no one will be accused of being part of a great generation. The men that went and fought for America saw America as exceptional, and it was — in part because of them. They also knew that war, waged properly, could be a deterrent to future. Not just those quotes can be learned from, though. The book was full of examples of hard work, dedication, patriotism, unity, solidarity, and unity that would serve us well if we would choose to imitate them. Maybe, just maybe, in that case, we would have a chance of becoming at least part of the brave people who were members of the resistance in Europe or members of that greatest generation.
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