I just finished watching the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and its companion piece, The Pacific, with my dad. Both were amazing cinematic masterpieces, and I thought it was particularly interesting to see how they portrayed the two main theaters of World War II- the European war against Germany, and the Pacific war against Japan.
For Band of Brothers, just the name tells a lot. We immediately think of King Henry V’s bone-chilling speech in Shakespeare’s famous play. As Henry is rousing his weary men into action for the imminent battle, he closes his speech with:
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.”
King Henry speaks of the glory and honor that war brings, and the bond of friendship and even brotherhood that lasts long after the fighting has ceased. In WWII, nearly 400 years after Shakespeare wrote this speech, European battle is, in many ways, still the same. It is unfairly vicious and brutal, but the honor and the unbreakable bonds help rally soldiers on both sides and invigorate them with the strength and courage they need.
“One day my grandson said to me, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ And I said to him, ‘No, I’m not a hero, but I have served in a company full of them.’”
-Major Dick Winters
In the last episode of Band of Brothers, the Germans have surrendered. Their commander gives a speech to his remaining soldiers, which is translated as
“Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond, that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”
Even the Germans, the “bad guys” of the war, have this concept that battle is merciless, but through it, beauty can emerge. Honor. Strength. Courage. Friendship.
I think this is why it’s easy for Westerners to romanticize our wars. We see that good can come from even the worst of evils, and we like to focus on the good. As an audience, we would rather hear about the bond of holy friendship formed in the depths of hell, than about the countless injustices dealt from both sides. And as for the storytellers, they would usually rather relive the joyous fruits that emerged than the circumstances under which they came.
Band of Brothers does a spectacular job of balancing the Western, romantic view of war with what actually happened. The show does not shy away from gory violence or attempt to hide any disgusting truths, and yet despite the gritty horrors, we see the characters grow stronger both individually and as a group.
The marines in The Pacific expect something similar as they are shipped off to Guadalcanal, but they are in for a tough surprise.
They are fighting the Japanese, who don’t have a Western view of war at all- how could they? The Japanese want to win, and they seem willing to do anything to achieve this goal: killing themselves in order to kill off one or two American soldiers, using guerrilla warriors to attack in the middle of the night, poisoning wells and lakes, shoving guns into the hands of women, children, and elderly, and even sacrificing these civilians.
“The Japanese fought to win – it was a savage, brutal, inhumane, exhausting and dirty business. Our commanders knew that if we were to win and survive, we must be trained realistically for it whether we liked it or not…The technology that developed the rifle barrel, the machine gun and high explosive shells has turned war into prolonged, subhuman slaughter. Men must be trained realistically if they are to survive it without breaking, mentally and physically.”
The Pacific is much darker. Instead of focusing on a group of comrades who stick together throughout the war, it follows three individual marines who rarely cross paths. This gives the show a heavier, more hopeless feeling. To add to the mood, soldiers are deep in unfamiliar terrain. They camp in the jungle, enduring relentless rain on one day and heat the next.
During torrential downpour in the middle of a hostile jungle, we see 18-year-old Eugene Sledge forced to jump from guiltless childhood to unforgiving manhood overnight.
“I asked God ‘Why, why, why?’ I turned my face away and wished that I were imagining it all. I had tasted the bitterest essence of war, the sight of helpless comrades being slaughtered, and it filled me with disgust.”
-Eugene B. Sledge
Both series so accurately portrayed the brutality of war, how it breaks body and mind and soul, but they also showed the small glimmer of goodness and hope that endures.
“War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste… The only redeeming factors were my comrades’ incredible bravery and their devotion to each other. Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and to try to survive. But it also taught us loyalty to each other – and love. That espirit de corps sustained us.”