The 2001 HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers, is easily one of my favorite things in the world. It is not just one of my favorite TV shows. Not one of my favorite pieces of entertainment. One of my favorite things. Period. I have now watched it from beginning to end at least six times. It is a pretty big commitment, spanning 10 parts, each around one hour in length but I’ll gladly do it every couple of years. I love the story. I love watching these “characters” as they train, serve, and fight to defend the world from tyranny and evil. They are more than characters, as the men we watch on screen are all based on real-life soldiers and the filmmakers did a fantastic job keeping the story as real and accurate as they could, within the constraints of television.
I could write dozens of articles about the series, and believe me, I have been tempted to do just that. For this go around, though, I will limit myself to just one. Next week, I will be publishing an article about watching movies with wisdom, and I feel like working my way through Band of Brothers with an eye for teachable moments goes hand in hand with that. There is so much applicability found in the series, not just for soldiers or war time, but for every day life. So here they are – the five teachable moments in Band of Brothers.
Times of testing have the potential to forge lasting bonds
When you go through something powerful and life-changing, such as war, it is transformational. An even deeper level of transformation can occur if you go through that event with other people. We form a bond. A brotherhood.
The men of Easy Company who survived the war, walked away forever marked by their service. They also walked away part of something bigger than themselves. They were forged into a unit by training and trials, and it etched lasting connections to their fellow soldiers.
These were the bravest of the brave. Men who endured hell on earth fighting for freedom. Men who pushed through hunger, thirst, cold, pain, and fear. Yet even these men, when witnessing the death of a fellow brother, were left broken and unable to carry on, their bond was so strong. They were able to take anything the war had to throw at them, yet some crumbled underneath the weight of losing a friend. These men formed relationships that lasted the rest of their lives. Dick Winters (ostensibly the lead character in the series) even spoke at Lewis Nixon’s funeral over 40 years after the war. That was the strength of their friendship.
Intense periods of life have a way of creating lasting, life-long friendships and relationships, as long as we don’t keep people at arm’s length. While these moments might be painful and difficult, the bonds formed have it in them to carry us through to our next season of life and beyond. Nurture these bonds and be thankful for them. These bonds can be a blessing for the rest of your life, even though their creation might have been in the midst of great heartache and struggle.
You can still thrive even if you have an awful leader
For those who have seen Band of Brothers, you know who Captain Herbert Sobel is. Played with a perfect mixture of arrogance and insecurity by David Schwimmer, Captain Sobel was the officer in charge of getting Easy Company ready for the war. Sobel was a petty tyrant. He was an aggressively mean and vindictive man who was hated by nearly every soldier under his command. So much so, many of the non-commissioned officers staged a mutiny of sorts simply because they refused to go into battle with him as their leader.
Most people can relate to having a supervisor, manager, or boss that is like that. Mean. Angry. Impatient. Petty. The men of Easy Company could have used this as an excuse to not become one of the best companies in the war. They could have raged and whined about how Sobel treated them, and become worse soldiers for it. Instead, they worked harder and harder to overcome his capricious punishments. They strove to become the most disciplined and well-trained unit possible, in spite of a leader that treated everything as a personal slight. So, even if your boss is a jerk, use that as a springboard to better yourself. Out work your supervisor’s lack of leadership.
Everyone is capable of unimaginable evil or transcendent good
There is an scene in the second part, Day of Days, where an American soldier, Private Mularkey, encounters a captured German soldier, only to find out that they grew up in almost the same area. Mularkey is stunned. How could this “American” be fighting for the enemy? What would possess someone to leave their country to go fight for the Nazis? He comes to find out that this particular soldier was simply following the wishes of his family who had been called back to the motherland.
Throughout the series, we witness endless moments of bravery and self sacrifice. These men had to do and go through overwhelming things to ensure the freedom of the world. These were great men.
Yet with all that said, history has told their story and they fought for the winning side. They fought for the righteous side, while the Germans fought for the losing side. The evil side. Many of those German soldiers were simply following orders. They were simply fighting for their country, just like the American men who fought for theirs. This is in no way an attempt to equate the two sides, and the series doesn’t fall into any of those post-modern, deconstructionist traps that hamstring so many recent war films. There is clearly good and evil involved in the war. But the point stands. How easy is it for humanity to gradually fall into greater evil, out of duty or patriotism or obligation? We all have the potential to strive for the light or to descend into darkness.
Courage is not the opposite of fear
Perhaps the most difficult episode to watch is Carentan, the third installment. Much of the episode follows Private Blithe as he struggles with overcoming his almost paralyzing fear. Watching a soldier shake and scream when bullets are flying over his head proved to be much harder for me to watch than seeing the men actually shot and injured. It gets so bad that he experiences hysterical blindness late in the episode. Eventually, through the guidance and example of one officer in particular, he is able to overcome his fear and bravely fight next to his unit.
Courage is not the opposite of fear. I realize this point has been made before by others, but this and other portions of the series drove it home so firmly that I knew I had to include it. These men were afraid. Some of them were terrified. And they still did their jobs. They did what was right. They put their lives on the line time and time again. That is a lesson I need often.
It is okay to have heroes
I challenge anyone to find a more heroic television or movie character than Major Richard Winters. As portrayed by Damien Lewis, Winters is quiet, soft spoken, brave, decisive, and most importantly, completely above reproach. His quiet faith is presented with no derision, instead it is seen as a source of strength. He goes above and beyond the call of duty throughout the series, is respected by all the men in his company, and is honored by those of higher rank. In all this, he remains humble and unassuming.
Every time I watch Band of Brothers, I know how it will end. I know exactly how the final lines will hit me like a punch to the gut. I know I will cry.
Finishing the series a few nights ago, I braced myself for the final line. I knew it was coming and a had convinced myself it wasn’t going to get me this time. Major Winters is recalling his time in the war and a correspondence he received from a fellow soldier. When describing his accomplishments and achievements in battle, he once again takes the focus off himself and turns it towards his fellow soldier. In a letter he received he read the following words, and felt they summed up the entire experience for him perfectly, “I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, ‘Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?’ Grandpa said ‘No…but I served in a company of heroes’.”
We live in a time that celebrates scandal. An era that champions arrogance and celebrity. It is becoming more difficult to find heroes in our modern world. That does not mean we should stop looking. It is okay to have heroes, as long as they are pushing you to be better and do more. It is okay to have heroes if they nudge you towards humility and self sacrifice. And it is okay to have heroes as long as their lives point to a fuller, deeper understanding of true heroism, which isn’t flashy and showy, but unassuming, sacrificial, and meek.
So there you have it. That’s what I learned this viewing of Band of Brothers. What are some lessons you have learned watching this amazing, groundbreaking series? We would love to read about them in the comment section below.