The BEST: Band of Brothers
Reviewed by Sarah Gordon
Consumption Time: Ten hours (1 hour per episode).
Summary: Based on the book by Stephen E. Ambrose and produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, Band of Brothers tells the story of Easy Company, of the 101st Airborne Division. It covers their training at Camp Toccoa, Georgia, landing as part of the Normandy invasion on D-Day, and participation in the major battles in the European theatre of war, including the failed Operation Market Garden and the extraordinarily challenging Siege of Bastogne, up until Germany’s surrender. The penultimate episode also depicts Easy Company’s liberation of the concentration camp Kaufering IV.
While certain elements are dramatized for effect, the majority of the series is based on interviews with veterans from Easy Company, and excerpts from these interviews are shown at the beginning of each episode. The series follows a number of different characters, with special attention being given to Major Richard Winters, one of the main commanders of the company since its original formation in training camp.
The series, first broadcast in 2001, is spaced over ten episodes, all of which contain stunning cinematography and an achingly beautiful score. While the battle scenes can be difficult to watch, and it can be confusing to keep track of the ensemble cast, this is a masterpiece production and tribute to the sacrifices and battles of the Greatest Generation.
Why this is The BEST
I. Honoring the experiences of veterans: Often, Memorial Day (as observed in the United States) is a day of BBQs, parades, and spending time with family members. Perhaps, enjoying our leisurely freedoms as Americans can be a tribute to the veterans who fought for our ability to do this unhindered. Personally, I find my Memorial Day enhanced by my ritual rewatching of Band of Brothers (or at least, the first few episodes). Viewing this series provides insight into what the men of Easy Company had to endure during World War II. You see the grueling training at Currahee, the palpable fear going into the D-Day drop on Normandy, and the chaos and terror when the invasion finally occurs. The series feels that much more personal with the inclusion of the firsthand testimony of the veterans before every episode. It pushes us to authentically reflect on our gratitude for what the soldiers endured in the battlegrounds of Europe, and how we might honor their sacrifice and determination each Memorial Day.
II. Ethical questions of war: The series grapples with many compelling questions concerning the ethics of war. In one scene, Major Winters struggles with guilt over his decision to shoot a teenage German soldier. What constitutes an enemy combatant? Is a uniformed soldier considered fair game if at that moment he is not actively engaged in warfare? (See “Just and Unjust Wars” by Michael Walzer, pp. 138-147 for an expanded discussion.)
The series also takes effort to show the humanity of the German soldiers and the similar motives shared by both American and German soldiers concerning why they fight (note: this parallel does not extend to the S.S.). Easy Company men hear their German adversaries singing in the trenches, and there is a fascinating encounter when an American soldier meets a captured German soldier from Eugene, Oregon. In a pivotal scene towards the end of the series, a German commander addresses his troops upon surrendering to Major Winters. As his speech is translated into English, you hear the commander extolling his soldiers for their bravery, and singling out the special bond they have forged with one another, a brotherhood that can only be achieved in combat. In this beautifully shot scene, it could have easily been Major Winters giving this speech to his own troops, noting the universal themes of connections forged between soldiers who have gone to war together.
III. When ordinary people become extraordinary: What is striking about the men of Easy Company is that before the war, these were ordinary people farmers, shopkeepers, and kids just out of high school. After the war, many returned to mundane and peaceful lives. Yet, for a few years, they were asked to do the extraordinary and show levels of bravery, grit, and resilience that few could imagine surviving. Often it was not the most academic, or college-educated that were the best commanders or soldiers, but regular laymen from small towns, reminiscent of the Kibbutz-born and Palmach-trained early leaders of Israel. This raises interesting questions of classism and where our leaders come from today. Who would we trust to lead us into battle and safely get us home, to be those “who led Israel out and brought them in” (Sam. II 5:2)?
IV. The dangers of glorifying a military culture: Band of Brothers gives us a sobering look into the horrors of war, the mayhem of D-Day, the freezing cold nights at Bastogne, and the mental impact on soldiers when their friends are continuously killed in front of them. In our sincere educational efforts to valorize the heroism and sacrifice of Israel army service, we are often quick to run Tzahal night activities and Gadna Training days in our Modern Orthodox camps and schools. Yet, we do our students and campers a disservice when we extol only the exciting aspects of I.D.F. training, without creating space to authentically discuss the price our young men and women pay when we send them off to war. War is hell, and it takes years for soldiers to recover mentally and physically from the scars of battle, even when the cause is just. Perhaps this series can be a catalyst for beginning conversations around the glorification of army life in our communities.
Why it’s not completely The Best: There are few, if any, female characters, or people of color depicted in the series. While understandable for a production focusing on Easy Company, it raises questions of whose stories from World War II get told and what other narratives exist that should be brought to the public eye.
Final Thought: For a further look at the experiences of soldiers in World War II, I recommend watching The Pacific, a follow-up production, which focuses on the memoirs of three soldiers fighting the Japanese in the Pacific theatre of war. This series is much more violent, but it does a better job of addressing the PTSD faced by soldiers coming home and highlights how the dehumanization of the Japanese as the enemy, led to a harsher loss of innocence and a shocking impact on the morality of the soldiers.
Note: The series contains violence, language, and some sexual content at the beginning of episode 9.
Sarah Gordon serves as the Director of Israel Guidance at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School, where she teaches Talmud and Contemporary Israel. She is also pursuing an Ed.D at Yeshiva University as a Wexner Fellow and Davidson Scholar.
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[Published July 16, 2020]