(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)
I’ll open up with an admission: when we started researching this series on Band of Brothers, Michael C and I re-watched every episode except for one, the pilot episode “Curahee”. We’ve just seen it too many goddamn times. Since Michael C and I have the episode memorized, I have to open up with a criticism of Band of Brothers:
I hate Sobel. (Not the man, but the character.) And not for the reasons the filmmakers/screenwriters wanted me to hate him.
Both an incompetent ass and woefully out of his league regarding this whole military business, Sobel represents an awful stereotype of officers in the US military presented way too often in books, movies and TV shows:
Sobel gets lost, alienates his men, and then loses his command. The viewer hates him, and rightfully so, based on how the series presents him. But Sobel is just one example in a pop culture sea of poorly represented officers in film, books and television:
- In Platoon, a war film I adore, 2nd Lieutenant Wolfe acts like a pathetic puppy trying to impress his men. His sergeants run his platoon, while he just watches and tries to ingratiate himself with the platoon.
- In Aliens--again, another film I adore--Lieutenant Gorman sits pathetically in his M577 with no idea what to do until the NCOs and a civilian (a civilian!) take control. Thank god Corporal Hicks survived.
- In Band of Brothers, Sobel is just one example of many bad officers. Later in the series, Lieutenant Norman Dike fails at command, because, as Sergeant Lipton narrates, “[he] wasn't a bad leader because he made bad decisions. He was a bad leader because he made no decisions.”
- In war memoirs, as I wrote about here, I read four books with incompetent officers in them. (I challenged at least some of those accounts.)
- On this humor site, the joke headline, “Army 2LT Leads Platoon Five Kilometers Without Getting Lost, Awarded Medal” brings the point home.
- In the documentary Restrepo; the platoon’s three “PLs” (all of whom Michael knew; all of whom excelled in their careers) barely appear in the film.
- In real life, the standard response to any young cadet who accidentally calls a sergeant “Sir” is “I’m no sir. I work for living.”
And finally, TVtropes.org has a whole page dedicated to this archetype: The Neidermeyer, named after the ROTC cadet from Animal House. Our society believes that (most) officers are soft college kids who can’t lead.
Sure, there are some good officers in Hollywood too. TVtropes.org call this the “A Father to his Men” trope. Band of Brothers celebrates Lieutenant Winters, Captain Spiers and Lieutenant “Buck” Compton. But for every competent CO, there are ten heroic Joes. Every enlisted man in the series who survives for more than one episode fights heroically. Only officers (or Germans) become antagonists.
Except, in reality, this isn’t the case. Officers aren’t incompetent. Officers can lead, can fight and can win battles. But I’ll go farther, and this is where I will write something extremely controversial:
Officers aren’t just equal to enlisted men. They’re better. By every measure, the average officer is superior to the average enlisted man.
You may be freaking out right now that I could write something so anathema to American values, but the data is on my side. Look at high school GPA, marital stability, athletic prowess, criminal records, financial stability, performance on PT tests or any other test; officers score higher than enlisted men. I guarantee if you ran a study, using any metric, the officers would win in every category. They smoke less, drink less, run faster, shoot straighter and generally live life better.
On an anecdotal level, this applied, almost universally, to every officer I met. If I had to run a war game, and I could pick any service member I wanted, I would pick all officers. (The one exception may be senior, senior NCOs, but they hardly represent the average enlisted man.)
This isn’t a pretty or nice thing to say. It goes against the anti-elitist, pro-working class ideal that defines America. We love our troops, but we love our enlisted soldiers most of all.
I think the point stands, though. Modern American culture stereotypes officers as incompetent, out-of-their-league college kids when, in reality, this just isn’t the case. (Ironically, the “going to college” part of the equation probably explains why officers excel in every facet of life compared to enlisted men.) If you asked society who was a better soldier, the list would go: Sergeants, enlisted men, then lieutenants, captains, colonels, majors, with generals coming in last.
As Winters tells Sobel when he fails to salute him in the final Band of Brothers episode “Points”, “You salute the rank, not the man.” That’s what our society does. We look down on officers as men, but salute their rank and service.
We should salute the men as well.