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The Mini-Series Memoir: Band of Brothers "Carentan"

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

When I first pitched a Band of Brothers series to Michael C a few years ago, he rejected it. At the time, I proposed a recap/review of every episode of the series; Michael C thought it sounded kind of boring. (He was right; it kind of did.) Then I pitched a different series to him again last January, framing different On V ideas and thoughts around specific episodes. Obviously, since you are reading this, he agreed.

When we started, I expected Band of Brothers to inspire a whole new set of ideas and posts; I didn’t expect it to connect so perfectly to the ideas we’ve been writing about at On Violence for so many years now. We’ve got a post on the rules of engagement (of course) along with a “War at its Worst” next to a debate over the ethics of killing prisoners. Which only leaves one major On V topic to address...


As anyone who has read the blog knows, I really dislike war memoirs; Band of Brothers is essentially a collective memoir for the men of Easy Company. Or at least as close as one can get on television.

And like all memoirs, Band of Brothers makes a lot of factual mistakes. It’s a mini-series based on a history book based on interviews conducted decades later after WWII. Stephen Ambrose compiled the fallible memories of aging soldiers into a book, then Spielberg, Hanks and other writers and producers translated that book into an entirely different medium. Second, getting all of the facts right would be virtually impossible, especially fifty years after the fact. Finding the correct props alone must have been a logistical nightmare.

Most of the mistakes are pretty minor. As Mark Brando (who also wrote a book on Easy Company) explains, in the second episode alone the mini-series incorrectly showed the planes taking off at dusk, Lt. Winters not wearing a reserve parachute, and Lt. Nixon sitting in the wrong plane. (The website goes on to list many more errors.)

Little things. Minor details. But the minor mistakes don’t bother me. Who cares if the helmets are the right color? As Brando points out, these details shouldn’t take away from the enjoyment of the series.

What bothers me are the huge mistakes. The massive, reputation destroying mistakes. The mistakes which harm the reputations of individuals and their families, all for the sake of the dramatic narrative. The mistakes that even the most basic fact checking could correct.

In the case of the episode “Carentan”, the series (almost) destroyed the reputation of Private Albert Blythe.

In “Carentan”, Blythe is a coward. He sleeps through the night after he parachuted into France instead of trying to find his patrol and suffers from “hysterical blindness”. He overcomes his fears, rejoins Easy, then dies of a neck wound from a sniper shot after courageously offering to lead a reconnaissance mission at the end of the episode.

Except he didn’t. According to Mark Brando, “In real life, Albert Blythe survived his WWII wound, fought in Korea, and died while still on active duty, in 1968.” (Wikipedia has more on this.)

On one level, it’s shocking how totally and completely wrong the veterans of Easy Company were on incredibly important details, like whether or not someone died. This mistake casts doubt on the historical accuracy of everything they told every historian. It’s not like Blythe wasn’t around; he jumped into Holland with Easy Company a few months later.

More importantly, it makes me question the entire portrayal of Blythe as the worst soldier who served in Easy Company. In real life, Blythe went on to become an incredibly decorated career soldier. He reenlisted in the military two times, eventually reaching the rank of Master Sergeant. He earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star (3 times), Purple Heart, and “the 82nd Airborne Division's 1958 Trooper of the Year” award. He died overseas while still serving for the military (in Germany, not in combat), and was buried in Arlington, Virginia.

Cowards don’t earn awards like that. Cowards don’t re-enlist.

In all, Blythe had a stellar military career. Band of Brothers ruins that, portraying the man as a coward, then killing him, all because the fallible memories of septuagenarians couldn’t get the facts right.

I doubt Blythe really was the coward Band of Brothers makes him out to be, which makes me doubt the portrayals of every other soldier in the episode. Was Sobel really that evil of a boss? Was Winters really that good? Did the series skew towards the perspectives of those who survived? Did an aging veteran hold a grudge? As the saying goes, history is written by the winners.

Or more likely, did a some writer or producer think this version would make a better story?

Consider this example  just another reason I prefer fiction to nonfiction; nonfiction narratives just can’t seem to get the facts right.

three comments

I keep thinking about the concept of “being a coward” in the first place. On the one hand, being a good garrison soldier doesn’t make a soldier more or less likely to be a coward in combat. But with Blythe—and realistically—every soldier we just don’t know. Now you could say, what about valor awards? On one hand, yeah those relate pretty well to being valorous in combat. On the other, too many soldiers don’t actually get the awards they deserve. Unit politics play a role still.

It’s been awhile since I read Band of Brothers so I don’t remember the details. I do remember I thought it was a great read and that it felt very real and authentic. Then later, I met a UCLA Army ROTC alumnus who was in the Battle of the Bulge — he came to give a guest lecture to a military history course — and he said not to believe everything you read, even from historians like Ambrose. He said that in an Ambrose account he is mentioned in, his actions and location were wrong.

On fact checking, people could say, we know winters was a good soldier because of the first person documentation. But the documents would also show, if someone had bothered to check them, that Blythe was still alive.

I think Ambrose didn’t do his researhc fully, but then again, getting history “right” is incredibly tough, if not impossible.