(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)
Band of Brothers reaches its emotional peak during the end of “The Breaking Point”. As they emerged from the Ardennes, the 101st had transformed into the “battered bastards of Bastogne”.
This clip, around minute 1:30, shows the emotional toll on the men of Easy Company as they spend the night resting in a church. Listening to a children’s choir, First Sergeant Lipton tries to compile a roster for Easy Company. As he narrates, the soldiers who have died, lost it, or gotten wounded disappear from view.
As First Sergeant Lipton describes, Easy Company entered Belgium with 145 soldiers. After the Battle of the Bulge, they had 63.
That calculation answers a question for World War II that I (Michael C) asked for our 500th post anniversary:
1. If you are a civilian, how many casualties are you willing to risk to win our wars?
2. If you are an officer, how many of your own men are you willing to sacrifice to win our wars?
The commanding officers of Easy Company were willing to sacrifice over eighty soldiers simply to secure Belgium.
If that answer sounds callous, harsh or uncaring, it is. War is, fundamentally. a series of life or death decisions. It means the deaths of foreigners (another post for another time) and the deaths of Americans. Before America starts, joins or goes to any war, as a country, we need to answer the question: how much will we sacrifice?
In World War II, President Roosevelt, Congress and our generals knew that victory would require sacrifice--hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of men. Still, they gave our soldiers those orders. Consider...
- 9,000 U.S. soldiers died in the Allied Invasion of Sicily. Another 5,000 died in the Battle of Salerno.
- In a handful of days, during the invasion of Normandy, the Americans lost another 14 to 19,000 men.
- During Operation Market Garden, the U.S. lost 4,000 more men.
- During the Battle of the Bulge, around 19,000 more Americans died, with thousands more missing and wounded.
In Europe, millions of civilians perished. Recent estimates place the number of Russian dead at 26.6 million. Poland lost anywhere between 5.6 and 5.8 million people as well. The United Kingdom lost nearly half a million people. France lost a little over half a million people too.
Incomprehensibly large numbers can numb us to the pain. Our eyes glaze over. Band of Brothers shows how the American men (and boys) sacrificed.
They die as planes explode in “Day of Days”.
They get shot in the neck in “Carentan”.
They die from sniper fire in “The Replacements”.
They die by friendly fire in “Crossroads”.
They die by artillery in “Bastogne”.
They die by machine gun fire in “The Breaking Point”.
They die by grenade shrapnel in “Points”.
Easy Company wasn’t alone in this sacrifice. Hundreds of other companies throughout the European and Pacific theaters felt the same pain and sacrifice.
This article--and the questions I asked during our 500th anniversary week--emphasize a point neglected about war in our modern discourse: war means people (civilians, enemies and our soldiers) will die. Phrases like “heroes”, “support the troops” and “enforce our will on the enemy” all sanitize warfare. This sanitation hides the cost of war.
War means dead troops. Dead Afghans. Dead Iraqis. Dead Americans. Dead British. Dead French. Dead Italians. Dead Polish. Dead Czech Republicans.
War means sacrifice. Selfless sacrifice. In World War II, America was willing to sacrifice everything to win because the lives of millions of Britons, French and possibly Americans were at stake. During World War II, the generals, colonels, captains and officers of our military knew that thousands of young men would die.
Are we--as Americans--still ready to make that sacrifice in our current wars? I don’t think so, and it says something about the wars we choose to pursue.