When Band of Brothers first came out, I wasn’t able to catch every episode on its first airing. (Band of Brothers premiered in the pre-DVR era. Odd to think that just ten years ago, we couldn’t record television shows.) I watched the first three episodes, then missed a few in a row. I came back to watch the two episodes that took place in Bastogne.
Then, as now, those episodes remain my favorite.
Mythically known as the “The Good War” (thank you, Studs Terkel), the American public doesn’t question or criticize World War II like they do other past wars. The art inspired by World War II usually doesn’t have the same nuance. The myth of “The Good War” has perpetuated itself throughout the decades. If I had to level a criticism at Band of Brothers, a series that I deply admire, it would be that it embraces this sepia-toned remembrance of a golden age, when war was real war and America fought to stop evil incarnate, no grey areas allowed. If you don’t believe me, just rewatch the series’ introduction...filmed in sepia-tone to a grand orchestral score. Or the final two episodes. I don’t blame the creators; in today’s culture, they couldn’t avoid it.
“The Breaking Point” and “Bastogne” cut through that false nostalgia, and I love them for it. As Sherman said, “War is all hell.” As Tim O’Brien’s narrator elaborates in The Things They Carried,
“If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”
“The Breaking Point” and “Bastogne” pledge allegiance to obscenity and evil. The soldiers on each side didn’t fight a “good war” in the forests of Bastogne. They fought a war at its worst, at its coldest and at its ugliest.
In “Bastogne”, a medic scrambles for supplies, stealing medicine and bandages off bodies of dead soldiers and civilians, begging, bartering and stealing whatever he can. Men suffer in the cold, unable to do anything more than sit together, half-freezing to death. Driving into town in “Bastogne”, the medic’s jeep casually passes a mound of dead bodies stacked on top of one another. The episode ends with a scene of pure hell: the Axis have bombed the hospital/cathedral, everything is on fire and death falls from the sky. All the men from Easy Company the medic has been transporting from the front lines to the hospital have, tragically, died.
While the shelling in “Bastogne” scares the hell out of me, the shelling in “The Breaking Point” is worse. Of all of my “War at its Worst” posts, watching the men of Easy Company helplessly getting shelled is the most terrifying. Sitting in fox holes getting shelled with nothing to protect themselves, the men lose their composure. Lt. Compton sees his friends maimed, and leaves the front lines. One man starts digging a hole in the frozen earth with his bare hands.
I couldn’t find a video on Youtube that really captured these episodes. Instead, I think the words of the veterans who survived are enough. I’ve included them below.
“When we left for Bastogne, we were short of equipment. We didn’t have enough ammunition. We didn’t have enough warm clothes. But we had confidence that our higher military authorities would get to us whatever we needed.”
“And there was a ridge with a treeline. We were dug in on that ridge. The Germans knew right where we were, and they really gave us a shellacking.”
“Well, like in Bastogne, we were down to one round per man there for a while. Fog was in, they couldn’t drop, resupply us. Every time they tried to drop supplies to us, they dropped them to the Germans.”
“One of the guys got hit in the arm with a piece of shrapnel. It took his arm off above the elbow. As they were taking him out he said, ‘Get my wristwatch off my arm.’”
“Then a medic came along and he really saved my life, because he stuck a syrette in the key position of morphine.”
“Even today, a real cold night, we go to bed, my wife’ll tell ya, that the first thing I say, ‘I’m glad I’m not in Bastogne.’”
“The Breaking Point”
“I’ve seen death. I’ve seen my friends, my men being killed. And it doesn’t take too many days of that and you’re changed dramatically.”
“I was hungry, had no food. Didn’t have much ammunition. It was cold, we didn’t have no clothes. You couldn’t build a fire. You build a fire, some crazy thing’d shoot at you.”
“Everywhere you would look you would see dead people, now. Dead soldier here, there. Ours, theirs. Then civilians besides dead animals. So death was all over.”
“You don’t have a chance, when your friends go down, you know, to really take care care of them as you might, especially if you’re under attack, moving, whatever. And I withstood it well, but I had a lot of trouble in later life because those events would come back and you never forget ‘em.”