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Band of Brothers' "Why We Fight" or: No, That's Not Why We Fought

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

In the closing scenes of the Band of Brothers episode, “Why We Fight”, the men of Easy Company liberate Kaufering IV, a subsidiary camp of the crown jewel of the concentration camp system, Dachau. The episode ends with the following inscription:

“During the following months, Allied Forces discovered numerous POW, concentration and death camps.

“These camps were part of the Nazi attempt to effect the ‘Final Solution’ to the ‘Jewish Question’.

“Between 1942 and 1945 five million ethnic minorities and six millions Jews were murdered -- many of them in the camps.”

Connected to the title, the message of the episode is simple: America goes to war to fight tyranny. We fight to save lives. We fight to stop evil, like Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust.

But that’s not why we fought.

After years of indecision, America went to war with Japan because they attacked us. We went to war with Germany because Hitler declared war on America four days after Pearl Harbor.

Which isn’t to say America didn’t already pick sides. We had pledged to become the “arsenal of democracy” for the Allies, providing them with supplies and assistance. (Again, nothing in history is ever black and white; many pro-fascist Americans, like Father Coughlin, opposed this effort.)

If America had already picked sides, did we decide to support the Allies because of Germany’s horrific final solution, as revisionist history and the title “Why We Fight” and inscription indicate? Not even close.

Exhibit 1, from the episode itself: none of the soldiers knew about the camp they would free. Or the entire concentration camp system. The entire Holocaust surprises them.

Exhibit 2, from the book Holocaust in American Life:

“Throughout the war few Americans were aware of the scale of the European Jewish catastrophe. By late 1944 three quarters of the American population believed that the Germans had "murdered many people in concentration camps," but of those willing to estimate how many had been killed, most thought it was 100,000 or fewer. By May 1945, at the end of the war in Europe, most people guessed that about a million (including, it should be noted, both Jews and non-Jews) had been killed in the camps...

...the future playwright Arthur Miller observed ‘the near absence among the men I worked with ... of any comprehension of what Nazism meant — we were fighting Germany essentially because she had allied herself with the Japanese who had attacked us at Pearl Harbor."

America itself was incredibly anti-semitic. Exhibit 3, from Wikipedia:

“In a 1938 poll, approximately 60 percent of the respondents held a low opinion of Jews, labeling them “greedy,” “dishonest,” and “pushy.” 41 percent of respondents agreed that Jews had "too much power in the United States," and this figure rose to 58 percent by 1945. In 1939 a Roper poll found that only thirty-nine percent of Americans felt that Jews should be treated like other people. Fifty-three percent believed that "Jews are different and should be restricted" and ten percent believed that Jews should be deported. Several surveys taken from 1940 to 1946 found that Jews were seen as a greater threat to the welfare of the United States than any other national, religious, or racial group”

We didn’t go to war to stop Hitler, the Nazis or genocide. We went because we were attacked. At least that’s what the American people who launched and fought WWII thought at the time.

But the title of the episode goes a step farther. It’s “Why We Fight”, not “Why We Fought”, and verb tense matters. The latter talks about American wars in general, the former about World War II.

Frankly, to put the origins of every American war on the level of stopping the Holocaust is absurd. We fought the Mexican American war to gain territory. We fought World War I to...I don’t know why we fought World War I. Northerners fought the Civil War to stop slavery, but southerners fought it to keep it. (Sorry, southerners, I don’t want to debate this point.)

And finally we come to Iraq. One of my ongoing pet peeves is the last remaining justification of the Iraq War, oft repeated by its dwindling supporters: Saddam was a very bad man. But we didn’t invade Iraq to kill a dictator. We went went to find WMDs and Al Qaeda training camps that didn’t exist.

America doesn’t go to war for noble and heroic reasons, unfortunately. The fate of the world, usually, isn’t on the line.

I actually like the episode “Why We Fight”. Liberating concentration camps is a part of the experience of veterans of the European theater. It’s a part of World War II. A few years ago, I wrote a story for a local paper about a group of veterans living in a retirement community in San Clemente. After a group chat, one veteran named Clarence gave me the honor of letting me interview him, and tears came to his eyes as he talked about liberating Dachau. The story needs to be told, and “Why We Fight” actually told it well, containing the sadness, pathos and complexity of the issue. As I wrote earlier, none of the soldiers see it coming.

It’s the title and closing inscription I have an issue with. It’s how the writers and producers of the series from these events. They propose a false American moral superiority that history cannot defend. Fifteen months after this episode aired, America invaded Iraq, under the same banner of righteousness with which we’ve rewritten the history of World War II. We can’t forget that.

two comments

Consider this comment the deleted scenes section from this articles Special features section of its DVD.

First: Other examples of moral ambiguity include: Stalin, our “loyal” WWII ally, was as evil a dictator as Hitler and Russia committed massive war crimes before, during and after World War II. We interned over 100,000 Japanese citizens. America refused to take in Jewish refugees from Germany.

Also, future debate coming, but Michael C excised this line from the post: “Neither Germany nor Japan—our real enemy in World War II—posed an existential threat to America or had a chance of invading, defeating or destroying America. Our country was too big, our population was too massive, and that population was too armed for any country to attempt to invade us.”

I ran across a lot of revisionism researching PTSD during WWII. Speaking to your description of why America actually went to war, many people at the time didn’t have a very good idea. Sure, Capra’s “Why We Fight” was around, but most guys had a hard time connecting the dim future threat to justify the immediate hazard to their person at the front. More than once in the mass market print sources you have veterans bemoaning the lack of motivation for Americans during the war; one even attributed our problems with combat stress to insufficient clarity of purpose.

Most folks still seem to have a strong desire to avoid complicating that conflict (for instance by understanding that the common German was misguided by an evil ideology, but that their actions seemed ration within the framework of that belief system). I don’t talk about Browning’s “Ordinary Men” very often anymore because getting called a Nazi gets rather old when you are not at all arguing in favor of anything the German government did during the war – just that we understand how it happened without resorting to caricature.