Thursday, January 27, 2011

Beyond Band of Brothers

Beyond Band of Brothers: the War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters
© 2006 Dick Winters and Colonel Cole Kingseed
303 pages

When I landed, the only weapon I had was a trench knife that I had placed in my boot. I stuck the knife in the ground before I went to work on my chute. This was a hell of a way to begin a war.

Dick Winters didn't join the Army out of abounding love for his country, but because he didn't want conscription interrupting a profitable business career. Though he joined in peacetime, that peace did not long last, and Winters became a soldier for the duration.  That strategic decision of his turns out to be the last less-than-noble action Winters makes, for he is The All-American soldier.  He's Sam Damon, come to life, fulfilling every ideal Americans have about soldiers: devoted to God and country, hard-working, clean-cut, conscientious, and morally beyond reproach. He never loses his temper, never shrinks back from a fight, and never seems like anything less than an iconic hero.  For those looking for inspiration, his memoirs will provide it in bounds -- but all the stories about his men's nobility and sacrifice seem a little too much like a 1940s newsreel meant to bolster spirits and inspire faith in the men and the cause than a thought-provoking account of the trials of war.

After joining the Army,  Winters determined to be the best he could be. Determined to excel and to lead, he applied for the paratroop corp and became a lieutenant of a company destined to fight in D-Day, the Bulge, and a few tough spots in between before ending the war as a Major governing a portion of Austria as military governor. While the "on-the-ground" look inside the D-Day operations and beyond is what will attract most readers, I was most interested by his account of basic training and Officer Candidates School.  The intensive training parachutists were put through seemed perverse at times.  After his account of the war -- in which  Winter proves himself to be a superb commander, so inspiring that when a superior officer court-martialed him, all of Winters' non-commissioned officers near-mutinied, resigning their stripes rather than serve  under Winter's offender -- Winter ruminates on lessons learned, particularly in regards to leadership.

The account is readable, and were I less cynical I suppose I would be beside myself with all the inspiration being handed out. I enjoyed it nonetheless, aside from Winter's account of looting and billeting as they marched through Germany. Winters thought nothing of kicking German civilians out of their home -- ordering them, weapons in hand, not requesting -- for his own comfort, and justified this by claiming they were supporting Hitler. This seemed disingenuous at best: why the rationalization?  "To the victor go the spoils" may be a cruel mantra, but at least it's honest. Exacting private judgment on strangers is no more noble when done by a 'hero' than by the 'villains'.  This attempt at justification and the endless moral lessons being taught to the audience soured me on Winters after a while, though I felt a bit guilty about it since he's a recently deceased Hero and all (d. 2 January 2011). All things considered, I much prefer Sam Stavinsky's Marine Combat Correspondent. Winters reminded me more of Ernst Junger, who wrote Storm of Steel -- both seem more like  ideals than real men, their memoirs fulfilling their respective country's stereotypes about themselves.


Related:

  • Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose's account of "Easy Company" which brought Winters and his men into the public eye. 
  • Marine Combat Correspondent, Sam Stavinsky, the account of a glass-wearing journalist turned grizzled Marine. I remember it fondly, though I read it back in high school when the romance of nationalism and noble soldiers had in me an ardent follower. 
  • Storm of Steel, Ernst Junger -- a German account of the Great War, written by a man with a spooky detachment who embodies the stereotype of the cold, efficient, tough-as-nails Prussian solider. 
  • Once an Eagle, Anton Myrer, from whose protagonist Sam Damon Winters and his co-author quote. 

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