I have recently been rewatching the series “Band of Brothers”, which is based on Stephen Ambrose’s book of the same name and was directed and produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. It follows Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. While the central figure in both the book and the series was Major Dick Winters, the story focused on how they became united as brothers through the adversity of their service together during World War II. From training in Georgia to Normandy at D-Day, from Operation Market Garden to the defense of Bastogne to ultimately their liberation of Berchtesgaden and the “Eagle’s Nest”, the men and replacements who served together formed a bond that continues among the survivors to this day. It really is an inspiring story and presents the war and their efforts realistically, without pulling any punches as to the realities of combat. Through their trials, loss of comrades-in-arms, victories and struggles, I found myself again emotionally invested in the members of Easy.
Watching the miniseries, I began to wonder about all of the other “Citizen Soldiers” and how their exploits and experiences shaped both the war and their personal lives. Pilots like George McGovern, who piloted B-24s in Italy, airmen like Louis Zamperini, whose life story is detailed in Unbroken, and John Ford’s filming of the Battle of Midway are just small parts of such a huge endeavor that engulfed the world and reshaped American industry. The unfortunate truth is that many of the actual events that occurred have been lost in the decades between then and now. For every confirmed story about James Doohan (better known as Scotty on Star Trek) flying an airplane on a slalom between telegraph poles and being labelled the “craziest pilot in the Canadian Air Force”, there is the lost records of how character actor Charles Durning received his Silver Star in the Battle of the Bulge. But, while those stories may be lost, the fact remains, a huge number of Americans were involved in winning a war against a truly evil force, and the sacrifices they made should not be forgotten.
Tom Brokaw called them the “Greatest Generation” because of their sacrifice, but there is a real danger today of forgetting both the sacrifice, and, more importantly, the reason for the sacrifice. Today, we too quickly use terms like Nazi, fascist, or Gestapo, (particularly when discussing opinions or political views we disagree with) without really understanding the depth of the darkness those terms meant during that time. We have been fortunate to not face that level of evil on that large a scale since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and we haven’t had to deal with that horrific loss of life since the passing of Joseph Stalin. Sure, we have had our Pol Pots, our Saddam Husseins, our Ceaucescus and many, many other despots, but they haven’t committed atrocities on the level of Hitler, Lenin, Stalin or Mao Zedong. And so, we have lost the concept of scale and trotted out the labels above in an attempt to underscore our disagreement with people, ideas, and so forth, by exaggerating their level of “badness”.
I am certainly guilty of abusing these terms, and am well aware that, most times, it is done with no ill intent, nor desire to diminish the truth of the past. What concerns me is that, as the survivors die off, we’ll continue to forget and the mistakes of the past will again be made requiring a future generation to be the next “Greatest Generation”. As was said in an earlier post, what goes around, comes around, especially if we forget the past. So, I encourage you all to periodically go back and explore the sacrifices and experiences of history, not to glamorize it nor to wallow in the gritty reality of it, rather to remember it, understand it and to keep vigilant watch against its repeating.
And for those of you interested in learning more, there are a great number of documentaries, such as Ken Burns’ World War 2 series, Band of Brothers, We Were Soldiers, Blackhawk Down, and many others. There are tons of books out there ranging from books, such as Founding Brothers, to the works of Winston Churchill, the Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, William Shirer’s historical works, a number of books by Stephen Ambrose and other military and civilian historians. I’ll try to post more in the books and movies lists for those who are interested.