Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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“Band of Brothers”, Stephen Ambrose

November 26th, 2009 · No Comments · History, War, WW2

band-of-brothersSynopsis: The late entrepreneur historian Stephen Ambrose recounts the WWII experiences of E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from domestic training to the seizure of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest.  A very American history book.

My Take: I found “Band of Brothers” to be a deeply frustrating book to read. On the one hand, the story of Easy Company is more than compelling. The company featured prominently in D-Day, Operation Market Garden, The Battle of the Bulge and the famous siege at Bastogne, the liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps and the occupation of Goering’s Palace and Hitler’s Eagles Nest. Further, the fact that the Company was a volunteer unit formed before the war offered “Band of Brothers” a group of characters that readers could get to know and follow throughout Easy Company’s experiences.

However, these strengths are more than off-set by two major, and in my mind related, weaknesses in this book.

First, Ambrose completely over-eggs the dramatic story telling aspect of the book. I’m certainly not against using a dramatic narrative to improve the accessibility of history, in fact there’s clearly a lot of value in this, but at times “Band of Brothers” read like a teenage boy’s G.I. Joe Fan Fiction. I wish I was exaggerating in this regard, but take for example the following, not atypical paragraph:

“Get ‘em?” Winters yelled. Lorraine hit one with his tommy-gun, Winters aimed his M-1, squeezed and shot his man through the back of his head. Guarnere missed the third Jerry, but Winters put a bullet in his back. Guarnere followed that up by pumping the wounded man full of lead from his tommy-gun. The German kept yelling, “Help! Help!” Winters told Malarkey to put one through his head.”

I’m sure I’m not the only non-American who was grimacing while reading the passages like this. What made this even more frustrating was that the substance of Easy Company’s war experiences were more than dramatic enough without the jingoistic, melodramatic flourishes. The “Fan Boy” dramatic passages of the book were both embarrassing and unnecessary.

The second glaring weakness of “Band of Brothers” was the complete lack of perspective and objectivity that Ambrose shows throughout the book. Ambrose doesn’t just describe Easy Company’s exploits with added schlock, he views them through rose coloured glasses tinted with the Stars and Stripes. As described in Band of Brothers, Easy Company were the All-American, pure of heart, defenders of democracy and the Free World. He’s so close to his subject that he is completely unable to position the Company’s actions within any kind of broader context or offer any meaningful insight into the experience of war.

It is clear from even a superficial reading that “Band of Brothers” is heavily dependent on the accounts of members of Easy Company. Even more disturbingly, Ambrose offers little or no critical perspective on these accounts. Jarringly, at one point, after quoting extensively from a Staff Sergeant’s account of a heroic battle field experience, Ambrose goes so far as to add the following post script:

“If that sounds idealised, it can’t be helped; that is the way Lipton and many others in Easy, and many others in the Airborne and through the American Army – and come to that, in the German and Red Armies too – fought the war.”

Forgive me if I become sceptical when historians are defending ‘idealised’ accounts of the experience of war. Ambrose genuinely sounds more like a cheer-leader than a historian at times in this book.

Even worse, Ambrose has been caught out a number of times copying extracts from veteran’s accounts almost verbatim. As Patricia Nelson Limerick, a professor of history at the University of Colorado has observed:

“You can’t get a more striking example of lack of critical distance from your sources than simply typing it into your own word processing program,” said

After reading philosophically substantial war historians like Antony Beevor and Vassily Grossman, “Band of Brothers” feels more akin to reading a comic book account of war – a one-dimensional, triumphalist sketch of something far more complex and nuanced.  I suppose “Band of Brothers” works as a piece of pop non-fiction written for an American audience – it certainly sold enough copies. But for those wanting a bit more substance and perspective and a bit less myth-making and self congratulation, there are far better options.

Highlight:

“Webster (a Harvard English literature graduate and member of Easy Company) went back to the road to get in on the shooting. A German turned to fire back. “What felt like a baseball bat slugged my right leg,” Webster recalled, “spun me around, and knocked me down.” All he could think to say was, “They got me!” which even then seemed to him “an inadequate and unimaginative cliché.”

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