This is a strange New Year’s Day post. It went places that I didn’t intend it to go. Sorry about that. I debated not posting it, but then, what would that say about me?
In the late 60s, when I was a young boy, there were only three television stations. All of them played thirty minutes of news each night. Of those thirty minutes, a lot of them were focused on the Vietnam War in some way or another. I don’t remember that specifically. I mean, I was seven in 1968, right? I have no idea how many minutes Huntley and Brinkley gave to the war. But I remember the images of men in dull green uniforms, camouflaged and shooting weapons while they were running through a thick and smoke-filled jungle. This was part of the norm of the day. As I’ve written before, I grew up fully expecting to go to a similar place.
I don’t remember being particularly afraid of that. I was a kid. That’s what you did. You grew up and you went to the Army and that was pretty much that.
My great uncle had been in the pacific theater of WWII. My grandfather had not served, but only because he had a skill that the army needed more in the states—the ability to drive double trailer trucks, which were used to move everything around. My dad was too young for WWII and was an academic at later times, so did not serve either…so that told me something that didn’t really register at the time. Of course his brother was in college, too, and was still going to be drafted. Perhaps this was the difference between an engineering degree and one in Russian History. Dunno. Regardless, my uncle enlisted for three years rather than take the two he would have been indebted to if he waited for the draft. For that, he got to select his first assignment.
So, yeah, that’s how it was.
I expected, without any real dread, to go overseas and do army things. Or maybe air force things. I liked things that flew, after all.
Realize that I had no idea why these soldiers were fighting except that they were heroes, and they were in some way protecting us from the loss of freedoms that we hold so dear. That seemed like it was a good thing to fight about. I fully understood the Red Commies were no good.
It never crossed my mind to consider other ideas. Never crossed my mind to ask deeper questions. Again: seven, maybe eight. This was just what normally happened.
I’m thinking about this now because for the past three days Lisa and I have binge watched the old Band of Brothers HBO series, which, for the folks who weren’t paying attention when it first came out fifteen years ago (a group that includes me), is a 10-episode series that presents the events around Easy Company of the famous 101st Airborne from their training camp, to D-Day, through the Battle of the Bulge, and out to the end of WWII. It is not focused on the war exactly, but on the men—or, more specifically, what these men actually did. How they trained, and what they thought of that training. How they jumped from airplanes into flak-filled air. How they followed orders or, in some cases, did not. Who they followed and why. How they dealt with the multitude of harsh aspects of their job. In the end the series reflects how the unit became the unit they were.
At one point, while sitting in the back of a transport truck, some of the unit passes a string of German prisoners being marched the opposite direction. One of the men of Easy Company heckles the prisoners, growing more agitated as time passes. He’s angry at them. He’s frustrated with the situation he’s in. He’s tired and sore and he’s seen his friends die at the hands of these prisoners. Finally he stands up as the trunk bounces him around and he screams at them, ending his tirade by asking them all “What in the fuck are we here for?”
This, of course, is before the allied forces come across the Landsburg concentration camp, a moment when the series shows us so clearly exactly what these men were doing in Europe.
Here’s the thing.
With the benefit of hindsight, I admit fully that I watched nearly every frame of this series with the idea that I was observing the price that real people paid to defeat fascism in the 1940s. By price, I don’t mean just woundings or deaths—though casualty figures are the easiest factors to measure, and those numbers alone are staggering and mind-boggling enough that they should make anyone pause. What I mean, in addition to those base figures, are the decisions that these people were required to make, the balances they had to weigh and the lasting effect that their decisions had on their lives. People who live through these things do not survive. They become different people, and in the end that too is a deeply grievous cost, a cost that is nearly impossible to measure and that is too often forgotten by anyone who was not actually there.
It is important, I think, to realize that these were not the only prices paid in that time. I think it is very important for us today to remember there were two sides to this war.
Toward the end of Band of Brothers, as the company moves through Europe and liberates a string of cities, we see the prices paid by the citizenry of these places; the division between the German population, the decisions people of occupied territories made, and the prices one pays for having been on the wrong side of history. Some of these people are publicly shamed. Some are beaten. Some hunted and killed. Some “oblivious” citizens are made to clean up concentration camps. And, at the end, a German officer addresses his own troops, discussing his pride at their bravery and the relationships that they have forged in the battle for that side of the question of “why in the fuck are we here?”
Yes, the German people paid a large price in dead and wounded, and their soldiers also paid the required battlefield tax of dealing with mayhem of their own. But beyond these, the people of Germany also paid the soul-crushing price of having to live with the underlying evil that they allowed into their leadership, and hence allowed to be unleashed upon the world.
In the end, the people in Germany, the regular, everyday workers and partiers and hooligans and scholars and soldiers and … all the people in Germany, were mostly just like the people in Easy Company. Human. Mostly good. Mostly just listening to their leaders. Many either afraid to do anything to stop what was coming or, most likely, making decisions to go along with things that they never thought would work out as they did. In other words, there is a lot of there but for the grace of God go I in this type of thing.
I say that because one can argue that the Second World War began in November of 1932 when the German people voted Adolph Hitler into power (or, technically, voted for the people who installed Hitler). They were an angry people then, struggling with economic problems and sense of lost identity brought on by the results of World War I. And, yes, you can go further back, too, and say that the Second World War began in 1918 when the Treaty of Versailles pretty much ensured the people of Germany would be in this state. That treaty was a harsh agreement for the German public. It set the foundation for what was to come.
But, still, it was the people who voted, and they voted for Adolph Hitler.
There’s this thing that goes around in writerly circles that says we should not talk about politics on our blogs, twitter feeds, and other services of mass communication. Don’t want to alienate a set of your readers, after all, right? Don’t want to risk losing valuable sales revenue because you say or write something that offends them.
Despite the fact that I don’t always follow that advice, I understand the concern.
The world is full of prices.
On the other hand, I just spent three days watching a series that laid out the prices that are paid across the world when things go deeply awry. The prices were clear, and they were deep.
Among the best parts of the series are the bits where the actual people represented in the stories speak. The directors gave these men a few minutes at the beginning of each episode, and a few at the end of the last. Band of Brothers was made in 2001, fifty-five years after the events the stories depicted. These men were old now. They had lived with the prices they paid to remove a totalitarian fascist government that overtook the people of Germany, and the pain they still carried was deeply embedded in their commentary. But their voices also carried unbounded pride that I felt as being tied to the fact that they knew they had done what needed to be done.
Their war, unlike most, was actually about freedom.
It is an unfortunate fact of life that many of the wars we send our citizens to fight are not about our freedom—though our politicians will always say they are. The men who died in Vietnam, for example, did not give their lives protecting our freedom. They were brave people. They fought hard, and paid those terrible prices, thinking they were protecting our freedom because that’s what our leaders told us…and they believed them—or at least they wanted to. I want to, also. If it were true that these people died protecting my freedom I would feel better. But that’s wrong. The Vietnam War was not about freedom in itself. You can tell this by the simple fact that we lost Vietnam and (except for the parts that we have purposefully given away) we still have our freedom. By definition, this means that the Vietnam War was not about Freedom. That war was about complex political situations that I won’t even pretend to understand. These men died fighting for their country; that is true. But they did not die protecting our freedom. They gave a great sacrifice. I give great honor to every fallen vet of Vietnam.
Likewise those of Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, and others. Freedom is always in the mix someplace, of course. At least in some small degree. And many of our wars might well have been primarily about freedom for the other side (or not). But they were demonstrably not about freedom for us because if we would have lost, we would not have lost our freedom. Pick any other war we’ve been in outside the Revolution itself and the Civil War; none of them have actually been about true personal freedom and liberty for American citizens.
Except World War II.
World War II was about Freedom in every aspect. And it’s clear that the men portrayed in Band of Brothers paid immense prices to protect it. Judging only from the Wiki page for the series, only three of the many men who were portrayed in those ten episodes remain alive today (and that assumes the pages are up to date).
There is a scene toward the end of Band of Brothers where the men hear news that Adolph Hitler has committed suicide. One of the men notes that he wished Hitler had done this three years ago. “Would have saved us a lot of trouble,” he says.
To be direct, I’m glad I waited until now to watch Band of Brothers. I’m glad I didn’t see it back when it first came out.
Last night, as Lisa and I went to bed just past midnight on what is now officially 2017, I found myself thinking about this group of people who were in Easy Company from 1944-1945. I couldn’t help but wonder how these men would have felt had they been able to see the direction the country they paid that price for is going today. The parallels with 1932 are obvious to anyone who isn’t actively attempting to ignore them, after all.
Parallels do not necessarily mean anything, of course. Parallels are just that: parallels. History doesn’t always repeat itself, even when parallels are in place. But it’s fair to say that history does not repeat itself at all without such parallels being in place.
So, I asked myself as I was fading off to sleep, if you could go back in time to 1945 and tell the men of Easy Company that seventy years later their country would elect an authority-minded leader whose appointments and whose views on immigration and business are what Donald Trump’s are, and whose base behaviors so strongly point to a somewhat simple-minded and fascist core, what would they think? How would they feel—these people who did so clearly fight for our actual freedom—to see us give so much of it up so easily? Would they even see it as I see it? Would they recoil, or would they stand beside their leadership come hell or high water? Which of Donald Trump’s words would they believe? Which would they turn their eyes and ears away from? Would they choose to support the Make America Great Again rhetoric that is so dependent upon the idea of bringing back manufacturing jobs that don’t exist? Or would they stand up and call bullshit on the man who the American public and its system has now made the most powerful bullshitter on the planet—just as the German system did with their own leader back in 1932?
Those guys of Easy Company were “just people,” after all. Our soldiers were as human as any other country’s soldiers. How would they view this? Would they follow these politicians who want to build our own little Berlin Wall? Who want to register followers of a religion? Having served in the civil service of the Navy myself, I can imagine the dissonance within the ranks of the military for the next few years may well be mind-bending. Would news of possible internment camps remind them of Landsburg? Or not?
Just what would these guys think of the events of the past year?
I have opinions about how the men of Easy Company would answer those questions, of course. I admit I don’t know much about any of them so my opinions are almost certainly wrong to some degree. They have to be, actually, because my guess is that each one of those men would have a different way of viewing things. But, in the end, I think there would be a general consensus. And I think that consensus would not be favorable.
I think the consensus would be that the American public has let these men down.
I believe they would fear an entirely new generation was going to have to pay another price to deal with this aspect of humanity. I believe they would grieve in advance because they know the true price of the fight for this kind of freedom. And I think they would hope beyond all other hope that this generation would pay attention to the parallels and take its steps much earlier than theirs did.
So, yeah. Happy New Year, right?
Sorry about that, but it is what it is. For those who have known me over the years, or for anyone who wades through the archives of my blog, you’ll see that on the whole I’ve always been an optimist at heart. I’ve looked for the positive sides of things, and I’ve always had that level of privilege that allowed me to think the world is out there to save me. I still believe that, in the end, all things will work out. I wish everyone well, and I wish you all a very happy year.
But I am not blind.
I think it’s going to be a tough year.
A very tough year.
Great post, Ron. I think you nailed it.
And now I want to go back and watch BoB again. 😉
Thanks, Travis…and congrats for being on Tangent’s recommended reading list!