Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose (1992)

10 June 2012

Historian Stephen E. Ambrose published ‘Band of Brothers, E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne: From Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest’ in 1992. It’s a remarkable story and finding one company which had such varied and yet emblematic experiences was a stroke of luck or inspiration.

The book is a little more confusing than the HBO mini-series based on it (transmitted in 2001). There are a lot more individuals in the book (and in reality, presumably) whereas the TV series did what all film and TV does, which is simplify and focus in on just a handful of individuals, allowing us to “get to know them” better.

In fact what came over most vividly to me is the hypertextuality of the book – Ambrose describes how the wartime closeness of the men of Easy Company led to various forms of postwar contact, from reunions to newsletters. It’s interesting to discover which of the characters were most proactive in these activities, and to realise that the characters we’ve read a lot about tended to be the ones who wrote and organised most. Maybe that’s inevitable but it makes you realise how skewed and partial the book potentially is. And, overlaying their stories, is the account of Ambrose’s increasing involvement with these men which leads him to commission them to write memoirs of their wartime deeds, or dig up letters and diaries. That’s what I mean by its hypertextuality – the way the book is made up of lots of other texts, sources, diaries, interviews, letters and memoirs.

It’s also a good example of the power of paratextuality. By this I mean that bits of the book normally thought of as peripheral or unimportant, in fact had as much impact on me as the main narrative, and radically changed my impression of the whole.

1. The final chapter, detailing the various soldiers’ post-war careers is in many ways more interesting than the preceding 300 page account of their wartime deeds. These few pages contain the seeds of a probing and maybe disturbing novel. The shiny heroes of the previous chapters move on into the Postwar world and become CEOs of big corporations or alcoholics, teachers or suicidal depressives. Some of these stories are just as poignant as anything told in the main narrative. For me, the stories told in these sections are better than a novel. They’re as brief as good short stories; their brevity is as suggestive as poetry.

2. The final section of acknowledgements details Ambrose’s intense involvement with the men of Easy Company, meeting with many of them on numerous occasions, attending their reunions, visiting with them the sites of battles described in the text, hearing about their attempts to stay in touch with each other or help comrades who’d fallen on hard times. Eventually he is elected an honorary member of the Company.

The depth of Ambrose’s involvement with these living men, the amount of activity the veterans kept up over the years, the large amount of texts they generated in a whole range of formats, and the poignancy of their post-war lives struck me as being more dense, more felt, more evocative and more moving and more complex than the war stories they are so keen to share.  And this depth and complexity and lack of happy endings, the messiness of their lives and of the way Ambrose got involved in those lives and became a player in the events he was describing, made me think of the book as much more of a modernist novel than you usually experience from a work of ‘history’.

‘Band of Brothers’ – HBO home page

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