Narrative Themes in Modern Media: Band of Brothers and Finding Our Inner Resolve

(This essay looks extensively at the movie Saving Private Ryan and Episode 3 of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers)

As I have stated in the past, I believe that film is one of the highest forms of artistic storytelling, and I believe that this applies to war movies just as it applies to movies of any other genre. I don’t watch war movies to glorify violence, nor do I watch war movies with the illusion that I will be better informed — better informed either of the historical events or of the personal experiences of those that lived through it. I don’t watch war movies as a hero fantasy or as a method of deconstruction of events. I watch these movies to experience a powerful story, where the central theme presented is often times a story of solidarity and camaraderie in the face of pain and adversity. I don’t watch these movies thinking that the movie is at all reflective of what actual people experience. However, I do believe that the genre at its best reflects essential character traits of actual people, both in the military and in domestic life.

With that in mind, I approach all movies with one question in mind regardless of the genre: how well is the story of the character(s) told? And unquestionably, I believe Band of Brothers ranks as my favorite within the genre precisely because it focuses on the experiences of the individuals of E Company within the 101st Airborne. Although Band of Brothers is still a dramatization of events, we are told a story of how individuals came together to form deep and powerful bonds through their difficult experiences and circumstances.

With this in mind, I wanted to explore a few scenes from one of my favorite episodes from the series, Episode 3. Episode 3 follows Albert Blithe as in the early days of D-Day, and I believe that his story helps to illustrate a profound dynamic that everyone experiences through difficult circumstances (be it in the military or otherwise): how we help each other find the resolve to push forward.

(NOTE: Keep in mind Band of Brothers is a dramatization of events with actors playing the characters and narrative elements and themes added to the historical account of events to facilitate story-telling)

Leading Through Healing

In this scene, Lt. Winters encounters Blithe at the aid station, who is struggling with blindness of unknown cause. What shines through in the encounter is Lt. Winters concern for Blithe. Lt. Winters concerns himself not just with Blithe’s physical ailment, but Blithe’s internal struggle of wanting to uphold his duty and obligation to his comrades. In this scene, we see a deep sense of care and compassion that is rendered between Lt. Winters and Blithe.

As the scene ends we see how powerfully restorative such an act can be when Blithe finds that his vision has returned and he stands on his own to return to his comrades. And what I find so intriguing about this scene is Lt. Winters through his concern, doesn’t directly act on Blithe, but merely allows Blithe to recover or rediscover the health that was within him.

Struggling with Adversity

Everyone experiences adversity in their life to varying degrees and everyone develops strategies to deal with that adversity. With how varied life is for every individual, it would be incredibly imprudent and extremely arrogant to suppose that one mode is clearly better than any other mode. Ultimately, the approach that will work best is going to depend on the person and how deeply it resonates within them.

In Albert Blithe’s narrative journey, he is presented with 3 different modes of handling adversity.

(NOTE: Keep in mind Band of Brothers is a dramatization of events with actors playing the characters and narrative elements and themes added to the historical account of events to facilitate story-telling)

Superficial Engagement

It’s a game, Blithe. That’s all. Hell, we’re just moving the ball forward one yard at a time. Nothing but a game.

In this scene, we are presented with Lt. Welsh’s approach, which I believe is best described as superficial engagement. As the term suggests, it’s a mode of dealing with adversity that allows the person to maintain a distance between themselves and their experience — a distance that can in some situations be healthy and beneficial in allowing a person to persevere. But as a consequence, we are sometimes less involved or invested in the moment and situation. (I believe this scene is an example of dramatization specifically for storytelling purposes — I do not believe that the actual Lt. Welsh conducted himself in this fashion).

And we see the exact limitation of this approach demonstrated in the surface level interaction between Blithe and Lt. Welsh. Blithe does not confide in Lt. Welsh his deeper insecurities nor his higher desires and obligations because he already knows that this superficial approach is inadequate in providing reprieve for what Blithe feels.

Resignation of Self

Blithe, the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you are already dead.

In this scene, we are presented with Lt. Speirs approach, which I believe is best described as a type of resignation of self. I truly appreciate the setting of this scene because as Blithe is venturing into the dark forest he encounters Lt. Speirs. And as if encountering and acknowledging a deep shadow within himself, Blithe confides in Lt. Speirs his deep insecurities about the reality he is faced with. And it was almost as if Lt. Speirs was functioning as Blithe’s own shadow because he advises Blithe to accept and embrace death in order to be able to function without remorse or compassion. (I believe this scene is another example of dramatization specifically for storytelling purposes — again, I do not believe that the actual Lt. Speirs conducted himself in this fashion. As a film note, Lt. Speirs is depicted as far more compassionate later in the series. Also as a biographical note, Lt. Speirs continued to serve in the US Army and retired as a LTC after serving in Korea as well.).

What we see in the approach offered by Lt. Speirs is what I call resignation of the self because it goes beyond simply accepting the inevitability of human mortality. To accept the inevitability of death in order to function without mercy, without compassion, without remorse seems to forsake elements that are necessary in the condition of the human self. And we can see how heavily Albert Blithe recognizes and weighs this cost; we can see how he intuitively recognizes the toll that it will exact. In many ways, I find that Lt. Speir’s approach as depicted is encapsulated by the quote:

“Here who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” -Samuel Johnson

Contrast Lt. Speirs with Capt. Miller’s justification in Saving Private Ryan.

Lt. Speirs refers to the necessity of decisive action without emotional sentimentality. However, just because an action is performed without sentimentality doesn’t mean that it is absent emotional passion or emotional force. Capt. Miller’s decisiveness is still a compassionate act if not done in a dispassionate manner (as is necessitated by the conditions present). Choosing not to act is still an act of choice, and if people are harmed as consequence of inaction, can you still make claim to compassion if you could have acted to avoid it? To forsake these elements and to fail to consider broadly the circumstances we find ourselves in and the effect that is played out in our own lives and the lives of others is to resign a constitutive part of our human identity.

Tell them that I was here, and I was with the only brothers that I have left, and that there was no way I was going to desert them.

In the past I’ve written about love, and compassion, and mercy as animating forces of the human condition. As a result of that I’ve been labeled weak, a sissy, a pansy, effeminate, what have you. Though bothersome at the time, I frankly attribute those insults to people of small minds and small hearts (I also find myself myself amused by the strange fact that the insults were almost always feminine in nature).

Someday we might look back on this and decide … [it] was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole God-awful, shitty mess.

And I think that these scenes from Saving Private Ryan illustrates how important this constitutive part of our human identity is. Without a doubt, war should be avoided. It is gruesome. It is terrible. It exacts a horrendous cost and its burden is oftentimes crushing. War discards human lives with impunity and without regard. But for many of us, whose lives seem small and out of our choice and control, this is where we find ourselves. There is undoubtedly uncertainty, there is undoubtedly difficult decisions, but we share the burden of those decisions together as mortal humans. The least we can do is hold on to each other and hold on to our human identity in the midst of tragedy and chaos — sometimes it’s all we have left.

Inspire to Action

That’s right, Blithe, you can do it!

In this last scene, we return to Lt. Winters and his approach, which I believe is best described as inspiring to action.

Remember back to the scene at the aid station where Albert Blithe confides in Lt. Winters his desire not to let anyone down. Remember back to the different approaches that Albert Blithe is presented with in order to understand and contend with his internal turmoil and conflict. Remember back to Blithe’s own insecurities. As the scene opens, we see all these aspects come into conflict all at once — his desire not to let anyone down, his own internal insecurities, and the demands and danger of the situation necessitating some form of decision. It was here that Lt. Winters happens upon Blithe while rallying the other individuals he is responsible for.

And it is in this moment that Lt. Winters calls Blithe to stand — to simply make the first decision to stand and see again. And what I find so inspiring about this scene is that there are instances where in the heat of the moment, when it matters most, sometimes all that is necessary is a hand on the shoulder with a few words of encouragement to help someone else find their own inner strength and inner resolve — an inner resolve that they desire for themselves. It wasn’t a resolve that anyone finds alone. It was a resolve that we found together and it is a resolve that we rejuvenate in each other.

Again, I want to emphasize that I do not glorify violence. In fact, we should seek to avoid those things at all reasonable costs. But we live in a world that is uncertain, highly complex, incredibly dynamic, and often times demands we take action in order to achieve what is sometimes even simply a less evil end (but in the best and most hopeful cases, perhaps a more just end if such a thing can be made possible). What is important isn’t the violence nor is it war. What is of the utmost importance is that we are able to judge wisely the situation and context we find ourselves in order to summon the inner fortitude and resolve to act decisively, prudently, and swiftly when the lives of other people we care about and the lives of people we are responsible for are at risk in order to avert greater catastrophe and greater tragedy.

Blithe Standing On His Own and Lt. Winters as a Leader

Throughout Band of Brothers, Lt. Winters is described and depicted as a leader in various ways — from his decision-making, to his bravery, to his sense of care for those he is responsible for. But I think that the above two scenes illustrate leadership qualities that are just as important but far more subtle and possibly more profound.

In the first scene, we see Lt. Winters as a compassionate healer who provides and restores confidence and dignity where it was once lost in someone. I think there is something profound in this scene of Lt. Winters because it shows how through the comfort and care Lt. Winters offers to Albert Blithe, Albert Blithe is assisted in returning to form and returning to health. In the second scene, we see the leader not as the primary agent of action, but as an agent that supports action and inspires action. Lt. Winters’ presence and encouragement is what allows Albert Blithe to find the resolve within himself. It’s in this way that Lt. Winters functions as a guide to growth.

In both these instances, Lt. Winters doesn’t directly act on Albert Blithe, but instead helps Albert Blithe find the health and strength that was always present within himself. And in both these instances, Lt. Winters assists Blithe in restoring his vision and ability to see and allows Blithe the ability to stand for himself.

Admittedly, I draw quite a bit of inspiration for my own life from the depiction of Lt. Dick Winters throughout the series. No one should live their life as a film or a TV show (although far, far too many people do) but we can draw lessons and insights from film or TV that is deep, thought-provoking, and inspiring. And the ways in which the series illustrates his competency, his sense of duty, his deep care for those he is responsible for, his presence in the moment, his fortitude, and his resolve are all things that I seek to emulate in my own life.

I can’t tell the future, I don’t always know what the right thing to do is, and I am a deeply flawed individual. Moreover, I recognize that in a million different ways and after a billion different tries, I will constantly and inevitably fall short. But that will never prevent me from putting forward my best effort, that will never prevent me from persevering, and that will never prevent me from getting back up and trying again so long as I am allowed to, so long as people ask me to, and so long as I have the energy and strength to do so. -GP

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