War stories

Some thoughts on the storytelling lessons from Stephen E. Ambrose's Band of Brothers

War stories
Image: Andrew Liptak

In the recent March Book List, I noted that The Folio Society has released its Spring 2024 collection, and in that selection is Stephen E. Ambrose's World War II book Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne: From Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest. I was pretty excited to see this: Band of Brothers was one of those books that really stoked my early interest in history, way back when I was in high school, and in a lot of ways, it helped set my path in college and after.

Ambrose originally released the book in 1992, and it was the culmination of a series of interviews that he had conducted with the survivors of the unit. The book was the basis for HBO's big 2001 miniseries by the same name, created by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks after their work on their WWII film Saving Private Ryan. That series also had a huge impact on me, visually showing what some of that war in Europe would have been like.

I've read Band of Brothers a couple of times over the years, and like most of Folio's books, it's an extremely nice edition. I've written about their titles over the years, and for the most part, I've stuck with their science fiction or fantasy titles, which have some extras like forewords and specially-produced artwork. This edition doesn't have the artwork, but it does have an extra foreword by Cole E Kingseed, who co-wrote Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters.

Image: Andrew Liptak

As I've been flipping through the pages of this volume (Folio send me this copy last week to look over), I've been thinking a bit on why this book has endured so well. It's an interesting time to revisit it: Apple has recently released its big streaming series Masters of the Air, which comes from the same folks who did the Band of Brothers and The Pacific shows. Band of Brothers set an incredibly high bar for storytelling, one that neither of the followup shows have really been able to capture (that said, I'm enjoying Masters of the Air quite a bit).

As my wife and I have been watching and talking about this (she's a huge fan of the book and show – her personal copy of the book has signatures from some of the members of Easy Company that she met,) we realized that Ambrose's story really succeeded because it's not a story of any of the individual members of Easy Company, but their shared journey as they slogged and fought their way through the European campaign between 1944 and 1945.

Ambrose – for all of the academic issues he faced later in his career – is a hell of a storyteller, utilizing the men as guides through France, Belgium, and Germany at the end of the war. There's a good storytelling lesson here: the charisma of individual characters certainly matters, but it's the shared bonds between them that really helped elevate the story. These were men who came from all walks of life who went through an enormously traumatic and difficult period of human history, and who survived because of one another.

I've been having a lot of discussions about military history recently: I'm getting sucked down a rabbit hole at work with the story of a Vermont WWII veteran, and it's tremendously easy for readers and historians to get enamored of the dates and movements of soldiers, and units, looking at the day to day actions to construct a chronology of a conflict. Band of Brothers certainly has that, but Ambrose understood that it's how people approached and were impacted by the conflict, and that that's the most important part of the story: war is the ultimate test for one's beliefs, convictions, friendships, and personality. That's the dynamic that really makes this book stand out.

As such, it's a book that I think is worth picking up to view as an exercise in storytelling. Ambrose's introduction lays out the broad stakes of who these men were and what they were tasked with accomplishing, then follows them as they're shaped by their training and the battles they went through. What I appreciate the most out of this book is the specifics that he was able to bring to light for readers. It's easy to look at a unit and talk about how they went here, did this, did that, and went on to the next thing. Band of Brothers certainly has lots of that, but it's those specific memories and recollections that really helps show the impact of those movements. A good example comes halfway through the book while Easy is in Belgium:

"Headquarters Company brought up some 81-mm mortars to add to the fire. Artillery at Veghel joined in, but cautiously, because elements of the 502d PIR were attacking the salient from the South.

It was a long, miserable, dangerous night for the company, but the battalion S-2, Captain Nixon, had a lovely evening. He found a bottle of schnapps somewhere and drank it himself. He knew he had the perfect excuse–his close call that afternoon when the bullet went through his helmet. He got roaring drunk and spent the night singing and laughing until he passed out."

That says so much, doesn't it? I like how these two paragraphs really contrast one another: one delivering the contextual, bigger picture, while the next lays out just how this one officer coped with what he was going through. The book is loaded with examples like this, and because of that, you really get a sense of who characters were as people.

It's only as we follow them through the war, we see the last acts of the Second World War play out. This is why I appreciate this particular book. It's a history of the war, but it never loses sight of the most important part of the story: the men who fought. I think that's the most important lesson for any story: the bigger picture and details matter, but it's the characters who really carry the action. This is a book that neatly balances the two sides of that equation.