Sometimes the powers-that-be usurp wars and their heroes, inflating them and twisting their stories for political purposes. Mythology gradually replaces reality. But war heroes exist, even when presidents, prime ministers, and tsars say they do.
It seems to me, war (and other) heroes set themselves apart not with the kind of braggadocio and high-flown rhetoric that so often accompanies talk of war–in fact, they seem often to refuse to indulge in it. Instead, these men (and a few women, too) quietly do a painful and terrible job, one they’d prefer not to have to do, and their belief in that job’s importance unites with their will do to it well.
Historian Stephen Ambrose documented the day-to-day experiences of a company full of these in his 1992 book, “Band of Brothers.” He interviewed the surviving soldiers of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, and told their story, from basic training to their D-Day drop into Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, and VE-Day.
Theirs is no John Wayne or Rambo story of fearless grit and bravado amid raining bullets; it’s better, because it’s real. It’s the true tale of frightened, exhausted, physically and psychologically wounded young men who froze and lost best friends in foxholes and, despite it all, did impossible jobs against impossible odds.
In the magnificent HBO mini-series adapted from Ambrose’s book, one man stands apart from that company of stalwart soldiers, although he would have disputed that point: Major Richard “Dick” Winters took command of Easy Company on D-Day when the company’s commanding officer perished during the parachute drop. It seems he’s one of those people who sees a problem, sighs, and manages it; and the problem that first day of his combat life was to capture and destroy some German guns that were pounding the road from Utah Beach, where the Allies were landing en masse. He took home his first medal that day, and there were more to come. He continued to lead his men to perform extraordinary feats from D-Day to VE-Day, but Winters’s notion of glory was to win and end the war and retire to a quiet life on a Philadephia farm. This he did.
And how very refreshing that kind of self-effacing heroism is in an age of empty celebrity, “branding,” and the near-worship our society showers upon actors and athletes.
“Dick” Winters died earlier this month, hopefully amid friends and with no regrets. His, seemingly, was a life well-lived. You can read a detailed obituary here.