Fact and fiction frequently collide when it comes to World War II. From the gory inaccuracies of Saving Private Ryan to kill-your-own-Nazi games like Call of Duty, it’s deceptively easy to get sidetracked by what the present has made of the past.
Learning about events from TV and film may do a disservice to history, but there’s no denying that seeing dramatic events brought to life can be both instructive and entertaining — and perhaps never more so than with HBO’s epic Band of Brothers.That’s why today, 70 years after D-Day, many Americans will recall the Normandy invasion of June 6, 1944, and conjure the faces of actors rather than the actual soldiers who stormed the beach.
The 10-part series, which was based on Stephen Ambrose’s biography of a company in the elite 101st Airborne Division, remains one of the most watched TV series of all time. It boosted the careers of actors like Homeland star Damian Lewis, made household names of Dick Winters and Lewis Nixon, and brought to vivid life the experiences of World War II combat, liberating a concentration camp and parachuting behind enemy lines on D-Day.
Band of Brothers paid close attention to historical accuracy, but … failed to explore the long-term consequences of their war.
But how well do we really know the men of Easy Company? Band of Brothers paid close attention to historical accuracy, but while celebrating the soldiers’ achievements, the show failed to explore the long-term consequences of their war.
And the hard truth is that not all of them had a Hollywood ending. Many struggled with drugs, alcohol and depression, including officer and Band of Brothers protagonist Lewis Nixon (played by Ron Livingston).
In the series, Nixon is notorious for his love of VAT 69 whiskey, and there’s a scene in which he’s given first dibs from Hermann Göring’s extensive wine cellar. The details are based on fact but given a light-hearted treatment that belies Nixon’s decade-long battle with alcoholism following the war.
Herbert Sobel, the sadistic boot camp captain portrayed by Friends star David Schwimmer, couldn’t cope with his survivor’s guilt after being sidelined to a noncombat position. He tried to kill himself in 1969; he survived the gunshot to his head, but it left him permanently blind. He spent his last 17 years in a soldiers’ nursing home, eventually succumbing to malnutrition, just one of many World War II veterans neglected in their final years.
There were, however, members of Easy Company who fared well after the war. Men like Donald Malarkey took advantage of the GI Bill, which covered college tuition. Harvard-educated intellectual David Webster became a journalist and enjoyed a comfortable life while trying to make sense of the war through his writing.
A number of veterans reached out to their former comrades and stayed connected through regular reunions, and one such reunion even featured a man coming back from the dead. Albert Blithe was mistakenly reported to have died shortly after D-Day in Band of Brothers when in fact he recovered from his injuries and stayed in the Army until his death in the 1960s.
Easy Company may not have been a “band of brothers” for everyone — Joseph Liebgott, for instance, tried to forget the war and never got in touch with his fellow soldiers — but it certainly was for Dick Winters, the group’s stoic and honest leader, and Lewis Nixon. Best friends during the war, they stayed together through thick and thin after it ended, even in the face of Nixon’s alcoholism and two divorces. Nixon kept his word and offered his friend a job at his family’s factory after Winters left the Army, and Winters served as best man when Nixon married his wife, Grace, in 1956, the woman credited with helping him stop drinking.
Astonishingly, D-Day took place 70 years ago, and 18 veterans of Easy Company — including Band of Brothers favorite Donald Malarkey (played by Scott Grimes) — are still alive today.
So while TV may be a great vehicle for telling stories, let’s mark the anniversary of D-Day by remembering that those stories were a harsh and lasting reality for the soldiers who lived them.
Why you should care
Because Americans who learned about D-Day through Band of Brothers don’t know the soldiers’ entire story.