Matt's Reviews > Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest

Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose
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's review
Nov 24, 2010

it was ok
bookshelves: history, world-war-ii, world-war-ii-europe
Read from November 24 to 30, 2010

As a history lover, and as someone who loves not getting flamed on Goodreads, I am loathe to say what I am about to say. However, as someone who finds it impossible not to say what I feel like saying, I’ll just go ahead and say it: I don’t like Stephen Ambrose.

No, no, no! Not like that.

I didn’t know him personally, but he seemed like a nice man, a good husband and father. Moreover, he did History an incredible service by collecting the stories of ordinary men. The living memory of World War II is fading fast, and it is due to the efforts of historians, biographers, and researchers like Stephen Ambrose that we will have so many incredible stories, even after that generation has passed into memory.

But here’s the thing: I think he’s a crap writer.

I’ve tried very hard in the past to enjoy Ambrose books. When I read the flaccid Pegasus Bridge, I told myself that I was at fault, not the famed Ambrose. Then, I read Crazy Horse and Custer, and noticed that entire pages were copied almost verbatim from Royal Hassrick’s The Sioux. Still, I gave him a pass, knowing that sometimes writers make mistakes when it comes to citing sources. Even so, I had to take a break. The relationship had become strained.

Later on, I watched HBO’s miniseries Band of Brothers, which was executive produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Once it came out on DVD, I bought the DVD and watched it again. When it came out on the History Channel I watched it again, and again when it came out on Spike TV. I spent an enjoyable Thanksgiving watching it on the couch. When Band of Brothers was released as a Blu-Ray set, I bought that too, and watched it yet again. I love Band of Brothers; whenever it’s on, at whatever point, I will watch it. It is the greatest time-suck in my life.

Finally, after the 20th viewing, I decided to read the source material: Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose.

Band of Brothers is a grunt’s eye view of history. War as it was seen by the men who fought it. It stands on a continuum of anecdotal histories by such luminaries as Walter Lord, who gave us oral histories of Pearl Harbor (Day of Infamy) and Midway (Incredible Victory) and Cornelius Ryan, who brought us intimate portraits of D-Day (The Longest Day) and Arnhem (A Bridge Too Far).

Ambrose attempts to replicate, on a smaller scale, the feats of Lord and Ryan. In Easy Company of the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne, he has an incredible subject: an elite group of soldiers who – like the mythical platoon of Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One – find themselves in just about every important operation in the European Theater, from D-Day to VE-Day.

The problem, though, is that Ambrose is no Walter Lord, and he’s no Cornelius Ryan. He’s barely serviceable. His prose is blunt, ugly, and disjointed. There is tortured grammar and a noticeable lack of editing. There is not a smidgeon of grace or elegance to be found. Ambrose’s shortcomings as a writer are put in stark relief whenever he quotes from the writings of David Webster, a Harvard-educated English major who was part of Easy Company. Webster, unlike Ambrose, writes in vivid prose that is alive with acute perception.

Most of the enjoyment I received from reading Band of Brothers came from the fact that I’d seen the miniseries (more times than is healthy, probably) and was interested to compare and contrast the various characters. When I tried to imagine being a reader who hadn’t seen the miniseries, I found it hard to understand the universal acclaim.

First, there is absolutely no tension or drama in the story. Instead of taking oral histories and spinning them into a narrative, Ambrose elects to directly quote the men he has interviewed. Now, I’m sure this saved him a great deal of time when it came to actually writing, but it tells you right away who lives, and to a lesser extent, who dies. Furthermore, there was no vividness, no you-are-there-ness to the story.

Ambrose’s style also feeds into a participant’s bias, in that the men who talked to Ambrose are lifted to the heights of Achilles or Hector, while those who did not participate, or who died, recede – for the most part – into the background. This is not history as it happened, but history as told by some limited viewpoints. (And this limited viewpoint is why Ambrose is criticized so often – by other veterans – for utterly screwing up the facts. He only listens to one side and seldom takes the time to corroborate).

Another problem I had was Ambrose’s lack of objectivity when it comes to his subjects. And by lack of objectivity, I mean abject hero-worship. Here, once again, lest I be digitally mobbed, I wish to interject that yes, the men of Easy Company were heroic. They were young men who sacrificed their youths to do a dangerous job that their country asked them to do. There is a place for a flag-waving, chest-thumping, drum-beating homage to “the greatest generation.” Indeed, God created Tom Brokaw for just this purpose.

However, it’s not a historian’s place to wave the flag or thump his chest or beat his drum. And Ambrose has always claimed to be a historian. In Band of Brothers, he is not. Instead, he’s more like a cheerleader, or a proud father, or a guy who secretly feels guilty that he never joined the army and fought a war. He is hyperbolic in his descriptions of Easy Company’s exploits, he is quick to take sides and defend his interview subjects at the expense of men who weren’t interviewed, and he gives a wink-wink nudge-nudge to myriad war crimes committed by those soldiers, including numerous executions of P.O.W.s, the murder of an alleged SS officer after the war was over, and enough looting and pillaging to make Genghis Khan envious.

(These are war crimes, aren’t they? Or am I being obtuse? I mean, if the Germans had done this to us – killed our prisoners, as they did at Malmedy, or looted homes and businesses, as they did all over Europe, wouldn’t we consider them crimes? Didn’t we? Did we not try and execute or imprison Germans for these very things?).

Ambrose’s blinders leads him to continually make silly and unsupportable statements about how “citizen soldiers” and “democratic soldiers” were eminently superior to the Nazis forces of totalitarianism and darkness. This is a sweeping, simplistic, reductive, and jingoistic statement that is better placed on a 1940s war bonds poster. It’s also patently untrue. Far from being an inferior fighting force, the German armies were far better, man-for-man, than any other army in the world. By 1944, when Easy Company finally got in the war, the Wehrmacht had been fighting for five years. They’d destroyed Poland and France, nearly crushed England, and pushed Russia to the brink. After all those years and all those casualties, they still managed to scrape together one hell of a defense after Normandy. By the way, I hate the Nazis and everything they stood for. I’m just saying they could rumble.

Ambrose’s failure is in using an exception to prove a rule. On the whole, the American armies in North Africa, Italy, and Europe didn’t perform especially well. This isn’t some kind of indictment on our fighting men, only a reality that comes from a mass draft, a hurried mobilization, and an army of citizens, not soldiers.

Easy Company was an exception. They were an elite group. They were volunteers. They were well trained (again, so well trained that they didn’t actually get into the war till 1944; meanwhile, their fellow Americans invaded North Africa and Guadalcanal in 1942). The men of Easy Company were fit, mobile, ambitious, motivated, well-armed, strongly conditioned killers. They deserve their accolades. They are not, however, representative.

The consequence of Ambrose’s tight focus on Easy Company, and his ill-conceived extrapolation of their experience, makes Band of Brothers into something rare: a pro-war book. This is the anti-All Quiet on the Western Front. Rather than ruining lives and shattering psyches, Ambrose presents a portrait of war as a great adventure, and men who only became fully actualized by combat. It’s almost an advertisement: Go to War; Make Great Friends; See the World and Steal Some Nazi Silverware! To bolster this fact, Ambrose’s afterward stresses how many of Easy Company’s men became rich!

That is what I took from Ambrose’s writing.

Of course, that’s not the reality. Thanks to the miniseries and the accompanying documentary, you can actually listen to these men talk about their experiences. They don’t sound like the soldiers Ambrose presents in his book. They are somber and reflective. Their eyes glisten and their voices crack and waver. They hint at reservoirs of jumbled memories that combine the fear of battle and the horror of death and the pain of lost friends with the love of their brothers. To see and hear them is an experience far more touching and real than the pastiche of direct quotations and patriotic slogans that Ambrose stitched together for his book.
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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Dave (last edited Nov 30, 2010 07:18PM) (new) - added it

Dave Gaston Thanks! Wow a huge weight has been lifted from my chest. Everytime I write a minor review of his works it turns more positive than I ever intended, in part because he chooses incredible stories. However, his lack of self editing is a huge flaw, the extreme weight of his obsessive detail almost killed his epic, "Nothing Like It." Don't worry too much what the rest of us think, keep writing your excellent reviews from the heart. Loving a book, or hating one, is intensely subjective and subject to the emotional whims of the day. Ambrose left behind enough case studies to allow us to critically judge.

Matt Dave wrote: "Thanks! Wow a huge weight has been lifted from my chest. Everytime I write a minor review of his works it turns more positive than I ever intended, in part because he chooses incredible stories. Ho..."

Thanks, Dave! I guess my thing with Ambrose is that I've always respected him, rather than liked his work. He's done a lot to preserve history, not just with his interviews, but with his work on the D-Day museum. I just don't like his writing style.

message 3: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Matt,

Thank you for taking the time and effort to write this review. I have only seen Band of Brothers once (so far) and was so mesmerized that when I discovered the book was available, I glanced at the reviews, then immediately purchased it and dug in. Oh my. What a disservice Stephen Ambrose has done to these men and this topic. I can't possibly read anymore of it... If I wanted to read interviews that is what I would seek out, rather than a compiled narrative story - which I thought this was. It's a shame that Laura Hillenbrand (author of Unbroken) wasn't the one to write this book. I am however grateful for the HBO show which brought this story life, and it's a sad day for me when I can honestly say - the movie was better than the book.

By the way, I love your review style - so I'll be following them going forward!

Matt Sharon wrote: "Matt,

Thank you for taking the time and effort to write this review. I have only seen Band of Brothers once (so far) and was so mesmerized that when I discovered the book was available, I glanced ..."

First, thanks for taking the time to read my review!

Secondly, I totally agree with you on Hillenbrand and Unbroken (and seriously, that needs to be a movie or miniseries right now).

HBO did a documentary called We Stand Alone Together that is available with the Band of Brothers DVD that feels so much more honest than Ambrose's actual book. It gives you a far better sense of who these guys were, and what they lived through.

Aleksandr Voinov Great review. That's exactly the impression I got from it.

message 6: by GymGuy (new)

GymGuy Really a fantastic review. I only saw the TV version and thought it lacked depth. To me it was just a litany of one character after another. Doesn't look like the book would interest me either. Thanks again.

Melanie Cheese. Thank you for conveying in words what I could not. I was almost feeling guilty for not liking the book in spite of all the good reviews I've been reading so far. I'm actually surprised that so many people liked the book so much. I'm almost done with it and so far I think I have yet to find a book that is as biased and racist as this one. And it's confusing to see how a book as poorly written as this one gave birth to one of my favorite TV series until now.

Erik Great review, Matt. I liked it a lot more than you - but really I just considered the book as an addendum to the HBO series which I love as much as you.

Matt Erik wrote: "Great review, Matt. I liked it a lot more than you - but really I just considered the book as an addendum to the HBO series which I love as much as you."

Thanks for reading the review! The HBO series has really sort of captured Band of Brothers for me. A rare instance of the derivative material overtaking its source.

message 10: by Al (new)

Al After reading your analysis, I must agree. I have read D-Day, Citizen Soldiers, Pegasus Bridge, and even Undaunted Courage. I was left with a similar feeling of "eh" by his style. I also thought that it must be my fault somehow. However, what I do like about his WW II books is his pervasive use of the interviews conducted with the veterans. Understanding that each man has a very limited and narrow view of each event, I still find these reminisences engaging and valuable. I also agree that perhaps these stories would have been better told by another author, but at least he did the work and told the stories that might not have been told. I never really thought about his jingoism and slanted view of the American army, but in looking through some of his other works, you are spot on with that. All things considered, I think his poorest effort was Pegasus Bridge, closely followed by Band of Brothers. Again, very good analysis.

message 11: by Jessaka (new)

Jessaka It always amazes me how someone who doesn't like a book can do a really great review of it.

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