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I Have No Idea What I'd Do: Band of Brothers' "The Last Patrol"

(To read the rest of our series on Band of Brothers, please click here.)

In the second section of Dan Simmons’ wonderful science fiction novel Hyperion, a soldier tells his story. During his military training on the planet Mars--this is a science fiction novel after all--Fedmahn Kassad enters a virtual reality machine that recreates historical battles from Agincourt to the Somme to Gettysburg. The recreations feel real; everything looks, sounds and tastes right, perfect.

I think about this hypothetical machine when I rewatch Band of Brothers. I wonder--as many viewers probably do--what it would be like to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. Or to parachute into Normandy. World War II seems to me like a particularly ideal war to fight in (if you’re in a virtual reality machine). Unlike wars before 1900, the doctors use antibiotics. Unlike World War I, the fighting isn’t dull and senseless trench warfare. And unlike most wars after 1950, this one isn’t a boring insurgency.

Of course, I would only like to fight these wars if I had a virtual reality machine. Because over all other thoughts and reactions, the same worry pops up everytime I re-watch Band of Brothers: what would I have done?

In the forests of Bastogne, watching artillery shells explode, shattering trees and killing men, what the hell would anyone do? (My guess for 99% of the population: mentally break down.) Would I jump out of an airplane into a combat zone? (Hell no.) What about storming a beach or a fortified position? What about invading the German lines at night? Could I have done what that medic did in Bastogne, repeatedly running to wounded comrades to vainly try to save their lives? How many people have that strength?

I’d like to think, rather conceitedly, that I’d shoot straight and confidently, dodging sniper fire to rescue my fellow soldiers and earning silver stars like trophies at a little league game. But I’m realistic enough to know that I might just piss myself instead.

Two episodes of Band of Brothers, in particular, beg these questions. The first is “The Breaking Point”. I watch “The Breaking Point” with awe, admiring and fearing a war so ugly, so raw, I don’t know how those soldiers did it or how they survived. I can’t help but put myself in those men’s shoes and wish I could do what those soldiers did.

Then, there’s “The Last Patrol”.

Last month, Michael C wrote about his connection to the episode. How it spoke to him. Though Michael C and I are twin brothers who weren’t separated at birth, this episode doesn’t speak to me.

You see, unlike Michael C, I’ve never been to war. I haven’t been to Afghanistan or Iraq. In many irreconcilable and important ways, I’ll never understand what he went through. I’ll never understand what it’s like to go to war. I’ve never seen the elephant, to borrow a Civil War phrase.

I admit this with the awareness that these words will probably always be held against me by conservative milbloggers. It’s been happening for as long as we’ve been blogging. Someone will find the blog, disagree with what we have to say, and say that, since we’re non-soldiers, we shouldn’t be allowed to write. (Of course, Michael C was a soldier, but that’s not really the point.)

Oddly, the veteran soldiers of Easy Company do the same thing in “The Last Patrol”. When they meet a new guy, they make fun of him. Or they alienate them. (Leibgott, in particular, comes off poorly.) It offends me, to my core. Take the new lieutenant for instance. He's a victim of timing--being born too early--more than anything else. Why trash on him?

But I understand why they feel and act that way. Like me and my brother, a distance exists we may never be able to fully bridge...even if I had I virtual reality machine.