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Stephen E. Ambrose – Band of Brothers

February 10, 2014

4. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne, from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose (1992)

Length: 333 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History

Started: 15 January 2014
Finished: 20 January 2014

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I have seen the miniseries a million times, so I thought I’d read the book.

I wouldn’t call them
“We Happy Few,” but they were
a group of heroes.

Summary: In World War II, the men of the 101st Airborne, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Easy Company were an elite group of soldiers. Trained to parachute in for ground operations behind enemy lines, these men were key in many of the major European battles of the war. After extensive training in the states, they first saw action on D-Day, held the line at the Battle of the Bulge, and captured Hitler’s home at Berchtesgaden. Their amazing accomplishments came not only for their training, but from their fierce dedication to their country, their company, and above all else, to the man fighting next to them.

Review: If we’re talking general principles, I prefer reading the book before I see the movie. In the case of Band of Brothers, however, there was absolutely no way I ever would have picked up the book if I hadn’t seen the excellent miniseries first. First, because it probably wouldn’t have interested me: I wouldn’t say military history is even close to being “my thing”. And secondly, because watching the movie first really helped me with some of the things that I am bad at when I’m reading. For example, I’m very bad at keeping track of names when there’s a huge cast of characters, none of whom appear on the page very often. I also don’t visualize faces when I read, so having the characters as they’re built up on screen, and having the actors’ faces to put with the names, was a huge help in terms of following along with the book. Another thing that I am very, very bad at is visualizing battles, particularly when it comes to troop movements and strategy. (Potentially caused by a lack of playing Risk as a child?) Having maps at the beginning of the book helped with this a little, but having the visual basis from the miniseries to draw on helped me understand what Ambrose was describing throughout the book. Ambrose is not writing for the casual reader, either. He is writing for people who know military and military history and military weapons and military ranks and military abbreviations and military troop organization, etc. I knew things like NCO and XO already, but he’d toss in things like CP and “Monty” without ever defining who or what they were.

So, I definitely would have enjoyed the book substantially less if I didn’t have the background of the miniseries to work with. But did I gain anything from reading the book at all? On the whole, I would say yes. Much like my experience with Generation Kill (which I did very similarly, saw the miniseries then read the book), seeing the miniseries gave me the visual basis for understanding the book, but reading the book gave me the details that got cut or just didn’t come across on film. More details about training, about life in camp, about the various military actions, and especially about the place of Easy Company in the larger context of the war. On the flipside, however, the miniseries focuses more on the people, on developing the characters, which I prefer but which is not really Ambrose’s focus. (Although his description of the post-war years were more detailed than in the miniseries, and was one of the more interesting parts of the book.)

I was also not particularly fond of Ambrose’s writing style. Apart from the constant military jargon, his tone was incredibly simplified, almost to the point of being ridiculous. (At one point he says “Hale’s promotion caused some mumble-mumble in 1st platoon.” “Mumble-mumble”? Seriously?) A prose stylist he is not. And while his (well-deserved) respect and admiration for these men came through clearly, the text occasionally felt a little bit cavalier about mentioning casualties or lists of deaths. (Plus this gem: “Of course there were some rapes, some mistreatment of individual Germans, and some looting, but it is simple fact to state that other conquering armies in WWII, perhaps most of all the Russian but including the Japanese and German, acted differently.” America: at least we weren’t as rapey as those other guys!)

So: interesting, yes. Well-researched, yes. Compellingly written, not so much. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I’m not sorry I read it, but I doubt I’ll be looking up anything else by Ambrose. If you’re a military history buff, you’ve probably already read it; if you’re more casually interested in World War II (or even if you’re not), I definitely recommend the miniseries, which is amazing.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: The Literary Kitty
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The men of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army, came from different backgrounds.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 134: “On the evening of September 24, they attacked Hell’s Highway from the west, south of Veghel, and managed to drive a salient across it.” – A military position that projects into the position of the enemy.
  • p. 136: “Winters spotted a Tiger Royal dug in hull-defilade on the other side of the road and told the machine gunners to take it under fire.” – To arrange (fortifications) in such a way as to give protection from enfilading and other fire.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 10, 2014 8:58 am

    My son loves the mini-series but I doubt I’ll pick this up for him after reading your review.

    • March 4, 2014 10:31 am

      Kathy – If he’s more into military stuff than I am he might have better luck than I did; turns out I like my military mostly on film.

  2. February 10, 2014 11:32 am

    I love the mini-series, but the book doesn’t seem to work for people so I have never rushed out and got it…

    • March 4, 2014 10:31 am

      Kailana – I don’t think I’d heard much about the book one way or another, other than knowing that Ambrose was a prolific and well known historian.

  3. February 26, 2014 3:53 pm

    I really liked the book, but that’s probably because I read it after watching the miniseries. I liked learning the stuff that wasn’t in the miniseries, but having watched it first, like you said, really does help visualize everything.

    • March 4, 2014 10:32 am

      Anna – I had that nice synergistic effect with Generation Kill, but Ambrose’s style just didn’t work for me in this case.

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