Reviewed – Beyond Band of Brothers (Major Richard D Winters)

This review coincides with the first anniversary of the passing of Major Richard Winters. Major Winters died in January 2011, aged 92. I was given this book for Christmas and finished it on New Year’s Day.

Beyond Band of Brothers was first published in the US in 2006, only a few years after the TV miniseries aired. It is a poignant, sad, reflective, and well-written book that at 290 pages is not a long read.

It is a superb, moving book.

Richard Winters was a ordinary man by his own standards, in that he did not see himself as an archetypal American hero, but one who went to war, did his job, and wanted to go home. Perhaps blessed with what this far-off observer would call high emotional intelligence and a very anchored view of his world and himself, Winters is almost Tom Hanks’ ideal ‘everyman’ type of character that Hanks played in Saving Private Ryan.

Pragmatic, yet principled; brutally realistic yet compassionate, Richard Winters put his men first and self last. He won their respect, and he respected himself. How many of us can say that about ourselves?

It’s hard not to hear the ‘voice’ of Damian Lewis in this book, the actor who played Winters in the accalaimed HBO series, Band of Brothers. This is almost a soliloquy  of Winters, an exceptional autobiography that could be read by those who have read most of historian (the late) Stephen Ambrose’s work, or saw the TV series.

The book itself points to the inconsistencies of the TV series – not directly – but the creators of the series took some literary licence and merged some characters or events to suit. In one instance, for example, Winters tells of Easy Company attacking Foy, with its commander then freezing, being relieved, and then later being killed in the attack. In real life, as told by Winters in this book, the lieutenant in question was relieved, and was last seen as a general’s aide. If anything, this book is a fine companion to the series and the book by Ambrose, and I was glad to have read it last. It was a fitting conclusion and leaves the reader / viewer with Winters’ voice at the end.

Editing-wise, there are few flaws; and my issue with some of the syntax is more to do with comparative cultural differences and preferences. Occasionally, it must be said, the book steps into jingoism. A sentence here, a reference there. It jars slightly, but not enough for to detract overall from the insights and personal reflections by Winters.

Winters is very matter of fact. For example, he simply stops referring to Captain Sobel when the timeline of his experiences requires him to. That Sobel is not mentioned specifically at the end of the book when Winters explains what happens to his comrades post-war is not surprising, but sends a message nonetheless: sixty years after the war, Winters had as little time for Sobel as he did when they first met.

More than a story of a parachute infantry company, Winters (and I assume he had some assistance from a ghostwriter), actually spells out what his definition of leadership is. In fact, he lists the qualities – but throughout there is a strong sense of the very core of Richard Winters and what made him such a beloved and respected leader of his men: Character.

It is character that defines Winters; and Winters’ character, arguably, defined Easy Company. You can look and hope and read and listen to people yabbering on about ‘character’ but clearly, Winters had it in spades. It is a testimony to the work of people like Ambrose and of Damian Lewis who portrayed Winters in the TV series, that this value shone through in those depictions of the man as it did from the man himself.

This is a must-read book. Read it and go away and think and reflect, and look and see people, who, like Richard D Winters, have – or had – that sense of character about them; that elusive quality that is often so hard to define, yet so simple to pick when you are lucky enough to see it.

We are fortunate to have known, even through written words, people of the calibre of Richard Winters. The challenge is to learn from people like him, to strive each day to have character, and to honour and remember what they did

Lest we forget.