The “Easy” Company, who fought in World War II, had 162 men who became brothers. That emotional bond saved many of their lives by turning independent individuals into a cohesive whole.
In the study of human relations according to Adler, and of the formation of so-called intentional communities, it is interesting to note those that arise “accidentally,” but that nonetheless are still authentic communities. This is not the case of the traditional family, which despite being a non-intentional community (children do not choose to be part of that community) has a will for union and is based on a communal culture. We are talking about communities that arise as the result of union against adversity.
And as we are in times of rain, hail, snow, and evenings that invite telethons, let’s remember a jewel of 2001, “Band of Brothers,” again by HBO, co-produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, where we can see examples of community-building and many of the Adlerian theories about human behavior in action.
The series of ten chapters recounts the experiences of the “Easy Company” of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army in World War II, from the Normandy landing until the Victory in Europe Day. The script is based on Stephen Ambrose‘s famous book, which in turn is based largely on the testimony of surviving members of the “Easy” Company.
Although the series has its so typically American cheesy moments it is quite realistic, and above all it manages to convey very well the emotional dynamics that take place within a group of men undergoing protracted stress, who have to share everything sometimes in situations of extreme scarcity, and whose lives depend mainly on luck but also largely on their peers.
The case of Captain Herbert Sobel
The first company commander before going into battle on D-Day was Captain Herbert M. Sobel, famous for his hardness and inflexibility during trainings. Thanks to that the Company became one of the best in the battalion, but all agree that many of his disciplinary measures were excessive. When combat simulations started, Sobel proved to be totally null, practically unable to read a map.
The arbitrariness of his hard punishments and his incompetent maneuvers made him loose the respect of his men. When this became evident, the arbitrariness and disproportion of the punishments increased, which led to the mutiny of several sergeants when Lieutenant Winters (an official just below Sobel and true leader of the company) was going to be court-martialed for refusing to accept yet another absurd punishment.
The mutiny of the sergeants was the first manifestation of true union of the Company, and Sobel’s excess was his first serious pathological behavior. Apparently Sobel came from a traumatic childhood with many unresolved issues, and expressed his insecurities causing fear and abusing his power. This behavior increasingly distanced him from his men, who in turn could not help but censoring his defects in the field rather than helping him to solve them. In short, Sobel was left alone: none of his men was willing to die for him, much less to die for his fault.
The sergeants mutinied being aware that they risked the punishment of being shot. Only the proximity of D-Day delivered them from death, and the high command was smart enough to move Sobel to another destination.
Replacements and casualties
During D-Day and the Battle of Carentan the Company lost many of its men, who had lived, suffered, and fought together for more than two years (counting trainings). When replacements arrive before the start of Operation Market Garden, most of them young, inexperienced boys, they are received with coldness and even hostility. The reason is clear: they will die soon, no one wants to assume the emotional cost of getting to know them, of getting to feel they are part of the family.
The prophecy about their fate is a consequence of their lack of experience, but it is also self-fulfilling. As nobody wants to grow fond of them they never manage to integrate, and that that “lack of belonging” makes them make more mistakes, feel weak and vulnerable, more alone, and therefore with more chances of being caught by the hail of bullets and mortars than their peers.
Private Webster receives a similar treatment when he comes back after a long time off, as well as Lieutenant Jones, a pretentious replacement officer fresh out of West Point with no real experience. While other wounded soldiers voluntarily asked to go back to battle in the Ardennes, Webster uses all the time off he is allowed, including rehabilitation, and arrives when the worst has passed and company morale is at rock bottom due to tiredness and the large number of men killed in combat.
Despite his attempts to regain the affection of his colleagues, all treat him with contempt. He is also one of the few universitie graduates in the company. This, coupled with his absence during the worst times make others stop recognizing him as an equal. He no longer shares any context with the rest of the company and abandoned them when they needed him most. Although he feels he did what he had to by complying with the established layoff time, for others his behavior only shows a clear lack of commitment. “If he was a true brother” he would have asked to go back to battle with his people.
It is hard to believe that after a hard training with Captain Sobel and parachuting in a hail of enemy fire someone can suffer a panic attack, but it’s actually quite normal. In fact, for them the real war began after the landing.
During the first battle, Private Blithe is disabled by what is known as “hysterical” or “psychosomatic” blindness. He goes blind due to panic. When Lieutenant Winters tells him not to worry about anything and that he will be sent back, Blithe starts crying and only manages to say “I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.” His panic comes from the fear of failing his equals, of not being up to the task. Paralyzed by fear of failure and being excluded, he self-sabotages by excluding himself.
Lieutenant Winters, whose natural leadership comes from his capacity for empathy, simply takes his hand and gently reassures him, making him feel that all is well, that even if he leaves he will not lose his love and respect. Automatically, Blithe regains his sight.
The next panic attack occurs in a decisive operation. Dike, the commanding officer, occupying that place due to his seniority and good family connections, cannot lead even a lapdog. In the middle of the operation (the assault on Foy), a classic example of what not to do, he suffers a panic attack and only his replacement by Lt. Speirs in the middle of the battle keeps all his men from dying (see video).
Again, Dike is simply well connected and his insecurities result in a gross incompetence and an almost permanent mental absence (in the words of Sergeant Lipton, “Dike is simply not there”), and this produces a total lack of integration and connection with others that feeds the vicious circle.
“We happy few”
The problem with this kind of communities is that they are temporary and its members are forced to separate and return to environments where no one can understand what they have been through. The ties that bind them can never be broken and the distance between them can sometimes be very traumatic. Winters said in his memoirs that 50 years after the end of the war not a single day went by without him thinking of his men.
In the testimonies of veterans included in the series there is a remarkable thing they all do, each in his own way: they all place themselves in the background to cede the leadership, heroism, and merit, to others; they all highlight how proud they are to have been part part of a group conformed by their companions. Again, at the center of all, we have the sense of belonging. Winters ends up saying, with tears in his eyes, that when his grandson asked him if he was a hero during the war, he answered “No, but I served in a company of heroes.”