“Why We Fight” (episode 9; originally aired 10/28/2001)
In which an unanswerable question is answered
The thing about history is we sort of know what it’s supposed to look like. We know who goes where and who does what. We have a handful of pretty good explanations for why this happened (or, in some cases, one really concrete explanation). We know the whens and the hows. And a lot of the time, historical fiction plays all of this off against us, using it as dramatic irony. The characters don’t know what’s going to happen, but we do, and that tension drives much of what happens on screen or in a novel. For instance, I recently read Charles McCarry’s wonderful novel The Tears Of Autumn, which is about characters who are about to live through the assassination of John F. Kennedy and, later, the Vietnam War but don’t yet know that. They have inklings something bad is on the way, but it’s up to the reader to shout at them not to do what they’re about to do. In this way, so much historical fiction turns the audience into Cassandra, crying out for things we know must always come.
What’s so striking to me about “Why We Fight” is how skillfully it puts viewers in the headspace of soldiers on the ground in the waning days of World War II’s European Western front. One of the things that’s easy to forget by those of us who know the whos and whats of World War II is that there was a period toward its end—and even a few years afterward—when the question of whether the conflict was worth it became a matter of some interest. Sure, everyone could agree, the Allies had won the war, and fascism was a foe worth defeating. But the cost had been so very great—particularly in the Pacific theater—that there was some concern among the American cognoscenti that there was no way to back away from all that had happened to these men, both physically and psychologically. Much of the great art of the period wrestles with this very question, even as those veterans quietly mustered out and returned home and got down to the business of raising families and having sometimes aggressively normal lives.
“Why We Fight” succeeds, then, because it makes the whole war seem like a hollow victory for much of its running time. Sure, defeating the Nazis was a good thing, but the cost in men was so great as to render it somewhat meaningless. And yet “Why We Fight” flips all of this around very neatly in its masterful second half, when the men of Easy Company stumble upon a concentration camp and lack the ability to comprehend what they’re looking at. The Holocaust has become such a handy way to point out the evils of the Nazis that it can be easy to forget the Allies didn’t really know it was happening until the war was all but over. Band Of Brothers has been so good at portraying the human struggles of the war through the eyes of these men that it never needed to raise the potential specter of the true depths of the Nazis’ brutality. But it’s most impressive trick is how it gets the audience, too, to put the Holocaust out of its mind. Hell, I’ve seen this episode probably four times now, and I still have that little moment when the men come upon something in the woods, then send Perconte running back to report to any officer he can find, when I wonder just what it is that they’ve found, what could be so horrible as to stop them so completely. And then, a split second later, I know.
There have been many brutal yet fantastic portrayals of the Holocaust on film, but “Why We Fight” can stand proudly alongside any of them as a necessary reminder of the horrors human beings are capable of. The sequences isn’t particularly manipulative. Indeed, David Frankel’s direction, so fluid and flowing in earlier passages of the episode, becomes much more clinical and detached in this section, believing (rightly) that the best way to depict what happened to the millions the Germans rounded up into their death camps is to step back and take a sober-eyed view of what has happened. If “Why We Fight” mostly keeps dramatic irony out of the picture by putting us in the shoes of the soldiers who discovered the camp and allowing us to see it by their side, then it comes back in full force when the men of Easy (via the translation of Liebgott—the company’s one Jewish member and also their best German speaker) attempt to figure out what has happened here. The message of John Orloff’s script is implicit: These are men who previously lived in a world where they did not know such a thing as the Holocaust was possible, but they are rapidly becoming all of us, who, of necessity, have its horrors seared into our memories, that it might never happen again. The script sets up a divide we are on one side of, then forces the men of Easy to jump over and join us.
“Why We Fight” also succeeds because it’s so devoted to the intricacies of what had to happen once the camp was discovered. The military simply wasn’t prepared to welcome all of these people in desperate need of medical attention into its care, so it was forced to lock them all back up in the camp until they could be properly rehabilitated. This bitter irony is not lost on the characters, either, particularly Liebgott, who has to tell the prisoners that they’re about to be forcibly enclosed again. Now, of course, we know that this rehabilitation was ultimately successful, and the prisoners were released to tell their stories and live their lives as reminders of all that we must not forget. But the episode makes rich use of the notion that nobody knows that’s how this is going to turn out in the moment. History is something that’s happening to these people, not a foregone conclusion.
Smartly, “Why We Fight” centers itself on Nixon, the one guy who’s been so hollowed out by the war that the episode title can seem like a valid question until the men get to the camp. As played by Ron Livingston, Nixon just looks like hell here, like he’s been cut to pieces and sewed back together time and time again, and even though he’s seen less active combat than the other men (to the degree that he claims not to have fired a round), he’s still sick of the whole goddamn thing. Early in the episode, he finds out that his wife is leaving him. She’s taking the house and the kid and the dog—and she doesn’t even like the dog. He throws something like a tantrum about the whole thing, but it’s understandable: These men have been over here for years, and now that things are slowing down, they’re looking for a reason beyond the philosophical or political. They need something tangible, a legitimate evil to point to. Once they find it hiding in the woods, they might wish otherwise.
Once the men find the camp, the episode keeps Nixon off to the side for a bit, focusing more on Liebgott and on Winters’ desperate attempts to understand what the hell this camp could be. But Nixon is always there, and his quest for whiskey in the episode’s first half is never far from our minds when we see him. Part of that quest takes him to a seemingly abandoned German manor, where he happens upon a war widow, who gives him the evil eye for trespassing in her study. (As he leaves her home, a dog barks at him all along, a reminder of what he’s already lost back home.) She seems like a throwaway character, another of the episode’s brief glimpses at the ordinary German civilian in the midst of this terrible war, but she comes back at the end, in a scene that’s marvelously nuanced.
After martial law is declared and the Germans are forced to bury the Holocaust dead, Nixon happens upon her again in the camp. He’s come because he’s not really sure where else to go, having found his reason for fighting but having become even more destroyed by its very existence. And when he gets there, the German citizens being made to dig the graves are in states of obvious despair, both at what they have to do and at what was done in their names. (The episode convincingly argues that the average German citizen couldn’t conceive of this either, because, hey, who would have?) And yet Nixon comes across the widow again, a woman who might have had some inkling of the existence of the camp. They share a look, hers curdling with anger, and the episode seems to be asking whom she’s angry at: the Nazis, for doing this to fellow human beings, or the Americans, like Nixon, for making her look at it close up? It’s more than likely both, but it’s a terrific moment in an episode crammed full of terrific moments.
Ultimately, “Why We Fight” is asking a bunch of different questions that seem to be running at cross-purposes but are actually a part of the same spectrum. On the one hand, it asks the question suggested by the title. On the other, it asks what will become of the survivors of this war, how they’ll possibly put some of this behind them. But ultimately what I think it’s getting at is something only suggested by Nixon’s correct identification of the composer of the piece of music the string quartet plays in the bombed-out ruins: Beethoven. The most common reason you’ll hear for why the Holocaust shocked so many people above and beyond prior instances of genocide is because of its clockwork precision, its nearly mechanistic attempt to eradicate certain peoples from the face of the world. This idea is often coupled with the thought that the same society that produced the Holocaust produced Beethoven, one of the greatest composers ever, whose music swells with emotion and longing. How can the men who play such a beautiful piece of music be part of the same society that perpetrated such evils?
And the answer to the question is that there is no answer to the question. Maybe the citizens of Germany really had no idea what was happening to the citizens who simply disappeared. Maybe they had some idea but pretended not to. Or maybe they knew full well and tried to put it behind themselves, to forget, because what had been done in their names was too horrific to contemplate. The Holocaust is such an important thing to remind ourselves of because it’s hard to get a glimpse of the whole thing without getting too clinical. It’s easy to turn what happened into a succession of statistics; it’s much harder to place yourself in the position of those who liberated the camps and discovered how little they knew of what evils humans were capable of.
No, the important thing to remember about the Holocaust is that it was carried out by normal human beings, people you might not have thought twice about in any other time or context. Some of the German citizens really did have no idea, but they greeted and worked with people who knew exactly what was happening every day. The idea behind the Holocaust and Beethoven is in that conjunction: This was a society capable of both, just as every single one of us is capable of great goodness and great evil. “Why We Fight” is one of the best episodes of this miniseries because it reminds us, time and again, that the people who fought in this war were only people, but so were the people who perpetrated the Holocaust, and so were those who tried to alleviate it. In his own way, Nixon represents both sides of this—a trespasser once, he later becomes one who is trespassed against. We, all of us, carry that terrible possibility of “and” inside of us. In “Why We Fight,” we get a glimpse of a corner of what that looks like and why it’s so horrible.
- The coat the German widow wears is colored red, evocative of another famous Holocaust film with Steven Spielberg’s name in the credits.
- I love the absolutely strung-out feeling the soldiers all have, as if they’re seconds away from completely losing it. This is particularly well-handled when Luz hears about the newspaper article about how the Germans are bad or when Webster starts yelling at the 300,000 surrendered Germans marching past.
- Frankel’s opening tracking shot—starting with the string quartet and moving through the ruins to finally alight on the men watching the musicians play—is a thing of beauty. We talked about it in a little more detail in this inventory.
- Hey, aren’t you famous? alert: That’s Tom Hardy as Janovec, which means that all of you who are interested in seeing a bare-assed Tom Hardy need only watch this episode. Of course, then, you’re going to get some startlingly realistic extras playing Holocaust survivors trying to cover him in kisses of gratitude, but it’s a great episode. Just watch it.
- Women and children alert: No children, really, but we get a lot of women in this episode, as the men of Easy come in contact more with the German citizenry. There’s the girl that Janovec has sex with early in the episode (hence the bare-assed Tom Hardy), and there’s the German widow. But we also get little snippets of other characters, most of whom are just insistent that they’re not Nazis, as if that will cover all sins.
- I love the symmetry of the announcements that Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler have died in this episode. And yet the war marches on.
- I think it’s an interesting choice to open this episode with the talking heads about how the soldiers came to realize they probably had at least a little bit in common with their opposites on the other side of the line. Ostensibly, it’s to hide what’s coming, but it also plays into the episode’s idea that atrocities can arise almost anywhere, that evil can take root in anyone’s heart. It’s a potent way of suggesting this without coming out and saying it.
Next week: We’re already at the end! It’s time for “Points” and a quick rundown of what happened to everybody after the war.