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Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' World War II series bears witness to the horrors, and brotherhood, of war

Masters of the Air, Band of Brothers and the Pacific share experiences of war and friendship that we need to hear today.

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When Steven Spielberg began work producing his epic World War II mini-series Band of Brothers in 1999, he had already created two of the most celebrated World War II films of all time—Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. World War II had been a fascination since childhood. “It was the seminal conversation inside my family,” he told the Chicago Tribune years later. “My parents talked about the Holocaust and they talked about World War II.” Spielberg’s father had served in Burma during the war. His uncle had flown B-29s over Japan.

Brothers executive producer Tom Hanks, too, had been mesmerized by stories of World War II as a child. “Starting in 1973,” he told the Tribune, “local Channel 2 up in Oakland ran ‘The World at War.’ I couldn’t get enough of it.” Hanks actually brought Spielberg the script for Saving Private Ryan, leading to their collaboration on that film. And just as he had with Schindler’s List, Spielberg used the opportunity to paint an intensely realistic and in many ways haunting experience of life during the war.

War stories are often used as parables. They're told to teach virtues like self-sacrifice or integrity. But while there are many lessons that can be taught from the events on the beaches at Normandy and the wholesale genocide of the Jewish people by the Nazis, Spielberg's focus was always on the individuals themselves. Rather than numbers or lessons, they were human beings to whom attention must be paid.

In the last 20 years, Spielberg and Hanks have brought a similar kind of witness to the experience of World War II soldiers in Europe and in the Pacific, through the award-winning TV miniseries Band of Brothers and the Pacific, which will be joined this week by a third mini-series airing on Apple TV, Masters of the Air.

Band of Brothers, which aired on HBO in 2001, employed over 10,000 extras, 500 speaking parts, and cost $125 million, making it at that time the most expensive TV mini-series ever. Nine years later, The Pacific combined the realism of Brothers with the unique hardships of the Asian theater. "The war in the Pacific was more like the wars we've seen ever since,” said Hanks at the time of the series' release, “a war of racism and terror, a war of absolute horrors, both on the battlefield and in the regular living conditions.”

Like Brothers, Masters of the Air focuses on one specific group of soldiers, the 100th Bomb Group of the United States Air Force. The 100th was known as the “Bloody 100th” because of how many planes they lost during the war; unlike the British squads, who flew bombing runs at night, the American strategy involved targeted strikes flown during the day. Between 1943 and 1945 the group flew 306 missions. 757 airmen died or went missing in action in that time; over 225 planes were lost.

While again, Hanks and Spielberg's work is very clearly focused on the individuals and their experiences rather than some overarching message, their World War II series do share a number of important ideas. First, they call on viewers to bear witness. Brothers, The Pacific, and no doubt Masters as well offer a deeply detailed realism. Spielberg and Hanks are invested in helping us to observe exactly what those soldiers' lives were like, the desolation of being trapped in Bastogne without supplies in the winter; the constant anxiety of fighting your way through islands filled with endless caves and crevasses for Japanese soldiers to attack from; the serrated existence of trying to fly through a dogfight.

Each episode of Brothers and Pacific is also told from the perspective of a specific soldier, who is himself oftentimes watching the events going on around them. So in The Pacific we watch PFC Eugene Sledge confronting ever-more devastating events, like a mother desperately trying to pass her baby to U.S. soldiers before Japanese soldiers detonate explosives they've tied to her body. Or in a haunting episode of Brothers we follow Captain Nixon as he is taken to a concentration camp and tries to comprehend the pain and the horrors that he finds there. As he bears witness to them, so are we invited to bear witness to the burdens he and his fellow soldiers carry.

Both shows also offer images of community marked by a tremendous tenderness. At many moments in Brothers, we see troops caring for each other in quietly physical ways—helping one another onto planes, pressing bandages into bloody wounds, holding one another to stay warm. The Pacific has many more conflicts amongst the soldiers, but when things are on the line they, too, ultimately try to help one another through the seemingly endless nightmare that they’re trapped in.

In Spielberg and Hanks' mini-series, soldiers show care for others as well, even strangers or their enemies. At some point it doesn’t matter that the dead around him are Japanese soldiers, Sledge is horrified at the carnage. And when he encounters a dying civilian woman who wants him to kill her, he can’t bear to do it. Instead he takes her in his arms and holds her until she finally dies, just as a soldier in Band of Brothers accepts the embrace of one of the men liberated at the concentration camp.

In a recent interview, historian Donald L. Miller, whose book Masters of the Air is the basis for the new series, said “I don’t think you can fight a war without love, the love that comrades have for one another.” In their trilogy of war mini-series, Spielberg and Hanks have made a point of exploring both the love amongst soldiers in the most desperate of situations, and the care that they share even for their worst enemies.

Near the end of Brothers, real-life World War II veterans reflect on how their opinions of the Germans changed over time. “Under other circumstances we might have been good friends,” one veteran says. “I think we thought that the Germans were probably the evilest people in the world,” says another. “But as the war went along we found out that it wasn’t the Germans per se.”

Rather than deepening divisions, the horrors of war somehow helped those soldiers to see beyond them. In simply taking the time to bear witness to one another’s struggles, they discovered within themselves a reservoir of compassion and friendship. Spielberg and Hanks aren't using the stories of these soldiers to offer parables or object lessons. They respect them far too much to do that. But in seeing what they went through, and watching how it affects us, we do learn just how much more we, too, are capable of.

Masters of the Air: How the World War II drama might intersect with Band of Brothers and The Pacific

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