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Band of Brothers in History and Literature

Band of Brothers in History and Literature

A fairly thorough search of classical literature archives reveals that the first use of the term, "Band of Brothers" was by perhaps the greatest of English playwrights, William Shakespeare, in his famous history play, Henry V. The lines of the speech (The speech was invented by Shakespeare for the play.) still stir the hearts of men:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

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To get the full effect read the entire speech. Yet we understand here that this "band of brothers" is a martial group, dedicated and loyal. The spilling of their blood, mixed together in desperate battle, makes them a family as close as any blood tie can make them. In their desperation, their comradeship, their shared struggle they become a "band of brothers".

The concept surely is as old as man himself. In some pre-Columbian cultures in America "blood brothers" were not brothers by blood in the family sense, but as in Henry V, a fighting sense. The idea has even influenced men at sea. Nelson, after the Battle of Trafalgar referred to his sea captains as a band of brothers. Nelson meant, not only their comradeship, but their elite qualities of seamanship. They were brothers in war and brothers in skill. The wooden ships that sailed the high seas in the early 1800's were driven by men of talent and technical ability. They had to be to survive the tough conditions on the oceans.

Beyond comradery and skill, The "band of brothers" also evoked ideas of grim determination that went beyond the struggle. As we see in Schiller's play "Wilhelm Tell" men swear loyalty to each other to fight tyranny in their country. They determine to become a band of brothers:

By this fair light which greeteth us, before
Those other nations, that, beneath us far,
In noisome cities pent, draw painful breath,
Swear we the oath of our confederacy!
A band of brothers true we swear to be,
Never to part in danger or in death! [They repeat his words with three fingers raised.]
We swear we will be free as were our sires,
And sooner die than live in slavery! [All repeat as before.]
We swear, to put our trust in God Most High,
And not to quail before the might of man!

The American Civil War and the years surrounding it would naturally see much use of the term, "band of brothers." And it would span both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Stephen Douglas let it slip in a speech during the momentous Lincoln Douglas debates, "...Whigs and Democrats fought fearlessly in old times...united as a band of brothers when the peace, harmony, or integrity of the Union was imperiled." Of course, he was speaking of a previous generation, but the exhortation was meant to rally people, no matter their opinion on slavery to band together to face the threat of disunion.

Also, in the North, one of the most prominent men of the age, ironically another Douglass, Frederick Douglass, writes of his time in slavery:

It is not uncommon to charge slaves with great treachery toward each other, and to believe them incapable of confiding in each other; but I must say, that I never loved, esteemed, or confided in men, more than I did in these. They were as true as steel, and no band of brothers could have been more loving. There were no mean advantages taken of each other, as is sometimes the case where slaves are situated as we were; no tattling; no giving each other bad names to Mr. Freeland; and no elevating one at the expense of the other.

These were a people who went through a struggle analogous to war, struggle, toil and violence.

Meanwhile the martial theme burst out in song in the South with the second most popular song of the war, "The Bonnie Blue Flag. The song begins:

We are a band of brothers
And native to the soil
Fighting for our liberty
With treasure blood, and toil
And when our rights were threatened,
The cry rose near and far
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a single star!

Interestingly enough, the entire officer corp of both armies considered themselves a single band of brothers, for they largely graduated from the same school, West Point. They often fought against each other on the same battlefield, as when the Union General, Winfield Scott Hancock, was wounded at Gettysburg not a hundred yards from where his friend, Louis Armisted, who had been one of the leading generals in the famed "Picket's Charge", was killed.

All of this hearkened back to the song "Hail Columbia".....

Firm, united, let us be,
Rallying round our Liberty;
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.

This poem published in 1798 by Joseph Hopkinson is still often referred to as America's first national anthem. It firmly claims the "band of brothers" theme for America. Columbia, for Hopkinson is a personification of the United States. In it we find a martial theme, but the theme is tempered by the idea that the band of brothers defends freedom and promotes safety. It is, in a way, a defensive idea as in "United we stand. Divided we fall!"

But as we know from another cliche' (or should we call it a truism?), "The best defense is a good offense". The "band of brothers" theme next surfaces in World War II with the 101st Airborne's Easy Company. This unit fought with distinction from the invasion of Normandy through the Battle of the Bulge and ultimately through the end of the war. Their story is retold in the aptly named Band of Brothers, a history book and an HBO movie. The film, in a graphic way, reveals how bonds are formed between men in combat and how they lasted a lifetime. The mystique of the band of brothers is seen to remain undiminished from the time of Shakespeare to the present.

However, the term would see some battering in the 2004 election when John Kerry invoked it to describe his fellow sailors on patrol boats during Viet Nam. The "band of brothers", in this instance, was split over its support for the Presidential Candidate. Some called him a hero, others called him a glory hound and implied cowardice.

Whatever the truth about John Kerry's war record, the "band of brothers" idea remains a strong force in the American psyche. Books detailing the adventures of military units from World War II through the Iraq War have become popular. Little doubt that the idea will remain a powerful metaphor in the future as long as military units struggle in the field and mass media tells their stories.

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