One of the hardest parts of writing a story is finding a good name. It should evoke atmosphere, draw attention, maybe even add something more to the meaning of the tale. I don’t find a title I like even half the times I write. So when a story does it really well, that’s worth looking at.
“Why We Fight”, the ninth episode of historical drama miniseries Band of Brothers, has one of the most perfectly chosen titles I’ve ever found. It evokes the tone of the episode, draws the audience into the characters’ minds, and adds nuance to the uncomfortable issues present.
Like all of Band of Brothers, “Why We Fight” follows Easy Company, an American paratroop unit taking part in the Second World WarThis episode focuses on Captain Lewis Nixon, while also showing the experiences of other characters.
It’s late in the war. The company are fighting their way across Germany. They’ve lost a lot of people and they’ve seen a lot of destruction. Most of them look battered and weary.
Nixon might be one of the weariest. He’s missed out on fighting thanks to a command liaison job, but has still seen the hellish side of war. Now he’s battling with the bottle and been booted back to a combat post. His wife writes to say that she’s leaving him. Nixon, who we first met as someone bright and charming, is falling apart. He fights with others because of the toll the war has taken on him.
Meanwhile, a new man joins the squad. He’s never seen combat. He’s eager to do his part and to see action while he still can. He wants to fight because it seems noble and heroic, while the men around him fight on because that’s their job. The innocence was long ago knocked out of them.
During the first half of the episode, this is how the question of “Why We Fight” is addressed. It’s all about individual motives and personalities.
Then comes the moment that changes everything, both for Easy Company and for the viewer. A group of soldiers stumble across a sight of such horror that they don’t have words for it. We seem them standing stunned, unable to comprehend what lies before them. A few minutes later, the truth is revealed to viewers, most of whom must already have guessed.
Easy Company have found a concentration camp.
Suddenly, the meaning of the episode is turned on its head. Now, when we ask “Why We Fight”, we’re talking about why these nations have gone to war, why the horrors of the Nazi regime had to be faced. “Aha!” thinks the viewer, myself included the first time around. “This is why they fight. To stop the Holocaust.”
But that reaction digs out a deeper, less comfortable truth.
The Holocaust was one of the defining features of the Second World War, a process of nearly unparalleled evil. Yet we’re on episode nine out of ten of Band of Brothers and it’s only just been mentioned. Why?
Because the Holocaust is not “Why We Fight”.
The Allies fought against Nazi Germany for many reasons. Out of self-interest. To protect friendly nations. To stop a relentlessly aggressive regime. But to stop the Holocaust? No.
When they entered the war, Allied leaders didn’t know how bad things were under the Nazis. They had no way of knowing how bad they would become as the war progressed. In 1942, when reports reached them through the Polish government in exile, they chose not to publicise the attrocities. They were afraid that no-one would believe them and that there would be a backlash against the extreme claims.
An argument can be made that the Allies fought to stop evil regimes. Their actions certainly had the effect of ending the Holocaust. But the death camps and the horrors they represented were not “Why We Fight”.
And so the name of this episode draws attention not just to the struggles of Easy Company, but to our own struggle with the past. The fact that the Allies ended something so evil lets us paint the Second World War in black and white. But just like the soldiers who stand stunned in the face of that concentration camp, our governments didn’t know what they were facing when they went to war. They didn’t fight to stop this. That they did so was a happy side effect, if the word “happy” can ever be used here.
This is why “Why We Fight” is the perfect name for this story. It gives us an angle from which to consider what the characters are going through. It provides a lever with which to open up our own perceptions, to face questions about the past and about how we view it.
Story titles don’t get more fitting than that.