The “Bastogne” episode of HBO’s Band of Brothers does some heavy lifting when it comes to Christianity’s relationship to society, as tested by the fires of absolute warfare. The setting is December 1944, in Bastogne, Belgium. The 101st Airborne Division is tasked with defending Bastogne from conquest by the German Army in the definitive battle of World War II known as “The Battle of the Bulge,” a counteroffensive launched by Hitler to break the steadily advancing Allied lines.
Here I’ll frame the episode with observations interspersed periodically with commentary.
Instead of a rehearsal of battlefield events, “Bastogne” is a drama overlaying a historical event, complete with a clear plot progression, character development, and with rising and falling action. Everything following this paragraph is a reveal. I encourage you to watch the episode, read this, then re-watch it under the magical influence of the power of suggestion.
Observation 1: Lost…
The screen fades to white, revealing to us that one of the company medics, Eugene “Doc” Roe is lost. He bends down to touch the snow-covered earth with his bare hand, and the earth bites him through the snow, bringing a drop of blood from his finger. He wanders until he finds the corpses of slain soldiers. At the moment he finally finds the command post, a German soldier is discovered; the soldier had gotten lost trying to find a slit trench. The siege is severe.
Doc Roe desperately needs medical supplies to do his work. Practically speaking, no one has anything to help him.
During an enemy artillery attack, we hear our first religious reference. Doc Roe asks, “Where’s Penkala?” The answer: “Christ knows.” Doc Roe finds Penkala.
The enemy, though unseen, is out there.
Two soldiers, one of whom is Edward Hefron, are on a detail to help him scrounge for medical supplies; they also get lost. While they are wandering, they joke about virgins and the Virgin Mary. When they do find another battalion, they find no healing help whatsoever.
Finally, Doc Roe appeals to an officer for an aid kit. While handing it over, the lieutenant asks, “What happens if I get hit?” Roe answers, “I’ll be there.”
The religious themes are distinct, but they aren’t very strong until a re-watching of the episode. Being lost is the human condition, lost and susceptible to a horrible predator, death and all his agents. Even the poor little German soldier, technically an enemy, is as forlorn as the Allied soldiers.
Doc Roe as a religious messiah is introduced when he finds Penkala, who has been slightly wounded during an artillery bombardment.
The artillery bombardment carries the theme of the hidden enemy. Without being seen, he can kill, wound, maim, drive to despair.
Observation 2: Names
Edward “Babe” Hefron chastises Doc Roe for calling him by his first name. “Only the goddamn nuns call me Edward.” Throughout the episode Doc Roe is referred to variously as Eugene and Doc.
Three names are theologically significant: Eugene Roe, Renee the nurse, and Edward Hefron. Eugene is “Doc,” the healing presence of God; Rene is the Divine gift-bearer, or the agent of Providence; Edward is “Babe,” a literal babe in the woods.
Observation 3: Love Soliloquy
We see Doc Roe struggle with the anxiety of his calling to help wounded men. He lies in his foxhole during the night, gazing upward at a bright flare, rehearsing this speech to himself: “To be consoled is to console; to be understood is to understand; or to be loved is to love with all my heart. With all my heart.”
It is oft-remarked that Jesus of Nazareth expresses some frustration with his office as healer. In the Gospel according to St. Mark, he is frequently depicted as reticent to do his healing work, and the disciples and the faithful often must cajole him, usually in the context of Jesus’ temperamental responses. For example, he has tried to escape to the region of Tyre and Sidon, where the Syro-phoenician woman tracks him down, wherein he calls her a dog. “Yes, Lord,” she responds. “Even the dogs.”
Yet the Messiah loves, and he loves, and he loves some more. A self-righteous rich young man desires to inherit eternal life, and he knows that his steadfast faithfulness to morality and virtue is insufficient. About Jesus, Mark says, “Looking at the man, he loved him.” From there, the Divine self-sacrificial impetus drives Jesus to the cross, where he purchases eternal life for the rich young man, and even for the poor.
Doc Roe is in the middle of that same transformation, burdened with love.
Observation 4: Barren Christianity
A soldier is wounded. Doc Roe treats the wound in the field, then accompanies the wounded man into Bastogne, where the wounded are being treated with bedclothes and booze in a church building. A lovely nurse appears, pouring the wounded man a drink, stroking his forehead to give him comfort. The wounded man says, “I’m in heaven, Doc.”
Doc Roe realizes that here in the church there is no healing, and, moreover, there is no alternative. In the church, the wounded are held in limbo, and the dying die in misery.
He happens to return to the front lines at the very end of the Mass, spoken by the military chaplain priest. Skip Muck says, sarcastically, “That’s it guys, nothing more to worry about: we’re gonna die in a state of grace.”
Jesus encounters the religious leaders, as everyone knows, in some sharp confrontations. He tells them that they are whitewashed on the inside, like tombs are on the outside. They’re dead, and they carry death with them.
Religious people don’t like to hear that.
Nevertheless, the Divine is at work in the dead institution, in one, faithful, devoted nurse.
Here the theme is introduced that the churchly institution, or “organized religion,” as it were, has become sclerotic, bound by Medieval sensibilities to the extent that she is powerless to do her work in an industrialized, mechanized, Enlightenment world; the liturgy, that is, the Mass which transcends, is a joke. On the other hand, within her still function some faithful members.
Observation 5: Powerlessness
The soldiers hit the main line of defense, and Julian, Babe’s protegee, is killed, despite Babe’s every effort to reach him with his hand. On the other hand, Doc is able to reach another wounded man, dressing the wound very quickly, saving his life. Doc Roe is unable to comfort Babe Hefron with empty words. The chocolate, however, does offer Babe some comfort.
Neither the blessings of the church nor the promises of man have the power to save man from his plight. The Messiah, with his healing presence, is able to save a man from death. In a sacramental gesture, delivered from the Divine gift-bearer of the church, Renee, manifest by the Messiah, Edward “Babe” takes comfort over the death of his protegee.
Perhaps the Mass is not so much a joke as the common understanding of it. Skip Muck gives voice to the laity’s view that it is hocus-pocus; Edward’s reception of the chocolate sacrament for comfort represents a profound understanding of the gifts of God.
Observation 6: The Gift of God, part one
The other medic and Roe have a conversation, talking over the sleeping Babe: “Hey what do you call those people, again, those cajun healers?”
Roe: “Traiteurs. You know, my grandma was a traiteurs.”
“Your grandmother? No shit.”
“Uh huh. She was. Laid her hands on people and cured ’em. Took away sickness, cancer, you name it.”
“Your grandma did that? Ha, you’re shittin’ me.”
“I remember: she used to pray a lot.”
“Heh, I guess she had to.”
“Talked to God about the pain she pulled out. Asked him to carry it away. That’s what she did.”
It is important to note that Eugene Roe’s grandmother was not a traiteurs; this is a fabrication of the writers of the episode, a notable departure within the television series from the basic principle of hewing to the material history of Company E as closely as possible. This is why I’m sure this episode means to treat a transcendental subject, specifically Christianity.
Of course, this scene signals quite strongly that Eugene is the Messiah, the one who carries the pain of all the wounded. This is a central Christian message, that is, a man would carry upon his own self the sufferings of others.
Observation 7: The Gift of God, part two
Back in the church building, Renee and Doc Roe fail in their attempt to save a man from dying of his wounds. We see a shot of the vaulted chapel, its ceilings painted in the schemes of heaven, golden stars upon a field of blue.
The two of them go outside the church building, pausing from their healing efforts. They share some chocolate together.
Doc observes her blood-stained hands, saying, “Your hands. You’re a good nurse.”
“No,” she says. “I never want to treat a wounded man again. I’d rather work in a butcher shop.”
“But your touch calms people,” he replies. “That’s a gift from God.”
Without hesitation, she responds, “That’s not a gift. God would never give such a painful thing.” She takes a bite of the chocolate, then she is summoned back to her calling as a nurse.
Pain is not just a central feature of the Christian Faith, it is the central feature of the Christian faith. “Take up your cross and follow me” is not simply a maxim to bear up under heavy burdens; it is a call to suffer with Christ. The apostles are likewise clear: “We preach Christ crucified…” Again, “This is love, that God sent his only Son to be a propitiation…” Further, “Your sufferings are a participation in the sufferings of Christ.”
Renee doesn’t want to suffer; she prefers to remain in a superficial heaven, but that gilded heaven has been invaded by mass death. Her desire for a false religion, one of peace and gentleness, has been utterly shattered.
Many Christians–most Christians–have no capacity to understand this central truth. The Gospels reiterate constantly “they didn’t understand what he was talking about,” always with reference to suffering. Moreover, it is the answer to the outcry against God: why would a loving God give such a painful thing, and call it a gift? Why would a loving God allow evil? Answer: in order that he might show mercy through suffering.
It rings harsh and false, but when there is enormous suffering, mercy is likewise abundant, usually through unwilling and misunderstanding adherents, and even through those who do not belong to the Faith.
Doc Roe declares to her the truth, but Renee will not hear it; nevertheless she returns to her work of mercy, driven by the power of the chocolate sacrament.
If Christians in general do not actively understand this feature of their own Faith, as a life lived, why should non-Christians? After all, religion causes war, right?
Granted. But why?
Observation 8: The Utterness
After dressing another wounded man in the field, Doc Roe has reached his breaking point. The sheer number of wounded men trapped in the church visibly affects him, to the extent that he is unable to respond to Rene, nor is he able to respond when he is called to his vocation to treat another wounded man in the field.
Meanwhile, in one of the great ironies of history, the enemy, still hidden, mocks the Allies with a heartfelt rendition of “Silent Night.” Shortly afterward, the enemy opens fire with artillery.
The battalion commander sends Doc Roe back to the church for refreshment. While he is approaching it, the church is bombed, utterly destroying it and everyone within. From the rubble, he takes possession of Renee’s head scarf.
Christianity has always been beset with a fixation on tradition and buildings, that is, the same fixation all other religions have. Since it is true that weakness brought on by suffering is the trademark of Christianity, Christian buildings and traditions are easy targets. When they are full of the dead, they are irresistible.
Yet the Christian Faith, now purified, at least a little bit, sends her adherents abroad, carrying suffering and pain away from painted pictures and icons and echoing whispers, redirecting them to the lost and oppressed, those under the ever-seeking eye of death, out in the cold, so that they might declare unflinchingly and loudly the mercy of God even in the battlefield.
Observation 9: …and Found
From the church, Doc makes his way directly to the line, jumping into Hefron’s foxhole, addressing him for the first time as “Babe.” He uses Renee’s head scarf as a bandage to treat a light wound which he himself gave to Babe.
The credits begin to roll over a scene of the snow which is disturbed by the boots of warring men and stained with the blood of wounded soldiers.
The confrontation with utterness has ended in tender mercy’s prevailing. The Divine gift-bearer gives her last great gift to Doc, who applies it to a wound which is nothing to speak of, a little scratch of the hand. Babe and Doc laugh together on the front lines, not five feet from recently shed blood, yet uncovered by constant snowfall. The Faith is active, being lived, even after the mechanized and industrialized world has done away with a facade in an overwhelming victory.
Facades will be rebuilt. And they will be re-destroyed, as suffering requires.
There is a Christian hymn, a children’s song, really, “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb.” Ever glad at heart I am, etc. One verse ends with a triumphant declaration:
Loves me every day the same/ Even calls me by my name.