If you were like me, you probably had no idea who Dick Winters was – that is, up until around 10 years ago, when two fellows named Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg (have you heard of them? Mark my words, they’re going to be BIG some day) decided to make a mini-series about his life. It was called Band of Brothers and it outed the intensely private Dick Winters for the quiet, noble hero that he was.
Richard Winters was the Biggest Brother of Easy Company – part of the US Army’s 101st Airborne paratroopers that dropped into France on D-Day. Based on the performance of actor Damian Lewis (who played Winters in the series) and interview comments from Winters himself, a picture emerges of a smart soldier, a humble man and a highly capable leader, imbued with a deep sense of purpose and duty.
Winters led by example, rarely asked any man to do something he wouldn’t do himself, and went through several tribulations (near death and court-martial, for starters) for the sake of his men. The result was the soldiers of Easy Company had a deep respect for Winters. In turn, he knew he could count on them because he’d shown they could count on him.
In TV and film, the truth can very pliable, often bent into unusual shapes for the sake of drama. After watching the mini-series, I took the time to read the book on which the series is based, and I think this is an exception, and that Lewis played Winters straight. Winters was affable, able to make judgments without being judgmental, and willing to dispense both praise and punishment in equal measure – but flamboyant or dramatic? Hardly. Apparently, Winters was saving the drama for his mama.
Over the next ten months leading up to the end of the war, the men of Easy Company distinguished themselves for both their competence and bravery. Winters himself was promoted three times – from platoon leader to battalion XO to battalion commander – and won a Distinguished Service Cross and a Bronze Star for his actions in combat.
In short, Dick Winters was a man’s man – like Clint Eastwood, he wasn’t macho because he had nothing to compensate for. He’d been in one of the worst situations imaginable, and it had brought out the best in him. And while Winters took the task of leading Easy Company very seriously, he never took himself too seriously. He was always aware that a leader is only as good as the group he’s leading. After leaving the Army, he returned to his quiet life in Pennsylvania. No doubt he would’ve continued that way had Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Hanks not intervened.
I bring this all up because Dick Winter’s died shortly after New Years of this year at the age of 92. Typical of both his humility and sense of propriety, Winters had asked that news of his death not be made public until after his funeral.
A part of me wishes very much that I’d knew him personally, because I’d love to ask his opinions on our current generation of man-children – men who’ve replaced mantras like “courage, honour, sacrifice” with “gym, tan, laundry.” My guess is he would reserve judgment – he wouldn’t say a harsh word, but he’d probably give a knowing look, like he understood that men these days are missing something – a sense of purpose, or personal responsibility, or maybe just a feeling that they are part of something greater than themselves. Winters would probably spend less time bitching about man-children and more time devising constructive solutions to help them cross over into true manliness. We should all hope to be a brother like him.