Saturday, March 9, 2013

David Kenyon Webster Speaks to Us From The Deep

Private (Proud to Be) Webster

David Kenyon Webster

He Didn't Have to Be There. But he was there.

Men Who Never Served, Never Ducked a Bullet

David Kenyon Webster was a child of privilege, whose family connections could have easily shielded him from combat during World War II, or, at the very least, got him a commission as an officer.  But he decided to serve as a private, and he chose the most challenging service, the newly formed Army parachute infantry, soldiers who fought surrounded by enemy. 
 He wrote the book from which "Band of Brothers" was drawn in larger measure than the producers of that show credited. Stephen Ambrose, whose book by the same name drew attention to the story of Easy company, endorses Webster's book, but when you read it, page by page, you see how many of the details of time, place, action, feeling the script writers used.  Ambrose's book gave them the skeleton on which to structure a narrative, but Webster's book provided the muscle, heart, arteries and central nervous systems to bring the stories to life.
It was not Ambrose's fault, I suspect, Webster did not get more credit, but it is somehow fitting Private Webster did not get invited to the party. That's the way privates were treated in the Army. It was guts and glory Patton; the general got the glory, but the privates spilled the guts.
Reading through Webster's  Parachute Infantry now, the details of the experience of war, in particular the harrowing Operation Market Garden, the failed attack dreamed up by Field Marshall Montgomery, makes you feel intensely grateful for things like clean sheets, heated homes, hot showers and peaceful New Hampshire fields. 

But one passage astonished me. In the midst of the Allied operation, beset by diarrhea, having slept in a foxhole which he thought comfortable because he had found straw for its flooring, having returned from being made to sweep out the officer's quarters in a near by townhouse, Webster mentions he had been allowed to walk two miles to cast his first ballot, a vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt "the only one who ever gave the working man a break."  Webster had been too young to vote when he joined the Army, but had turned 21 while in Europe and was 22 during the 1944 election. 
What he says then, as an aside, should make us look at the 3 stooges pictured above, and at Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, with unmerciful clarity.

Explaining why he walked the 2 miles in a war zone, Webster says,

"Roosevelt...was a politician, as crafty and conniving as any, for politics is a cesspool of lying lawyers, but his work was greater than the man, and the country was better for it. The rich Republicans hated Roosevelt for helping the working man, for encouraging the labor unions to wring a fair day's wage for a fair day's work out of employers who had never heard of such a thing before and for putting into effect fair-employment practices that they considered outrageously Socialistic. Roosevelt helped the unemployed, when Herbert Hoover, the last Republican, an engineer who never quite understood humanity, had said, "Let every man help his brother," when he knew perfectly well that the rich weren't about to help the poor, never had and never would. I had grown up with Republicans and gone to school and college with them and sickened by their selfishness, their cold avarice and lofty contempt for the common people, had early sworn to vote for Democrats, who, for all their rotten political faults, were more concerned with the welfare of the country has a whole."

Mad Dog, too, went to school with the children of the rich, and saw that same cold avarice, still operating thirty years after Webster. Cold contempt and disregard for the suffering of their fellow man, still alive and well among the upper classes, and it sickened Mad Dog just a surely.  Mad Dog can understand the Joe Sixpack Republicans, those desperate men at the bar, who worry about meeting the mortgage on their mobile homes, who are just one check away from having their F150 pick up trucks repossessed. You don't expect mercy from desperate, disadvantaged, resentful men. But from the rich, you might expect some magnanimity. 

Which is why Mad Dog's bumper stick says, "Not a Republican." 

Webster wrote his magnificent book, but not a publisher would touch it.  Once the "Band of Brothers" got hot, the book was published and gained some attention.

But Webster never lived to see it. He never had his moment at the award ceremony. He went out sailing on the ocean  in 1961, looking for sharks, and never came back. 


  1. Mad Dog,
    I started to watch Band of Brothers years ago when it was first on. The episode I saw had paratroopers in planes getting ready to jump- it was night, but floodlights from the ground had the sky brightly lit and there was the sound of gunfire from below. The scene showed the men's faces as they got ready to jump and probably get shot out of the sky-it was so realistic I had to turn it off. I thought I'd go back to it since the reviews were great-and from what little I saw deserved -but I never did, it was to disturbing. Realistic depictions of battle are far worse than any horror film. I can only imagine how graphic Webster's book must be. Many of his points included in the passage on Roosevelt would be just as applicable today, especially his total rejection of the notion that the rich are awaiting their opportunity to voluntarily help the poor. It sounds like he was a pretty interesting individual...

  2. Maud,

    The book is worth a read, and less graphic than the visuals. Of course, if you see the series, you can see Webster's hand in so many scenes. But the televsion show can be unstinting, and there is plenty of gore.
    For me, the most disturbing parts of the series were the Spielberg moments dripping with sentimentality, which is exactly what the stories of war should not be about. Spielberg has a way of choosing the right stories but then violating them.
    There is a particularly egregious episode in which Winters is shown haunted by an incident in which he shoots down a young German soldier in a field. Winters, in his own book, alludes to that TV fictionalization saying he never regretted killing a single enemy soldier. Coming from Winters, that is high pique. He was clearly grateful his company (E) got their story told, but he could not abide the Spielberg-ing up of the experience.
    If Band of Brothers was too much, I suspect you'll find The Wire similarly too graphic. Although there are far fewer scenes of violence, those which do occur are in some ways more disturbing because you know the people so much better in the Wire.
    On the other hand, these series are a way to get an experience in the safety of your own home without getting shot at, and they expand your universe.

    Mad Dog

  3. Mad Dog,
    I really do intend to watch more of The Wire and I'm not very concerned about the violence. It's depictions of war like Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan I have a problem with -not because they're to violent or gory, but because they're to sad...

  4. The top photo you have posted is David Webster. The bottom two are not: those are Warren "Skip" Muck who was killed in Bastogne.

  5. Erin Baxter,
    Thanks for pointing this out. I'm not sure how I made that error, You got to know Muck a little in the TV series.

    Mad Dog