Band of Brothers has its share of gruesome violence, but does Lt. Ronald Speirs actually kill a group of Nazi prisoners in episode 2? The miniseries chronicles some of the real-life stories of the 101st Airborne’s “Easy Company” during World War II. On par with projects like Saving Private Ryan and The Deer Hunter, it depicts — among many other things — the sheer chaos and weighty, life-or-death stress that accompanies soldiers on the battlefront.
Each episode focuses on a specific member of the unit, and viewers get to know the group of Army soldiers during their time in action. One integral member of the team is 1st Lt. Ronald Speirs (Matthew Settle), a Boston-hailing officer who becomes mythologized by the men under his command. He learns how to compartmentalize the horrors he faces throughout the show and remain an efficient soldier in the face of it. So, understandably, some alleged stories of harsh, stone-cold killing by Speirs circulate within his unit, receiving constant speculation and reinvention by Easy Company throughout Band of Brothers. One of these rumored stories has to do with how he treated Nazi prisoners during the bedlam of D-Day’s Normandy landings.
In episode 2, “Day of Days,” there’s a scene in the post-landing timeframe where Speirs passes out cigarettes to a group of German prisoners, and it is implied that he shoots them all off-screen. Of course, such an event would violate the Geneva Conventions. In the show, it almost comes across as if he does so out of pure indifference or sadism. But, although it seems that Speirs acted as his character did on Band of Brothers, the situation also appears to have been a much more nuanced act of wartime violence than that. According to ronaldspeirs.com, “General Maxwell Taylor, commander of the 101st Airborne instructed his paratroopers to ‘take no prisoners’ during the Normandy Invasion.“ The site also details fellow Band of Brothers-featured serviceman Don Malarkey recounting General Taylor’s orders during the D-Day battles: “If you were to take prisoners, they’d handicap our ability to perform our mission. We were going to have to dispose of prisoners as best we saw fit.”
Of course, ronaldspeirs.com clearly has a positive bias toward the late war veteran. But, even so, other reports seem to confirm the “take no prisoners” sentiment during the Normandy landings as well. David Webster of Easy Company also acknowledged this thought process in one of his books about the war, and Band of Brothers-famous Dick Winters has also mentioned Speirs’ POW story in his writing — but said that he had only heard it as a rumor, neither confirming nor denying its validity. The concept of shooting prisoners is blatantly wrong and shouldn’t be excused, but, at the same time, rumors have a way of changing stories over time. The full true story of Band of Brothers’ Lt. Speirs remains murky and speculative.
War is chock-full of hellish conditions, of people being routinely pushed to their physical and psychological limits while fearing for their lives and the lives of their comrades. It’s easy to cast judgment regarding an incident like the one with Speirs and the prisoners. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to truly know how one would handle a split-second decision in such continually harrowing circumstances, especially if orders had been given not to take prisoners. As Band of Brothers illustrates, war often blurs the lines of what is decisively right or wrong. It’s a messy and tragic affair, and there’s never a “correct” path or choice within it.