Conversations with Major Dick Winters
Life Lessons from the Commander of the Band of Brothers
Cole E. Kingseed
Dutton Caliber, New York, 2014, 304 pages
Book Review published on: July 21, 2017
Cole Kingseed’s Conversations with Major Dick Winters serves as a swan song for the revered hero who was made famous by Stephen Ambrose’s wildly successful book Band of Brothers and the much-lauded, Emmy award-winning HBO miniseries of the same name that followed almost a decade later in 2001. Just as the title implies, the pages are essentially edited transcripts of conversations between the author and Maj. Dick Winters over the last thirteen years of the latter’s life.
Kingseed, a retired Army colonel and a former chief of military history at West Point with a PhD in history, has written five other books, primarily on the topic of World War II. Arguably, the most notable is Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters, capturing a singular perspective on the subject matter Ambrose brought to light.
Conversations with Major Dick Winters offers a more intimate side of Winters, less focused on combat leadership, though it remains a backdrop for everything else discussed. The reader is afforded several peaks into his life not found elsewhere, covering his exploits and the now-heralded unit he commanded (i.e., for the most part, a eulogy by the author to the man he came to idolize). For fans of Band of Brothers, the nuggets on combat leadership will ring familiar and will no doubt hook some to purchase the book. However, it is the glimpses inside the mind of an aging hero and his almost hesitant, yet plainspoken, perspective on leadership by example, his friends, religion, finding serenity, generosity, death, and integrity that I believe carry the greatest impact.
The structure of the book revolves around themes, so the conversations are not always chronological, but this does not appreciably detract from the work. Those themes sometimes offer some choice and provocative snippets from this unassuming man. Undoubtedly, a few of the more tantalizing ones will certainly catch the reader’s eye.
For instance, in the chapter titled “Leadership,” Winters pulls no punches in his disdain for Gen. Maxwell Taylor, calling him “a phony.”1 “In my mind, Taylor was more interested in impressing his superiors than watching out for his men. Taylor was such a contrast with British General Montgomery. … Montgomery was the real deal … he always impressed me as a commander who lived a lifestyle that was beyond reproach for his staff to follow. He set the example.”2 Clearly, Monty’s style mirrored his own, by implication.
In “Friendship,” we get a glimpse inside the rigid divide Winters imposed on himself to ensure his ability to operate effectively in the fury of battle and the inevitability of death. In a letter to a female pen pal, he chastised her for admiring how Navy officers would often accompany enlisted sailors on picnics and such, replying: “I know those officers are well liked who do things … but in the end, their ideas and principles break down … as a soldier, I don’t want any more people than necessary to even know me. It’s no good. … There are only a few [people] who really know and understand how I feel and think.”3
The major, who credits his faith with providing serenity in the face of battle, responds, in the chapter titled “Character,” quite candidly—and somewhat surprisingly—to the author’s statement, “Your religion was obviously important to you,” by saying, “Yes … I go to church, read the Bible, pray, and do what I think is right, but I’ve never had any assurance that I was going to heaven, and I’m not sure if I am saved.”4 This will stun some who may have presumed his faith perspective would be more doctrinaire.
Later, this seasoned combat leader, who witnessed such tremendous carnage and lost many fine young men to enemy action, opens up about a promise he made to himself that “if [he] survived the war, [he] would find a piece of land somewhere and spend the remainder of [his] life in peace and quiet.”5 To that end, he bought a farm in 1951 but acknowledges it did not deliver him fully from haunting echoes of his wartime experience. “My farm provided me the quiet, but not the peace … Quiet is easy to achieve … but true peace must come from within.”6 In an interesting aside, Kingseed teases out of Winters a darker reflection on his service, where he admits melding back into society after the war was a real challenge. “Military service is an honor, a privilege … when I finally returned home, I had no desire to pick up with those friends who managed to skip the whole thing. I completely shut them out. I wouldn’t come downstairs when they knocked on the door. Even today, when I look at a man or a woman, I can’t help but judge them. Does he have leadership capabilities? Would she be good in combat? Does he or she have what it takes?”7 There hangs, in the shadows, possibly a veiled nod to the modern condition we know as posttraumatic stress disorder.
In arguably the most powerful chapter, titled “Growing Old,” Winters ponders life after the war, describing the ferocity with which he attacked work, and alludes—if only faintly—to possible regrets. “I met Ethel and we started a family. I worked hard, maybe too hard … a man does his best to provide a decent life for his family. I did my best and hope that it was good enough. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”8 One is left wondering if this was his attempt to drown out the horrors of war. Most intriguing is what he does not say, allowing the reader to speculate why he abruptly cuts off that line of inquiry. The section is praiseworthy for how it gives such gentle and graceful expression to the slow erosion of freedom and quiet miseries of aging, especially in light of such a storied youth, filled with drama and action, courage, and fear.
But from there, regrettably, the book loses considerable steam. After reading it, no one can doubt how strongly the author cherished Dick Winters. Kingseed admits, repeatedly, that next to his deceased father, Winters was the closest thing—the man he most admires and respects. Unfortunately, the author seems to forget the audience in his homage to Winters, who died before the book’s publication. He piles praise upon the man who never sought the spotlight, while stretching the reader’s patience with an over-the-top, almost biblical, exaltation, which does not fit with Winters’s character.
Overall, a commendable work, delivering some touching moments between two dear friends reminiscing about an array of topics to include leadership, integrity, and responsibility. It is a light, enjoyable read, illuminating lesser-known aspects of this simple, principled man from Hershey, Pennsylvania, who was also one of the greatest tactical commanders of his generation. Despite a protracted and overly repetitive farewell from the author to his friend, this is a book that would add depth to any library or personal collection, helping answer the question, “What makes a good wartime leader?”
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. John H. Modinger, PhD, U.S. Air Force, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
- Cole E. Kingseed, Conversations with Major Dick Winters: Life Lessons from the Commander of the Band of Brothers (New York: Dutton Caliber, 2014), 74.
- Ibid., 75.
- Ibid., 86.
- Ibid., 106.
- Ibid., 168.
- Ibid., 171.
- Ibid., 189.