At War with Bobby

DSC_4648What I learned from a legendary sports hero and a legendary battle filled with heroes.

Written and Photographed by Karim Shamsi-Basha


This past December, I had the privilege of documenting the re-enactment of the Battle of the Bulge in Bastogne, Belgium. I photographed football coach Bobby Bowden as he interviewed veterans and visited battle sites for a television series set to air later this year.Bowden was 15 when World War II broke out, and he became obsessed with the progress of the Allied forces against the tyranny of Hitler. He read all he could about the war, and later as a football coach, he used many of the same strategies. (That might explain why some of his offense resembled that of the armies of General Patton and General MacArthur.) After filmmaker Doug Phillips filmed a segment at an event with Bowden, Phillips chatted with some local guys (Richard Davis and Dale Wallace), as well as Bowden, about a possible film project that centered on Bowden’s interest in WWII. The project was a go, and Bowden will be traveling to WWII sites all over the globe, including Normandy and the Pacific, with his son, former coach Tommy Bowden. The two will tell the stories of the places they visit.

One such story is that of the Battle of the Bulge. The Battle of the Bulge, which lasted from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, was a major German offensive launched through the densely forested Ardennes region of Belgium, France, and Luxembourg. Around 600,000 American forces were involved. 19,000 were killed and 89,000 were injured. It was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the United States toward the end of World War II.

As I observed those European and American young men living in foxholes and marching through the snow, I could not comprehend how the real soldiers survived 70 years ago. The temperature was much colder, and conditions were much tougher. The ones who lived through the ordeal tell of a horrendous and brutal environment. The Allied forces were completely surprised by the Germans; yet despite high casualties, they held strong and affected the outcome of the entire war. What was it that drove them to holding their positions, depleting the German army of its strength and resources?

All of the veterans I spoke with agreed there were many virtues they adhered to.  Things like brotherhood, comradeship, gratitude, courage, endurance, and valor. Two of those traits rose to the top: sacrifice and love.

Sacrifice is a virtue that has but disappeared from our 21st century vernacular. We live in a time where giving up anything, let alone your life, is a tall order. We might consider sacrificing amenities for those we love, but to give up our lives? Think again.

And love might be thriving, but it is reserved for our partners in life, for our families. We may adore some of our friends, but we are not about to love them enough to put our lives into their hands and have them do the same.

Seventy years ago, those young men freezing in foxholes with bombs erupting and bullets flying had acquiesced to the paradigm of sacrifice and love. Their entire existence at that instant was because the concept of sacrifice had become acceptable, and the virtue of love had grown customary. Many of them died protecting their brother soldiers, and multitudes of them gave away their lives protecting the very freedom we enjoy today. Most of Europe and possibly the United States would be speaking German had it not been for their sacrifice and—you got it—love.

We should learn all we can about those heroes.

We must honor them regardless of our political standing.

We have to respect them no matter what we think of war.

We should read about their selfless strive to further freedom.

We ought to salute the ones remaining and mourn the ones who have gone.

We must appreciate their sacrifice and their love.

How could we incorporate sacrifice and love as we live in the safest country on Earth? We must give up something that is dear to us, for those who have less. Sacrifice and love can brighten someone else’s life (and our own).

As you try to squeeze one more article of clothing into your full closet, donate a few pieces to a women’s shelter. As you look at the man standing at the red light with a “homeless” sign, think twice before driving off without handing him a few dollar bills.  And as you watch others serving the cold and the hungry, entertain the idea of doing so yourself.

We may not be able to sacrifice our lives or to love everyone; but we have plenty of time and resources, and we don’t have to live in a freezing foxhole for six months to give those away.

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