The 75th Anniversary of D-Day: Saving Private Ryan and the stories we tell about wartime sacrifice
A transport vehicle full of seasick soldiers is traveling towards the beaches of France. Soldiers are puking- is it from nerves? Is it from the choppy waters? Do they know the reality of the threat that faces them? As the doors open, the first face we see gets a bullet through the helmet. The several rows of men behind him are chopped down by Nazi machine gun fire. The ones who survive are forced to jump over the side and swim to shore. These are men who trained for months, or years, for this very day, and many of them don't last more than a few seconds. The rest of the famous Omaha Beach opening portion of Steven Spielberg's 1998 film Saving Private Ryan is full of unlucky men who might have lived if they had been an inch to the left or an inch to the right. The beach is a shooting gallery where only the few make it across, less through skill or training, and more through an act of God. There is no rhyme or reason for who lives and who dies. "We don't have a fucking chance and that's not fair!" yells the medic Wade (Giovanni Ribisi). Yeah, he is right, it is not fair. It is World War II. Nothing is fair. Yet these men are here anyway, to do their jobs, and to try and save the world.
June 6th, 1944, otherwise known as D-Day, was the day the Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, France. It was the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany. It was 75 years ago, today. Over the course of three months, 20,000 American soldiers were killed. One year later, when the Nazis surrendered, American soldiers returned home to a gracious and enthusiastic home front. The baby boom followed, as did enormous economic prosperity. There was no such thing as PTSD–it was called "shellshock," and it was either misunderstood, poorly treated, or kept out of conversations altogether. John Huston's now famous documentary on the psychological treatment of veterans, Let There Be Light, was kept in the military vaults for more than thirty years. World War II killed more Americans than any war in our history save the Civil War–with over 400,000 gone. Yet we all still refer to it as "the last good war." It was just and necessary. Their deaths were seen as a sacrifice for a greater good, and the nation's mourning for them was caked in a sort of patriotic glow, as if they were proud to lose them for a worthy cause.
What stories do we make up to rationalize sending our sons and daughters off to war and die? Saving Private Ryan is a movie that seeks to unearth those stories. But when confronted with the truth, still finds itself making up more stories anyway. Because that is what we as humans have had to do, if we were to go on living through the violent chapters of our history.
Private Ryan (Matt Damon) is lucky because he is unlucky. Having lost three brothers in the war, he gets to go home because a General with a moral conscience has decided that he must. Yet despite having incurred such a great loss, he isn't more special or important than anyone else. The mission led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) to save him–risking the lives of eight men–makes no sense. It's "FUBAR." Yet, those are the orders. As Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies, the inexperienced translator and audience surrogate) quotes Alfred Lord Tennyson, “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.”
Ryan is important because we have decided that he is important. He is a reflection of the story we make up about America, as a place where there is a value placed on every single life, especially ones who serve (and are straight white men, of course). The mission to save Ryan is one that would probably never be undertaken by our enemies in Nazi Germany, for example–or by our then allies in Soviet Russia. It is as if the mission itself was to prove what kind of a country we could be. How highly moral of a place we could be. Yet, as is often the case in America, our lofty ideals don't match up to reality or hold much water, and we are left to make up new stories when the old ones fall apart.
By the end of Saving Private Ryan, most of Miller's squad that set out to rescue Ryan (including Miller himself) is dead. They survived the assault on Omaha Beach, perhaps the most deadly and dangerous moment in the war for American soldiers- only to meet their fate trying to save one man’s life. Would they have died anyway in some other battle down the road? Perhaps at the Battle Of The Bulge, the infamous Nazi counterattack in the Ardennes forest just six months later that nearly broke the Allied advance? Would they have made it to Berlin? The final battle of Ramelle claimed most of the dead on the squad, and the Nazi advance nearly claimed a key bridge. Miller and his men clearly helped stall the attack. They may have died, but they didn't just die to save Ryan. Yet even if the Nazis had claimed that bridge, would they not have fallen back eventually? It ended up being Miller and his men who paid the cost for that bridge. But if it wasn't them, would it have been someone else later on?
Saving Private Ryan asks if we can measure the cost of war in the life of a single man, a theme that Spielberg had dealt with seriously just five years earlier in Schindler's List. Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) famously attempts to assuage the tortured conscience of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) by quoting the Talmud: "he who saves one life saves the world entire." As Schindler confronts the limits of the good he performed before he exits the film, he is stricken with the grief of knowing he could have done more. He could have saved more lives. While trying to slow the pace of genocide is a far different thing than military combat, Spielberg finds here that even one life is incredibly important. He doesn't overturn that conclusion in Saving Private Ryan, but finds that every gain, no matter how small or big, still comes with an extraordinary cost.
My fiancée’s grandmother recently passed away at the incredible age of 103. She lost two brothers in World War II, one was a paratrooper who was killed during the D-Day invasion. That means that she had to live without them for 75 years. I can barely comprehend living with a loss that big for that long- to see the world change and change, with new generations fighting new wars, and the meaning of military service ever-changing as well. A distant cousin of mine, from northeastern Pennsylvania, was also killed in the beach assault. My grandmother’s five brothers fought and served, and all survived. There is little logic to who lives and who dies. For those who lose someone, I imagine that the loss never truly goes away. It never did for the fictional James Ryan, but instead of the loss of a loved one, he is haunted by the sacrifice of a man who gave up his life so that Ryan could live.
In the final scene, in tears and on his knees (how often did we see depictions of his generation showing genuine sadness and remorse?), he says to Miller's grave "I tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough." Of course it was, because it wasn't Ryan's choice to live and survive. The reality is that Ryan wasn't going to necessarily do anything special, and Spielberg wisely never reveals to us whatever it is that Ryan ended up doing with his life, because it doesn't matter. He survived when so many others didn't, a story shared by thousands of fellow veterans. It was then up to him to live the best he could, to make his own life a living testament to their memory.