| I recently purchased a
videocassette copy of Saving Private Ryan, and have
watched it four or five times over the last few weeks. I have been thinking about it in the context of two significant days that passed recently: Memorial
Day and the 55th anniversary of the landing at Omaha Beach (depicted in the opening half-hour of the film). I repeatedly found myself fixated on the final scenes of the film, the delaying action fought in the fictional town of Ramelle and the conclusion of the movie in the American cemetery at St.-Laurent-sur-Mer, on the bluffs behind Omaha, and what these two interleaved scenes came to mean to me and perhaps what they may mean to all Americans. Today (June 18, 1999), I composed this essay.|
I thought of how director Steven Spielberg structured those final minutes. First, it's in Ramelle that we experience the last stand of the beleagured Americans, viciously whittled down to less than a squad, retreating across a vital bridge to a bombed-out building they've dubbed "The Alamo." It's no accident that amid the explosions of hand grenades and zing of modern bullets we hear echoes of Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and their men bravely holding out against Santa Anna's 4,000 troops at that fabled Texas mission. The enemy, embodied by menacing and powerful Tiger tanks and brutal SS grenadiers, seems overwhelming and unstoppable. They scrabble over the piles of smashed wood and stone like angry insects. There seems no end to them. Bazooka rockets bounce harmlessly off of the armored snouts of the Tigers. The SS men rush forward, stopping only to viciously deliver a coup de grace to each wounded paratrooper in agony amidst the rubble. The surviving GIs are reduced to a few clips of ammo and have resorted to lobbing mortar shells at their foes. The air is heavy with death and desperation.
When Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) realizes he has to reach the detonator to blow the bridge, or the Nazis will capture it, he stands up and immediately takes a bullet in the chest. Mortally wounded, he collapses, and with his lifeforce ebbing begins to fire his .45 pistol, ridiculously defiant, at the encroaching Panzer. The Nazi tank is almost toying with him, slowly inching across the span and spewing machine-gun bullets all around him. Then, when all seems hopeless, a fantastic contradiction is painted on screen: Miller feebly expends another round and, against all logic, the tank explodes in a massive fireball. A split-second passes and we stare dumbfounded for a moment, unable to reconcile the effect with the cause, and then as the camera tilts skywards, a P-51 tank-buster rockets overhead, D-Day stripes and silver wings flashing in the sun. We understand. The cavalry has arrived in the nick of time!
Miller is dying. All but two of his men have been killed in the effort to locate and rescue Ryan (Matt Damon). He motions Ryan over, pulls him near, and tells him one thing before he dies.
In that moment, I immediately saw Miller as every veteran of WW II speaking to every other American. It is as much their dying whisper as it is Miller's. Earn what we all fought for and what many of us died for. That day and the thousand-plus days of that war. Think of us often. Remember our names. Do not forget us.
For that moment, I was Ryan, and I was being told to earn what every American soldier did that day, that year, that war. Minimally, by never forgetting their sacrifice. Perhaps by, as Ryan himselfs questions, by living a "good life." (I think that is at the heart of why I created this web site.) That fictional bridge at Ramelle might as well have been a bridge between 1944 and now. Between the generation that fought and died then and the generation that is precariously close to forgetting their sacrifice now. On one side, the enemy of freedom manifested by that lumbering, seemingly invincible Tiger tank spewing random death, oppression, tyranny; on the other, liberty, defended by Miller and, ultimately, every soldier who fought against the tyranny the Nazis sought to bring to the world 55 years ago.
Then, Spielberg fashions the final transition, to the film's most symbolic scene. The elderly Ryan stands shakily in front of Miller's grave on the bluffs above Omaha Beach. We are back in the present-day, where the movie began. The English Channel below is cold-blue and shatters into white foam as it breaks upon the smooth sand. We are removed by time from that morning the beach was stained red with the blood of the young men of the 29th Division and the 2nd Ranger Battalion who now rest among the 9,386 American dead buried in the soil of Normandy Cemetery. An ethereal green expanse of manicured grass and those numbing rows of white crosses and Stars of David. There, Ryan contemplates the awful burden he's had to bear for 50 years to realize that eight men, with futures of their own, risked or gave up those futures for his. How could any man ever hope to earn that? Early on, Miller and his squad seemed all too conscious of the moral mathematics as they walked across Normandy's hedgerow country looking for this man whose life was somehow estimated and computed to be more valuable than theirs. When someone asks Private Reiben (Edward Burns) to "think of Ryan's mother" to justify risking eight lives to rescue Ryan, he simply says "we've all got mothers." To Reiben, what makes Ryan's life worth more? Says Miller, "Ryan better be worth it. He better go home and cure some disease or invent a new, longer-lasting lightbulb." Yes, that's a heavy burden to bear: Earn this. Deserve it. Make yourself worthy of our sacrifice.
So Ryan's returned to Normandy near the end of his life and finds himself wrestling with a moral dilemma of terrible dimensions. After he collapses crying, he asks his wife if he justified the sacrifice. She assures him he was a good man who led a good life. He then stands, steels himself, and salutes Miller's cross. Suddenly I was Ryan again, saluting not just Miller's cross, but every cross in that cemetery, and every veteran of that war, living and dead. Spielberg in that moment, for me, achieved an astounding transference. It might as well have been my ear that Miller had whispered in. Just as the elder Ryan agonizes over Millerís grave to convince himself that he did earn what those eight men did, I suddenly was filled with the realization that my own free and bountiful life has been baptized in the blood of the soldiers and victims of World War II (and, yes, of other wars). That the 9,386 men buried at St.-Laurent-sur-Mer did for me, in a very real way, what Miller's eight did for Ryan. That the many more who fought in Normandy at large did it for me too. And so on and so on. Perhaps I too owe all of them an accounting of how well Iíve lived, of whether Iíve earned what they've bequested to me and the world. And, like Ryan, I struggled today as I contemplated this, wondering if I could ever make the equation balance. I decided that all I could ever do was add my "light" to the sum of light. I could not, myself, be completely sure. So I decided to do what I could, but especially to not forget. To practice remembering. To continue to memorialize them any way I could. To make sure that at the next reunion of the Skylighters that I would make sure that the small subset of veterans that I had come to know would know that I felt this way.
I remembered recently that I used to watch the 1992 movie Memphis Belle with my five-year-old nephew. Not a great film by any means, but watchable. Of course, he was captivated by the aerial battles and did not think much about the somber backdrop of those exciting combat sequences. He was a little boy thrilled with the prospect of being a pilot perhaps, certainly not understanding what a bomber pilot's job was. He asked no questions and I didn't force any history on him. I'm sure he didn't know what the setting of the film was or what it meant. I was the same way back in the early sixties. I played army with my buddies and flew imaginary B-17s into battle against the Germans. Some days I carried a BAR just like Reiben and used it on the "enemy." Some of us fell over, dead, some of us didn't. Some days I was killed, other days I lived. (All of us bailed out and lived before the bomber crashed in the Channel.) Only much later in life did I come to grips with the horrifying "equations" of that war that I played at all summer long. I discovered just how many men were killed in the first five minutes of the Omaha landings. I learned that each B-17 that went down had 10 men on board and that losing 60 planes in a day meant that as many as 600 men died. They were no different than me. They died at my age. They died much younger than I am now. They died from random shrapnel slicing through the fuselage of a Flying Fortress. They died like the unlucky men who happened to be standing in front aboard the landing craft at Omaha. They died when an artillery shell found their foxhole out of a hundred. They died because of their bad luck and someone else's good luck. (I've heard tales of a bullet passing through one GI and killing the one behind him.) They died, as one scene in Saving Private Ryan shows, smiling stupified by amazement right after thinking they'd just escaped death. The ironies of war are well-known ones and they are many.
Perhaps some day my nephew and I will sit down and watch Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps it will be a day when very few veterans of World War II are around, or even when none are left. I'll perhaps be as old as they are now. At that moment, the transference of memory and experience that Spielberg achieved in his film at the bridge at Ramelle and at the gravesite at St.-Laurent-sur-Mer will make possible the continuation of the chain of remembrance. In that moment, if my nephew asks what it was really like, I will be able to tell him not because I was there, but simply because I chose to remember what these men told us before they departed. I'd understood the equation. And, perhaps, if we as a culture are really lucky, my nephew, or others of his generation, will understand and choose to remember, and the torch that the generation who fought and won WW II passed to my generation will, in turn, be passed to the next. In spirit, there will always be that metaphorical bridge at Ramelle where changing generations can meet and pass the message across. Certainly, the Normandy cemetery will be there for generations to come, so those that come seeking to understand what happened may move between the silent stones and ponder just what those 9,386 subtracted souls left to the world. For me, Spielberg's message is astoundingly clear today, 55 years after those brutal first seconds after the doors on those landing craft dropped ...
Each generation must produce its Captain Millers to whisper into the ears of all the Private Ryans to come ...
|The American Cemetery at St.-Laurent-sur-Mer|
in June 1944 (above) and today (below).