My father, who died last year, entered the Army Air Corps on his 18th birthday
in February 1943. He was scheduled to fly in the aerial support for Operation
Overlord, which began on the Normandy beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944. But he
was one of the lucky ones. He broke his thumb playing touch football while
awaiting assignment and was kept at the rear, thus missing service in some of
the bloodiest, most terrifying combat the world has ever known.
Just after my father's death, I traveled to the American memorial atop the
bluffs at Omaha Beach and walked awestruck among the 9,000 white crosses and
stars of David, reading the names of men who served with my father and gave
their lives to their country. Standing on the narrow beach below, gazing up at
the 90-foot embankment where Hitler's soldiers manned their concrete-bunkered
machine guns, I was astonished by the magnitude of sacrifice. To see this
now-tranquil place is to be overwhelmed at the odds American soldiers faced
that day -- a hill so high, a beach so naked, an enemy so protected. Some units
took casualties in excess of 90 percent. Many were killed without firing a
shot, many without even getting out of their landing craft. Yet they kept
coming. And if they hadn't, the world would be a very different place.
I was reduced to tears at Omaha Beach over the enormity of what happened there.
And I found myself weeping anew in the opening moments of Steven Spielberg's
wrenching Saving Private Ryan when an aging veteran of the assault walks
with his family among the headstones and falls to his knees atop the grave of a
man with whom he fought. The power of this movie and its shattering material is
so great that it sticks its fist into your intestines from the opening
Saving Private Ryan cuts from the memorial park to that morning 54 years
ago when Eisenhower's citizen soldiers stormed ashore as the Nazis rained death
on them from above. The film's next 30 minutes provide a relentlessly realistic
re-enactment of the invasion's first wave not from the point of view of the
generals directing the attack, as Daryl Zanuck did in The Longest Day ,
but rather from the point of view of the grunts taking the fire, vomiting in
their helmets as they splash toward shore, dying without ever getting a rifle
to their shoulders, leaping into the water from the backs of Higgins boats and
drowning under the weight of their equipment and weapons, making it to land but
finding no place to hide, hunkering down in the sand, trying to inch forward,
watching in horror as their buddies are blown to bits by mortar rounds and
shredded by machine-gun fire. Spielberg shows us what happened that terrifying
day in all its gory detail, and it is horrible to watch: men with their
intestines oozing between their fingers, men picking their own severed arms up
out of the sand, men trying to hobble forward on the stumps of missing legs,
men my father's age, still in their teens, crying for their mothers.
Somehow -- miraculously, it would seem -- we ultimately prevailed. And the
final two hours of Saving Private Ryan tell the story of eight survivors
of Omaha Beach who are given a peculiar assignment. It has come to the
attention of U.S. Gen. George Marshall (Harve Presnell) that an Iowa mother has
suffered the deaths of three of her four soldier sons within 72 hours. Her
fourth son, Pvt. James Ryan (Matt Damon), is a paratrooper who has landed
behind enemy lines in the Normandy interior. Marshall determines to get Ryan
out of the war immediately, and the chain of command chooses Capt. John Miller
(Tom Hanks) to lead the expedition. Miller selects Sgt. Mike Horvath (Tom
Sizemore) to accompany him and six other men. Miller and Horvath have been
fighting together throughout the war. Miller is a high school English teacher,
quiet and steady, but the war is taking an obvious toll on him. His right hand
shakes horribly at times from the stress. Ninety-four men have died under his
command since the war began, and though he tells himself that those deaths may
have saved the lives of 10 times that many, he feels the weight of each lost
soul. Like someone that Ernest Hemingway would have brought to life in the
pages of a novel, Miller sometimes has to go off by himself to cry, but he
always returns to duty.
The mission to find Ryan takes Miller and his men into three more firefights
with the enemy: in a village where paratroopers are trying to root out Nazi
snipers, along a roadside where a Nazi machine-gun crew is nested for a
hedgerow ambush, and, climactically, in defense of a bridge that needs to be
held against an armored counterattack. The men with Miller already have
survived long odds at Omaha Beach, but their peril continues. Not all of them
make it, and we feel viscerally the loss of each man.
Saving Private Ryan is not a perfect film. There's a salute near the end
that feels far too Hollywood and cheapens the incredible emotional surge that
precedes it. And I was both somewhat confused and more than a little perturbed
by the character construction of Cpl. Upham (Jeremy Davies), a linguist drafted
into the squad to help Miller communicate with French citizens. Upham has been
working behind the lines and hasn't fired a shot since basic training.
Certainly, the circumstances in which Upham finds himself are as terrifying as
anything anyone could ever experience, but his utter paralysis under fire isn't
quite convincing. In a film of such brutal action nonetheless deeply rooted in
character, Upham seems a salient cliche.
Such failings, though, in no way diminish this picture's impact or transforming
brilliance. Just as he did in Schindler's List, Spielberg uses the tools
of fiction to deliver an invaluable history lesson. Viewed from the end of the
20th century, in an era of sustained prosperity and relative peace, the allied
victory in World War II takes on an aura of inevitability. Hitler's Germany was
just no match for America's size and industrial might. There can be no question
that we enjoyed advantages in this regard, but victory still required the will
to fight, a will that Hitler gambled America and the soldier at the front just
did not have. He was wrong. But this story, in horrifying image after
horrifying image, drives home the terrible price of exerting that will.
It was hardly inevitable that we would triumph on the beaches of Normandy, and
if we had not, the war would have taken a frighteningly different course.
Moreover, by starting with fighting at Omaha Beach and then taking us on to the
horrors of the interior, Spielberg illustrates that the will to fight had to be
exercised over and over again. Survival in one place simply brought peril in
the next. Victory in one battle only changed the location of the battle that
followed. The success of Operation Overlord did not bring the war to an end,
and even though we had the upper hand in its aftermath, ultimate victory still
was not assured. Men had to keep fighting and dying for another 11 months
before V.E. Day.
Saving Private Ryan has many things to teach us, among them that war is
not just hell but chaos, that among its countless terrors is its disorder.
Generals at the rear may devise grand strategies, but even when successful,
they defy neat execution. Clouds kept the Air Corps from providing promised
support on D-Day. Winds blew paratroopers miles from their drop zones. Naval
bombardment failed to drive the Nazis from their reinforced bunkers. And the
grunt still had to go ashore. In the chaos of front-line officers dead and
platoons cut in half and more, men had to devise organization on the spot.
Elsewhere, sometimes, when officers survived, American soldiers accustomed to
freedom of speech, like Pvt. Reiben (Edward Burns) in Miller's squad, didn't
always agree with their commander's directive. Thousands of rebellions and
potential rebellions had to be faced and overcome.
Only Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One remotely approximates what
Spielberg accomplishes here in terms of making a viewer grasp the enormity of
the grunt's experience, the quaking fear as he lay in iffy ambush listening to
the grinding approach of enemy tanks, the soul-ravaging frustration of hearing
a wounded friend cry for help, the gnawing anxiety that what he has seen and
endured, what he has chosen to do, been forced to do and held back from doing,
have collaborated to change him into something other than himself. Miller says
he's afraid that the wife he so longs to return to won't recognize him when he
All these things certainly make us understand why a tough man like Horvath
carries around three canisters of dirt, one of soil from North Africa, another
from Italy and a third filled with Normandy sand. For Horvath, these canisters
are his most valuable possessions, each beyond the purchase of money, each
bought with blood. All these things made me understand something I thought I
was above understanding. They don't make me approve or even justify. But they
did make me understand why a good man might shoot down an enemy who has thrown
away his weapon and raised his arms in surrender. War is hell, and, as
historian Stephen Ambrose has written, our civilization owes a debt it can
never repay to those who braved the hell at Normandy in 1944.