Triumph and Triviality in Saving Private Ryan

I try to write every year about a war movie on Memorial Day for Law & Liberty. After all, cinema is the major way we remember our wars, our warriors, and reflect on the causes of war. In films, we consider anew America’s cause, and examine our belief in justice and our common prospects for improvement or defense. We go to war under our laws in order to defend our liberty, so we must examine why this is so. In absence of great statesmen—a new Washington or Lincoln—we turn to great artists to guide our thoughts.

In 2020, I wrote about the great man of war, Patton (1970), then on its 50th anniversary. The movie shows that war requires men of astonishing ability, who run counter to some of America’s democratic beliefs and bureaucratic institutions. In 2021, I wrote about Black Hawk Down (2001). In hindsight, we can see that it was a warning about the terrible consequences of popular moralism and elite humanitarianism in the Middle East, leading to America’s longest war.

I also wrote about Greyhound (2020), a Christian allegory of war adapted by Tom Hanks from a C.S. Forester novel about WWII in the Atlantic. These works of fiction help us understand ourselves: They bring out our beliefs, not just our actions or circumstances, as good journalism would do. Movies, after all, even when based on real men or wars, are works of art, intending to transcend their circumstances and make a memorial of our human greatness and misery.

Democratic Wars and Theology

World War II defined our understanding of American power and morality. In my essay on Band of Brothers (2001), I pointed out that Spielberg and Hanks corrected all the mistakes that marred their great success, Saving Private Ryan (1998). This unpopular opinion needs justification especially because war veterans gave their highest testimony of the importance of that movie. Many said they almost relived the war through this artistic experience, which rises far above what most movies or TV shows attempt in our decadent times, which is merely therapy. Art is an attempt to get at the truth about our human predicament, not to massage our feelings and encourage an indulgent view of our failings.

Perhaps we should start with the part people remember best and that struck veterans as truest: the long introductory sequence depicting the D-Day landings. There the sublime Normandy landscape and the heartbreaking suffering soldiers endured combine, in Spielberg’s remarkable cinematic art, to persuade us that we ourselves are there, suffering for America’s cause and perhaps for the cause of humanity. The suffering is in one sense fake—it’s just a movie—but in two senses, it is real. First, of course, the men who fought and died there are real. We suffer because we recognize we owe them our freedom, although we don’t really know them. This is what’s on Spielberg’s mind and what should be on our minds, too.

Secondly, our suffering is also real—we fear, watching this movie, that we are not the kind of men they were. Cinema brings out emotions that help us understand our secret thoughts. After all, most of us have never faced such danger or struggled for such a cause. In showing us heroes, the movie teaches us that we secretly think ourselves fearful of death. Without the high standard of heroism, we wouldn’t know how much we despise ourselves, nor be able to aspire to greatness, either. In admiring those men, the moral beauty of their behavior, their nobility, we feel a certain pain. This is the film’s theme, echoed in the moving death scene that makes the whole story cohere: Earn this! What could we do, what sort of men would we have to be, to be worthy of their sacrifice?

Saving Private Ryan tries to answer this question by looking at the democratic experience of non-professional soldiers. We follow a squad of soldiers tasked with upholding the promise of democracy by saving one man for a woman who’s already lost all her other children in her country’s service, to avert a complete catastrophe and therefore preserve equality by sharing sacrifice rather than letting some take all the suffering. These soldiers are ordinary Americans, with virtues, weaknesses, and vices we know well, not men of war, bred and trained for battle since youth. War’s horrors come as a surprise to them and we might question whether war offers any kind of education, or whether is it simply what we nowadays blithely call trauma? Above all, this is because in a democracy we tend to fear we are victims of fate. Why should this man die and the not the one next him? To learn from war, war has to be intelligible rather than chaotic, yet ordinary democratic experience, unlike the masterplans of generals and presidents, seems to be one long series of accidents. If it’s an accident, it’s not science, and it’s not justice, because if it were, we’d be able to predict the future. War is fearful because it defies prediction, not just because it involves killing. It’s enough to make us ask: Isn’t the whole world an accident, if life and death come by accident? What must we believe in to keep going? In peace as in war, we must believe in divine providence. War reveals our theological grounding.

The film cuts from the aftermath of D-Day to the Pentagon, where an overly sentimental version of George C. Marshall offers his staff platitudes about ridding the world of tyranny. This sort of liberal moralism that Spielberg offers up lies to people by holding up the impossible as their goal, while asking them for their lives. An end to tyranny means installing the rule of God over men, which we cannot do, though we might piously wish it. The disproportion between means and ends makes a travesty of manliness. This is why the movie is such a failure.

But the intention behind it, as seen in the veterans honoring the movie that honors them, is noble. Spielberg is patriotic and wishes to teach patriotism, as any decent poet should. But wishing isn’t enough. In a way, Spielberg is himself too democratic to ever succeed. He relies on the highest political authority in America to give weight to a flimsy piece of fiction about sacrificing quite a number of men to save just one guy, while disregarding the war’s objectives. This is the opposite of statesmanship and generalship, which require some sacrifices in order to save everyone. Spielberg does it just to avoid saying that we owe victory to the great men the nation remembers, from great generals to Medal of Honor recipients to others remembered in smaller communities for astonishing success in face of chaos. This is a mistake.

Real Americans proved themselves in uncertain circumstances, and we should tell their stories. They dared and won. If we want to do likewise, in poetry and in politics and in our own lives, we have to learn.

The Truth About War

Why make such a costly mistake? The war was real, after all, men really fought and killed and died. Great things were done by great men or more often, the hard work of war was accomplished by men good enough to deal with great danger in circumstances they could neither predict nor prepare for. Why not tell the truth as he did in Band of Brothers? Isn’t that our highest command? At the time, Spielberg may have felt that choosing any real soldier, instead of the fictional Private Ryan, would neglect all the others, as though in a democracy, none of us can be heroes, because we are all envious! I reject this idea.

Likewise, Spielberg may have believed that selecting any real battle of importance to the war would be denigrating all the others—and who are we to judge when or by whom the war was won? But America fought to win, not to make a nice picture of democracy.

Remembering war and honoring the veterans requires truth-telling at a high poetic level. Spielberg was right to look for some poetic freedom from circumstances which, after all, can be accidental, but he was wrong to simply invent a story. Real Americans did prove themselves in uncertain circumstances, and we should tell their stories. They dared and won. If we want to do likewise, in poetry and in politics and in our own lives, we have to learn. Audiences need this because they feel they cannot prove themselves in their turn. True stories have the advantage of plausibility and therefore are much better guides to action, to deliberating, deciding, and making choices, which is what movies are supposed to show us. Poetic freedom from events as they happened should show audiences how they might improve their judgment, by offering insight and then allowing audiences the moral freedom of making their own choices. Less moralism and more strategy is a truer hope for democracy and may have saved Saving Private Ryan.

We are perhaps most afraid of needless death. Men who die just before peace is signed; or following foolish or mistaken orders; or in any other way that follows from their trust in imperfect authorities and beliefs. Meaningless death terrifies us because it tempts us with nihilism. We cannot be human if we fear it’s all a matter of chance, that life is absurd. Simply recognizing this point is not enough to prove that humanity makes the difference between justice and madness. Wisdom is needed which surpasses ordinary failures, but that wisdom is not available to most of us most of the time. We are each, in front of death, quite lonely. Spielberg thought poetry could ameliorate this problem by bringing us all together in an experience of our shared love for our fragile humanity.

War and Peace

We should be honest with ourselves—time erases our awareness of wars past. The thought of war itself scares us. We banish death and especially death consented to from our public life. Yet we ceaselessly fight war on abstractions, from poverty to terror, because we fear death. We never tire of talking of our partisan opponents as though they were our enemies in war. Spielberg tried to connect our moral and psychological drama during peacetime to the example of decency under terrible threat during war.

To love peace, we must know it is preferable to war, that we share in some common good that allows our humanity to flourish. We need poetic teachings about the wars that made and defended America so that we may separate war from peace, politics from religion, and the effort to understand ourselves from our need to get along together, lest America should become hateful to us as we become hateful to each other. Our efforts in the cause of justice fall short of ridding the world of tyranny; our scientific efforts fall short of understanding the universe. But we may be spurred to improvement and even a decent pride in our civilization if we know the good we can achieve instead of despising it because it doesn’t live up to fantasies of perfection or annihilation. Only by looking at these things with some clarity could we become less confused, better able to associate, and even able to forebear when we fault each other.

It will take better poets than Spielberg to achieve even some of this, but we should understand his failure in light of his noble intentions. We really do see all our democratic fears in his storytelling and we can therefore learn about the danger facing us, the ways in which those fears can make us too cautious or too sentimental, too worried about not making mistakes or arousing anger to be serious. If war is sentimentalized to the point where one fictional soldier must be an allegory of democracy—a stand-in for the audience—then we are left with a moralistic claim on our attention that actually distracts from the realities we must face. Most obviously, it ignores the real men, whose deeds are always in danger of being forgotten, who proved that democracy is worthwhile because it aims at victory through greatness. One thing WWII teaches us that Spielberg forgot is that America really has been the home of great men, who give us hope by their deeds and speeches. It’s wisest and most pious always to recur to greatness in trying to understand ourselves.