Saving Private Ryan challenges this idealistic vision and brands such a benevolent battlefield as pure myth. It is presenting a powerful visual message to millions of Americans—a message voiced recently by George and Meredith Friedman:
The warrior's trade will remain one of courage, dedication, and suffering. Precision-guided munitions will not render war antiseptic, any more than did the tank or crossbow or bronze armor. Technology changes how men fight and die, but it does not change the horror and glory of battle, nor does it change the reality of death.
Saving Private Ryan is all about the reality of death. It is the story of an Army Ranger company that lands on D-Day 1944 at Omaha Beach and suffers heavy casualties getting ashore. The company commander, Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), later is ordered to lead a small rescue party to find a Private Ryan from one of the units scattered throughout Western France behind enemy lines after the initial airdrops—before Ryan becomes the fourth of his mother's sons killed in action within a week.
With too few men and too little information, the patrol sets out. Their journey is the story of good men who must overcome fear, isolation, and death as they try to carry out their mission. They endure moments of sheer terror and experience incredible acts of violence. Their unit cohesion is tested to the extreme. They battle self-doubt, wondering if they possess the willpower, self-discipline, and mental toughness to survive the ravages of each new firefight. They sweat and bleed, and some die. Time after time, their terrible ordeal grips the soul.
Shortly after it begins the search for Private Ryan, the patrol encounters a fragment of a friendly unit that is trying to clear the Germans from a bombed-out French town. Captain Miller can neither obtain useful information from them nor locate their leader. Nobody knows anything beyond his immediate surroundings—not even what is happening two blocks away. Enter a French family. One of Miller's soldiers disrupts the patrol by insisting on taking their young daughter to safety. To him, protecting that little girl is just as important as finding an unknown Private Ryan. Miller thinks otherwise. Unwilling to jeopardize the mission and his men by playing Good Samaritan, he intervenes—but seconds too late. A German sniper mortally wounds the soldier and pins the rest of them down.
By now, the audience and the patrol have become one. We all watch helplessly, in horror, as an American soldier bleeds to death. We are sensing much more than chaos and confusion here. We feel the imminence of death itself, accompanied by the sense of futility and despair that comes from knowing that the dying is far from over. As the scene ends, we have learned that survival in combat demands cold expediency.
Next, the patrol comes across a German radar site. The soldiers, weary and afraid, want to bypass this enemy strong point. Captain Miller shares their fear and fatigue, but favors taking out the machine gun nest guarding the site, to keep it from killing the next friendly patrol that comes along. And who might that be? Miller has no idea—but that's precisely the point. It could be any group of unlucky Americans.
This scene is about coping with war's inherent ambiguity. Miller has come to understand that there are few fixed rules in this business, that each situation is unique and must be dealt with on its own merits. With soldierly stoicism, he accepts the notion that the need to do the morally right thing must always compete with life-saving expediency. As a combat leader, he must reconcile these conflicting ideas and make the call.
The battle at the radar site costs the life of the patrol's beloved medic—their lifesaver—the second soldier to die while searching for Ryan. This excruciating loss severely threatens the cohesion of the patrol and nearly results in the execution of the lone German prisoner. Again, Miller must intervene—but has he made the right call this time? Despite their misgivings, the patrol must press on.
In time, they find Private Ryan, fighting valiantly with a small group of paratroopers, cut off from their parent unit. Any hostility Miller's men carried because of their ordeal melts in the face of Ryan's genuine agony at finding that his three brothers have died doing their duty, while he is being ordered home ignominiously before he can do his. Orders or no, he refuses to abandon the only brothers he has left, who are certain to be outgunned in an imminent last-man defense of a critical bridgehead. In a shining moment of transcendence, Miller and his men interrupt their mission and decide to help with the defense, bringing much-needed experience and firepower—and a glimmer of faint hope where virtually none had existed before.
In this situation, the time for expediency had passed. Even if Miller and his men had been able to pry the reluctant Ryan away from his buddies and complete their mission, they could not have done so with a clear conscience, because they would have been leaving the youthful defenders of the bridge to certain defeat and death. So they took up the cause of strangers they had barely known for 15 minutes. What follows is the best discourse on battlefield innovation, improvisation, and adaptability ever recorded by Hollywood—all undertaken by strangers who face the stark terror of urban combat at point-blank range, with breathtaking military effectiveness.
Well, maybe not quite. Stirring acts of heroism are intermingled with despicable acts of cowardice. And, as in war itself, we have to pause when it is all over to reflect on what it was that brought forth such a prodigious effort in the first place.
Saving Private Ryan reminds us that—on the battlefield—men are more important than machines of war. We fight wars with both, but we must never forget the observation of historian John Keegan:
What battles have in common is human; the behavior of men struggling to reconcile their instinct for self-preservation, their sense of honor, and the achievement of some aim over which other men are ready to kill them.
We see all of this in Saving Private Ryan . We see men fighting for a multitude of reasons. We also see good soldiers die—for a nameless French child, for an obscure private from Iowa, and to preclude the mere possibility that some unknown friendly soldiers might get ambushed. It is a commonplace that the infantryman's primary loyalty is to his combat buddies, but this film shows clearly that Americans have always sacrificed themselves in war to protect strangers or uphold worthy causes, as well. The "buddies-only" myth should have been exposed long ago as a vacuous and simplistic theory of battle. At last, Saving Private Ryan tells Americans the rest of the story—that foot sloggers will also die for strangers, and for ideals held dear.
We also see that the key to effective combat leadership is the willingness to share hardship. Within the first few seconds at Omaha Beach, all of Captain Miller's earlier leadership performance—at Salerno, in the Kasserine Pass, or back in the States—has become irrelevant. What matters most from that point on is that this combat leader shares fully in the dangers and deprivations he asks his men to face. They know he will not ask them to do anything he would not dare to do. And they observe him continuously, as he tries to make good decisions for the right reasons—even though the decisions don't always pan out. Men sometimes die anyway, no matter what the best combat leaders decide or do. In war, dying is an occupational hazard.
In one of the film's most moving leadership scenes, Miller approves the use of extra priceless morphine to ease the final pain-wracked moments of the medic, who is beyond saving. In an instant, the difference between rational, marketplace decision making and true combat leadership becomes stark and clear. This also affirms that Saving Private Ryan is a love story, among other things.
Could this movie be real?
I think so. I am a U.S. Marine; I am the son of a Marine; and I have three brothers who are Marines. This movie touched my heart. I would like to think that a mission to save a soldier or a Marine could be as important as one to save a bridge.
To my mother, I know it would be.
Lieutenant Colonel Greenwood, the recent commander of a deployed battalion landing team, presently is a national security Fellow at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He also wishes to acknowledge his fourth—and oldest—brother, who served proudly in the U.S. Coast Guard.