What Combat Does to Man: Private Ryan and its Critics

December 1, 1998 Topics: Society Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: IslamismToryIslam

What Combat Does to Man: Private Ryan and its Critics

Mini Teaser: Saving Private Ryan challenges our moral seriousness, and that is a daunting thing for a summer film to have done.

by Author(s): Eliot A. Cohen

"Among the groups of scared, tired riflemen along the beach were a few intrepid leaders--officers, noncoms, and privates on whose individual backs the big responsibility at the moment lay. They began by example and exhortation to prod the men to get up, leave such poor shelter as they had found, and walk or crawl across the beach flat and up the hills where the enemy was dug in with rifles, mortars, and machine guns." --U.S. Army history of the Normandy invasion

The first movie audiences to see Saving Private Ryan went in to watch it with the usual accompaniments of that form of entertainment--boxes of popcorn and noisy banter. Two hours and forty minutes later they streamed out in stunned, wet-eyed silence. Veterans of World War II (even those, such as Paul Fussell, who are most caustic about the gulf between those who live war and those who write about it) testified to its fidelity to reality. A chat room devoted to the movie on America Online attracted ten thousand postings in a week, many from veterans or their children, paying tribute to the film. The American Legion created a "Spirit of Normandy" award for Steven Spielberg, and the U.S. Army, in the presence of its chief of staff, General Dennis Reimer, gave him its highest civilian decoration. The Marine veteran who edits the semi-official Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute saw it, came back to his office, shut it down for the day, and took his entire staff to see it.

Oddly enough, however, highbrow critics across the political spectrum had little good to say about Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps understanding the movie better than their colleagues on the Right, some on the Left thought that although the movie portrayed war as horrific, it said too many nice things about military virtue. Vincent Canby in the New York Times sneered that "with Saving Private Ryan war is good again", expressing surprise that the movie suggests, "without irony, if obliquely--that Mom and apple pie were what Americans were fighting and dying for." Writing in the New York Review of Books, Louis Menand complained that movie viewers would not be as horrified by German deaths as by American ones. He urged upon the reader the notion that "what makes war appalling isn't the possibility that someone will maim or kill you; it is the possibility that you will maim or kill someone else." One doubts that many infantrymen would share such philosophic detachment, or, frankly, that responsible citizens (let alone parents and wives) would wish them to. In a protracted polemic directed against not only Spielberg but historian Stephen Ambrose, whose work inspired the film-maker, John Gregory Dunne in The New Yorker disdained as "butch and bluster" the views of op-ed writers who found something profound or moving in the movie.

Conservatives have given Spielberg much rougher handling. Some of this reflected personal animus against a well-known liberal, and descended into ad hominem accusations. Thus, even one of the more thoughtful critics, Christopher Caldwell, began his essay with an extended discussion of Spielberg's politics, and concluded with grudging praise, but also with a swipe at Spielberg as a representative of his generation. The movie, he wrote, may suggest that the Baby Boomers "understand the stakes of World War II, and the rightness of World War II. But it leads one to suspect that, all the same, they would never have fought it themselves." Setting aside those hundreds of thousands of Baby Boomers who dutifully trooped off to the Vietnam War, how does Spielberg's movie reveal that, one wonders? Other conservatives were harsher yet. John Podhoretz in The Weekly Standard decided that the movie showed Spielberg's "limitations not only as an artist but as an adult." And Richard Grenier concluded, egregiously, that, "In Mr. Spielberg's view, the Stars and Stripes, worn on the shoulder, are almost the equivalent of the Swastika."

Many of the conservative critics deplored the movie's failure to rub its audiences' noses in the view that World War II was a Noble Cause, to which Charles Krauthammer aptly replied, "World War II speaks for itself. It needs no spin. Only a moral idiot can doubt its justice." In fact, soldiers at the time (witness Bill Mauldin's Willie and Joe cartoons in Stars and Stripes) would have squirmed at patriotic declamations. As Mauldin noted in Up Front, the GIs referred to the Germans as "krauts", not "Nazis", and had little use for overt attempts to inspire them to do their job. Still, unlike such movies as Paths of Glory or Platoon, there can be no question but that Saving Private Ryan is suffused with patriotism. It begins and ends with a waving flag; features a dignified George C. Marshall quoting a heartrending letter by Abraham Lincoln to the bereaved mother of five sons; and portrays heroic acts by men of all ranks.

One scene, overlooked in the gore and noise of the battle pieces, makes this point particularly vividly. It depicts the administrative office in Washington where a clerk notices that three boys named Ryan have died within a week, leading to the discovery that all came from the same family. The clerks and their superiors (including a one-armed colonel commanding the unit) are serious and alert; the narrator reading excerpts of letters of commanders to bereaved families describes only good soldiers and fine men. A satirist or a skeptic would not depict that kind of military bureaucracy as efficient or humane. Spielberg, however, allows not a whiff of irony to drift into this scene.

The movie's apparent theme is whether it is worth risking the lives of eight men to save one. Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, begins by describing the effort to locate the last Ryan boy as a "public relations mission." During the interval between the movie's two great battle scenes he and his men wrestle with the problematic nature of their task. "We got mothers too", one private remarks sarcastically, and then, pausing, "except maybe the captain." But a tall paratroop captain through whose unit Miller passes surprises him by affirming the worth of the mission. By the time he and his squad have found Ryan, the tough, simple, and unsentimental Sergeant Horvath concedes that this may be the "only worthwhile thing we've done in this whole awful shitty mess." Even the most bitter and skeptical member of the squad, Private Reiben, who is prepared to despise the man whom they have come to rescue, has reconciled himself to the mission. Reiben, who feels particularly keenly the losses suffered to this point, finds himself in a foxhole with Ryan just before the climactic battle with the advancing Germans. In one of several brilliant moments of wordless acting, he gives Ryan a hard look and a slight nod, indicating that he too has accepted not only Ryan, but the value of their task.

The movie's conclusion makes it clear that the most important soldier of them all, Miller, has come to believe that the mission has indeed been worth it, with one haunting proviso: the survivor must attempt, somehow, to redeem the sacrifices made by those who fell. The basic problem here--pulling back a sole surviving son from combat--was a real one in World War II. The broader question of risking many men to save one occurs frequently in war, as Americans have seen even in the last few years when pilots have had to bail out over hostile territory in Bosnia and Iraq. In fact, however, the movie's importance does not lie in its treatment of this question. Rather, it resides in its depiction of men in battle, and of the nature of military leadership.

Even Spielberg's sharpest critics concede his artistic skill in depicting combat. Still, several of the more desperate commentators attempt to demonstrate their bona fides as military historians by resorting to quibbles--heaping scorn, for example, on the rank insignia painted in white on Miller's helmet, which, they insist, would merely have made him a target for German snipers. Richard Grenier remarks, "I know--unlike the captain in Private Ryan--that officers never wear insignia of rank in combat." Untrue, as it happens, since policy on this matter has varied widely from war to war and unit to unit, and more than one officer has chosen to disregard higher authority on this issue. More to the point, the army official history of the Normandy invasion has in it pictures of two battle-stained captains with white bars prominently displayed on the front of their helmets.

A fair-minded and better read military historian would point to more substantial and serious divergences from D-Day reality, such as the absence of naval gunfire, often delivered at pointblank range by destroyers operating perilously close to the shore, which helped suppress the German positions dominating the beach. More serious yet is the implausible nature of the tactical problem inherent in the final shootout between an understrength platoon of American soldiers and what looks to be a company-strength German mechanized task force, an episode that despite all of its drama has too much Hollywood in it. This scene escapes reality in certain technical and tactical aspects that undermine its plausibility, as when Corporal Upham waits until the shooting starts to begin delivering ammunition to a machine gun in a tower.

At a deeper level yet, one might note that no one can hope to portray combat per se: battle produces unique hells in air, on land, and at sea, in different theaters of war, and at different times and places. Movies, moreover, invariably create distortions of time, atmosphere, and emotional experience that prevent them from duplicating reality. But these reservations, though better founded, also miss the point. Spielberg has captured battle with as much fidelity as one can outside of pure documentary, and in some ways rather better.

Paul Fussell has suggested that the first twenty-five minutes of the movie be made into a documentary entitled, "Omaha Beach: Aren't You Glad You Weren't There?" Indeed, the heart-stopping realism of the D-Day scene alone would make the movie worthwhile. That realism, however, goes far beyond a naturalistic rendition of maimed bodies and screaming men. The movie's uniqueness lies less in its graphic depiction of what combat does to man--the exposed viscera, spouting blood, and headless bodies--than in its portrayal of how man fares in combat. One lesson concerns the harsh penalties often exacted by sentiment or folly in war: a soldier trying to rescue a French girl dies an agonizing death from a sniper's bullet, and a glider reinforced to protect one man's life--a general's--becomes unmanageable and crashes as a result, killing almost all on board. Other movies show blood and guts aplenty, but few show death catching men so randomly, before they have had a chance to fight, or (in this case) even to disembark to prepare to fight. Randomness pervades the movie, to include the basic premise: the death of the three other Ryan brothers, necessitating the rescue of the fourth.

Not merely randomness, but a realistic weirdness characterizes Spielberg's portrayal of war. The eery dialogue in the death grapple between a knife-wielding German soldier and one of Miller's men at the very end of the film, the murderous cool of the squad sniper as he mutters Old Testament prayers while marking the range to his victims, the darkly comic confrontation of two soldiers with jammed weapons who throw their helmets at each other before reaching for pistols--all of these scenes have occurred, we know, in real war, and all reveal something of human nature. "Why can't you bastards give us a chance?", screams the medic after a burst of fire kills the man whose wounds he has just staunched. Small wonder that another soldier shouts, "Let them burn!" after a flamethrower turns the German occupants of a machine gun nest into human torches. Veterans have long known (although rarely reported to the folks back home) that sometimes they take prisoners and sometimes not, and sometimes they may shoot a few before battle fury subsides and then let the rest survive. These scenes too have a terribly convincing quality. Horrible as some of these deeds are, American soldiers appear not so much to be committing atrocities as yielding to a kind of combat insanity. Their callous joking while sorting through the dog tags of dead soldiers contrasts with the tenderness with which they care for a dying comrade, which contrasts yet again with their hard desire to shoot in cold blood the hapless German soldier who also was only doing his duty in gunning down their buddy.

Spielberg captures the strange mind tricks played by combat. Several times during the movie Captain Miller, stunned by noise and what he has seen, becomes weirdly detached from a reality that seems to have become suspended, silent, and remote. Within a few seconds he returns to the here and now, in a phenomenon reported by veterans of infantry combat. He suffers, moreover, from the physical manifestations (in particular, an unstoppable tremor) of the combat fatigue that was only beginning to be fully understood during the Second World War as something altogether different from lack of resolve or mere cowardice. This too is subtly portrayed: at several points Miller tells Sergeant Horvath that he doubts his ability ever to explain to anyone what they have seen and done. When he says that he has journeyed so far from home that he doubts he can ever return, he refers not only to the physical distance and mortal perils that lie between Normandy and small-town Pennsylvania.

The truthfulness of the movie thus extends to the non-combat scenes as well. The mock homosexual banter of the soldiers, the assortment of human types found in any military unit, the pathetic wish of the outsider (Corporal Upham, the morally problematic translator dragged along on the mission) to be accepted and the reluctance of the veterans to have him--these ring true. So too does Ryan's adamant refusal to abandon his exposed comrades when Miller finally finds him. He expresses a sentiment shared by countless soldiers when he tells rescuers that these are the only brothers he has left. There are other poignant moments, as when Miller and Horvath remember, with mirth ever so slightly tinged with hysteria, some of the characters who have served with them--and suddenly realize that all of these men are gone, and that they are mocking their idiosyncrasies. There are grimly comic moments too, as Miller begins to despair of ever finding Ryan after several false starts.

When Miller reports back to the beach a few days after the landing in order to receive his new mission, he glances at a couple of GIs eating fresh salami sandwiches and shaving with hot water. In an instant one sees on his face (again, without a word) the resentment and then the resignation that front-line soldiers feel when they see rear-area troops enjoying what civilians think of as the most trivial luxuries. In the same instant the thought occurs to the viewer that we, so far removed from this world, would normally have thought of the lounging men as combat troops (they are, after all, no more than a couple of miles from the front); but, in fact, they are almost as distant from what Miller and his men have gone through as we are. A similar sense of distance begins and ends the movie, when, in a contemporary Normandy cemetery, an aged veteran comes to terms with the aching losses the movie depicts. On the faces of his pleasant and attractive blonde grandchildren one reads a vague concern about the old man, but a complete lack of understanding of what he has experienced, and how it consumes him still.
Saving Private Ryan's essential psychological truth supports its second great theme: leadership.

Reviewers who, in a curiously confessional mood, declared with Roger Ebert that, "I identified with Upham, and I suspect many honest viewers will agree with me", missed this point. To be sure, part of the movie's power lies in the anxiety it engenders in its viewers that, in similar circumstances, they might have acted like Upham rather than, let us say, Reiben. Still, Upham is, in fact, a minor and certainly unattractive figure: his last act is a cowardly murder, committed in a hopeless attempt to recover some self-respect following his failure to come to the aid of a comrade in combat. Rather, the men to watch are those in the original squad led by Hanks' character. In this regard, the D-Day sequence bears watching (if one has a strong stomach) more than once. The first time the viewer sees chaos and horror simply: death hammering on the ramps of tossing landing craft before men can get out, and the scourge of shot and shell on that open beach. The second time, however, one notes other things, in particular the improvisation and determination that, in the end, made the landings there a success. A thread of tactical skill, only intermittently visible to those watching, underlies the wiping out of a German bunker, and Miller's company's passage to the exit paths that were, in fact, the tactical objectives of the improvised teams of men at Omaha. In that breakthrough Miller does not indulge in heroics; he makes decisions, gives orders, and sends his men first into the fire when that makes sense. It is Sergeant Horvath who yells, "We're in business!", and leads the breakthrough.

Tom Hanks clearly has some leadership ability himself. When the other actors mutinied against the retired Marine veteran who put them through ten days of misery to prepare for the combat scenes, Hanks shamed them into staying the course. His portrait of Miller as a leader is flawless. If civilians should see the movie to remind themselves of, in Siegfried Sassoon's words, "the hell where youth and laughter go", second lieutenants should see it to reflect on what it means to lead men in battle. Miller manages a delicate balance between intimacy with his men and a carefully maintained distance from them. He treats the fumbling and panicky Upham with amused authority, but subtly pulls him into the unit. He gently helps Ryan to remember his fallen brothers, and then, equally gently but firmly nonetheless, declines to let the private peer into his new commander's soul. His personal background is a mystery to his men, and he keeps it that way, playing on their curiosity to serve the ends of discipline. He encourages them to gripe, but reminds them that gripes "only travel up, never down": he will never complain to them. He participates in their banter, but there is no doubt that he is the boss. That, as he says to Private Ryan at the end, "is non-negotiable." Even so, Miller cannot always bark orders; he must at times persuade, cajole, and even manipulate his men in order to get them to do what he wants. A military historian once observed that in all armies there is a silent vote that occurs before men move forward, and this too we see in Saving Private Ryan.

Miller's men have noticed his hand shake as he tries to hold a compass, and although he attempts to joke them out of their anxiety, they eye him with a mixture of solicitude for a beloved leader and raw fear of losing the man they need to keep them alive. In yet another wordless moment, when overcome with grief at the death of one of his men, he manages--but just barely--to find a shell hole to yield to the emotional storm, so that his men will not see him crack. The frantic look he casts over his shoulder to make sure that he is hidden from view reflects the instincts of the leader dominating and controlling, with a supreme effort of will, the anguish of the man. It is not just that he has seen too much horror, or that he grieves over a single man. A young officer learns that he must place in strict order of priority "my mission, my men, myself." Miller keeps his own fears and longings very much to himself, but he broods about the price his men have paid to achieve their missions ever since his war began. He attempts to convince himself that the men he has killed--and by this he means his own men, who have died carrying out his orders--have, through their sacrifices, saved the lives of many more. He recognizes the tenuousness of this rationalization, but he clings to it to stay sane.

Real-life combat leaders exude the kind of quiet self-confidence and purpose that Miller displays on film. They also suffer the kind of pressures that bring him close to the breaking point on numerous occasions--as when he begins shouting at a passing column of paratroopers, or when his men nearly dissolve in mutiny before he intervenes to get them in hand. In the end, their men follow the Millers of this world not simply because of The Cause or even formal discipline and mere habit, but because of a moral authority rooted in competence and character. Miller's men, on the other hand, prove themselves, with one exception, to be average heroes: guys who hate their duty but do it, and do it to a high standard and despite their fears. Miller himself appears to us as an altogether believable leader of a type always in scarce supply, but frequently enough encountered to be familiar to those who know soldiers.

If Saving Private Ryan offers real insight into the nature of battle and leadership, why so little attention to these aspects of it on the part of critics? There is a personal reaction to Spielberg here, puzzling if only because no evidence suggests that he is anything other than a considerably nicer type of human being than many other spectacularly successful Hollywood producers. As for his politics, they have nothing to do with whether he has created great art. Perhaps distortion has arisen from many critics' temptation to discuss a movie genre--"the war flick"--rather than to discuss war, particularly if they have not experienced it themselves. A desire to fight cultural battles rather than meditate upon real ones has similarly distorted much of the reaction to the movie.

There is, however, a deeper explanation for critical disquiet with Saving Private Ryan. The movie offers no easy way out for its characters or its audience, and hence for critics. D-Day was, we all know, a smashing strategic success--but now we have an inkling of the horrors that accompany even lopsided victories. Miller's mission is a morally just one, we come to believe--but not so unambiguously right that survivors of it can brace themselves up and say, "Yes, the casualties were worth it." Miller is a great leader--but he has killed his men when he could have kept them alive, and teeters on the edge of psychic collapse. Courage and skill bring success--but never seem able to guarantee physical survival or psychological peace: the lone surviving veteran in the cemetery at Normandy can never know that he has "earned this." Most troubling of all, the men who fought this great war did their duty and achieved one of the most monumental victories of all time--but their children and grandchildren, the beneficiaries of their sacrifices, can only stare in sympathetic puzzlement at them. The movie raises troubling questions, and too many critics insist on having them answered. Saving Private Ryan challenges our moral seriousness, and that is a daunting thing for a summer film to have done. But it is also what distinguishes a great piece of art from a merely good one.

Eliot A. Cohen is professor of strategic studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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