Like so many World War II veterans (I could see them all around me in the theater audience), I was drawn to see Saving Private Ryan. I had volunteered for the Air Force at the age of twenty. After training as a bombardier, I went overseas with my crew to fly some of the last bombing missions of the European war.
My pilot was nineteen. My tailgunner was eighteen. Every death in Saving Private Ryan reminded me, as it must have reminded other veterans, of how lucky we were, we who survived. My two closest Air Force buddies who went through training with me and then on to other theaters (what a word, “theaters”!)-—Joe Perry to Italy, Ed Plotkin to the Pacific—were killed in the last weeks of the war.
I watched Private Ryan’s extraordinarily photographed battle scenes, and I was thoroughly taken in. But when the movie was over, I realized that it was exactly that—I had been taken in. And I disliked the film intensely. I was angry at it because I did not want the suffering of men in war to be used—yes, exploited—in such a way as to revive what should be buried along with all those bodies in Arlington Cemetery: the glory of military heroism.
“The greatest war movie ever made,” the film critics say about Saving Private Ryan. They are a disappointing lot, the film critics. They are excited, even exultant, about the brilliant cinematography, depicting the bloody chaos of the Omaha Beach landing. But they are pitifully superficial.
They fail (with a few honorable exceptions, such as Vincent Canby in The New York Times and Donald Murray in The Boston Globe) to ask the most important question: Will this film help persuade the next generation that such scenes must never occur again? Will it make clear that we must resist war, even if it is accompanied by the seductive speeches of political leaders saying that this latest war, unlike other bad wars we remember, will be another “good” one, like World War II?
The admiring critics of the movie give their own answer to that: It is a war movie, they say, not an anti-war movie.
Some viewers have asked how can anyone want to go to war after seeing such horror? But knowing the horrors of war has never been an obstacle to a quick build-up of war spirit by patriotic political speeches and an obsequious press.
All that bloodshed, all that pain, all those torn limbs and exposed intestines will not deter a brave people from going to war. They just need to believe that the cause is just. They need to be told: It is a war to end all wars (Woodrow Wilson), or we need to stop Communism (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon), or aggression must not go unpunished (Bush), or international terrorists have declared war on us (Clinton).
In Saving Private Ryan, there is never any doubt that the cause is just. This is the good war. There is no need to say the words explicitly. The heartrending crosses in Arlington National Cemetery get the message across, loud and clear. And a benign General Marshall, front and back of the movie, quotes Abraham Lincoln’s words of solace to a mother who has lost five sons in the Civil War. The audience is left with no choice but to conclude that this one—while it causes sorrow to a million mothers—is in a good cause.
Yes, getting rid of fascism was a good cause. But does that unquestionably make it a good war? The war corrupted us, did it not? The hate it engendered was not confined to Nazis.
We put Japanese families in concentration camps.
We killed huge numbers of innocent people—the word “atrocity” fits—in our bombings of Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, and finally Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And when the war ended, we and our Allies began preparing for another war, this time with nuclear weapons, which, if used, would make Hitler’s Holocaust look puny.
We can argue endlessly over whether there was an alternative in the short run, whether fascism could have been resisted without fifty million dead. But the long-term effect of World War II on our thinking was pernicious and deep. It made war—so thoroughly discredited by the senseless slaughter of World War I—noble once again. It enabled political leaders—whatever miserable adventure they would take us into, whatever mayhem they would wreak on other people (two million dead in Korea, at least that many in Southeast Asia, hundreds of thousands in Iraq) and on our own—to invoke World War II as a model.
Communism supplanted Nazism as a reason for war, and when we could no longer point to Communism as a threat, a convenient enemy, like Saddam Hussein, could be compared to Hitler. Our leaders used glib analogies to justify immense suffering. The presumed absolute goodness of World War II created an aura of rightness around war itself (note the absence of a great movement of protest against the Korean War), which only an adventure as monstrously evil, as soaked in official lies as Vietnam, could dispel.
Vietnam caused large numbers of Americans to question the enterprise of war itself. Now, Saving Private Ryan, aided by superb cinematographic technology, draws on our deep feeling for the GIs in order to rescue not just Private Ryan but the good name of war.
I will not be surprised if Spielberg gets an Academy Award. Did not Kissinger get a Nobel Prize? The committees that give prizes are, too often, bereft of social conscience. But we are not bound to honor their choices.
To refresh my memory, I watched the video of All Quiet on the Western Front. With no musical background, without the benefit of modern cinematography, without fields of corpses, with no pools of blood reddening the screen, that film conveyed the horror of warfare more powerfully than Saving Private Ryan. The one fleeting shot of two hands clutching barbed wire, the rest of the body gone, said it all.
In Spielberg’s film, we see Tom Hanks gunned down, and it is sad. But it is a prosaic sadness compared to the death of the protagonist in Erich Remarque’s story, as we watch a butterfly hover over a trench, and we see the hand of Lew Ayres reach out for it and go limp. We see no dead body, only that beautiful butterfly, and the reaching hand.
But more important, All Quiet on the Western Front does not dodge—as Saving Private Ryan does, as its gushing critics do—the issue of war. In it, war is not just horrible; it is futile. It is not inevitable; it is manufactured. Back home, commenting on the war, is no kindly General Marshall, quoting Lincoln, but prosperous men urging the soldiers, “On to Paris, boys! On to Paris! ”
The boys in the trenches don’t just discuss the battle; they discuss the war. They ask: Who is profiting? They propose: Hey, let’s have the world’s leaders get into an arena and fight it out themselves! They acknowledge: We have no quarrel with the boys on the other side of the barbed wire!
Our culture is in deep trouble when a film like Saving Private Ryan can pass by, like a military parade, with nothing but a shower of confetti and hurrahs for its color and grandeur.
Published in The Progressive • October 2, 1998