our fathers, we invade
Normandy from the south.
We leave Avranche and travel north
to capture Bayeux by lunch.
army needed seven weeks
to make our two-hour drive.
years ago I did not
come to see this part of France.
For my own war, though half a world away,
was all too close to bear.
afternoon we drive to Omaha
to walk the sand our fathers braved.
The water now is cool and clear.
But then the tide churned red
with body parts and martyrs' blood.
the cliff the crosses gleam
And stretch away beyond my ken.
nine thousand died
so sons might face a different fate.
They gave their lives
that we might dare say no to war.
kneel above a hero's bones
And place my lips to cool white stone.
Though I did not understand it for a very long time, I was taught my first lesson about war when I was in the third grade. The summer I was eight years old, I was assigned responsibilities for mowing the lawn on the large suburban New Orleans lot where I lived. I passed the time during this hot, boring duty by playing "Civil War." My lawnmower was a Gatling gun, and the blades of grass vile Yankee soldiers. I amplified the mower's hum with declarations of "eh, eh, eh, eh" and warnings to myself to watch out for blue-coat-sympathizing azaleas that scratched at my legs as I snaked the mower underneath them. My father heard my mutterings one day and asked me what I was doing. When I explained, he was aghast and immediately sat me down for a lecture about the horrors of war, assuring me that I had no idea what it would be like to shoot a man or come myself under machinegun fire. I would like to claim that I was genuinely edified by this experience, but I wasn't, of course. I was merely irked that my father took things so seriously and that I was thereafter forbidden to play "Civil War" while mowing the lawn.
Two years later, I found a brown army uniform in a dusty trunk in our family's attic and came to know that my father had been a soldier himself during World War II. He did not deny this fact when I asked him about it, but neither did he elaborate. Eventually, I learned from discussions with uncles and grandparents, and in my father's answers to direct questions, that he entered the Army Air Corps on his 18th birthday in February of 1943. A year and a half later 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 broke his thumb playing touch football while awaiting orders and was kept at the rear, thus missing service in one of the most storied battles in all of human history. When I was twelve, I asked him once if he didn't regret missing out on that monumental experience and was openly shocked when he told me he wasn't, that on the contrary he felt his broken thumb was a blessing. He could see my befuddlement at that response, but didn't try to press an explanation save to say that he suspected I'd come to understand as I grew older.
My father's very sober attitude toward his own war experiences made my evolution into an opponent of the war in Vietnam far easier than it might have been. Though he volunteered to serve in World War II, and I spent years fighting the Vietnam draft two and a half decades later, we were never at odds. Still, to the end of his life my father remained almost mute about World War II and the Overlord campaign from which fate sidelined him. Men with whom he served were not so lucky. Men with whom he served gave up their lives at Normandy in some of the bloodiest, most terrifying combat the world has ever known. My father wasn't there. But he knew at close hand what happened there, and knowing what he knew changed him in ways that I will never entirely apprehend. Just after my father's death, in the late spring of 1997, I traveled to the American memorial atop the bluffs at Omaha beach and walked awe-struck among the 9,000 white crosses and stars of David, reading the names of my father's compatriots who sacrificed themselves for their country. Standing on the narrow beach below, gazing up at the ninety-foot embankment where Hitler's soldiers manned their concrete-bunkered machine guns, I was astonished at the enormity of what they braved. 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 ninety percent. Many soldiers were killed without firing a shot, many without even getting out of their landing craft. Yet they kept coming. And if they hadn't, these men of my father's generation, so many of whom wouldn't live to be fathers themselves, if they hadn't kept coming, 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 Omaha Beach assault walks with his family among the headstones and falls on 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 moments.
Saving Private Ryan cuts from the memorial park to that morning fifty-four years ago when Eisenhower's citizen soldiers stormed ashore as the Nazis rained death on them from above. The film's next thirty minutes provides a relentlessly realistic reenactment of the invasion's first wave, not as Daryl Zanuck did in The Longest Day from the point of view of the generals directing the attack, 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 to human hamburger 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, our soldiers ultimately prevailed. And the final two hours of Saving Private Ryan tells the story of eight survivors of Omaha Beach who are given a peculiar assignment. It has come to the attention of General George Marshall (Harve Presnell) that an Iowa mother has suffered the deaths of three of her four soldier sons within seventy-two hours. Her fourth son, Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), is a paratrooper who has landed behind enemy lines in the Normandy interior. Marshall determines to get Private Ryan out of the war immediately, and the chain of command chooses Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) to lead the expedition. Miller selects Sergeant 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. He is 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 ten 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 Private 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 which needs to be held against an armored German counterattack. The men with Captain Miller have already survived the long odds at Omaha Beach, but their peril continues. Not all of them make it, and we feel the loss of each man viscerally. 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. Spielberg pulled off something comparable at the end of Schindler's List when he photographed himself among those placing rocks of remembrance on Oskar Schindler's grave. That worked because it stood outside the narrative of the film as a silent acknowledgment of Spielberg's own personal connection to those of his fellow Jews whom Schindler helped saved. Here, the character's salute resides interior to the narrative and feels contrived, a clumsy gesture for the audience that doesn't ring true to the character who makes it.
Elsewhere I was both somewhat confused and more than a little perturbed by the character construction of Corporal 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. His fear is so nightmarish he can't even fight in immediate self-defense. In a film of such brutal action, yet deeply rooted in character, Upham seems a salient cliche, the egghead coward. In some regard, I think, Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat are trying to work a reversal on us. The stock move would turn Upham into a day-saving hero, redeemed by necessity. And part of the filmmakers' point, no doubt, is that weaklings didn't always rise to the occasion. This whole stratagem would have worked so much better, however, had Upham not been so physically frail on one hand and, on the other, had his cowardice been more decisively self-protective.
Upham's story causes other significant problems as well. In a scene of central importance, Upham insists that the American G.I.'s not execute a Nazi prisoner they have no means to supervise. After much discussion and a threatened mutiny, Captain Miller decides to let the Nazi soldier go, assuming he will be captured by American troops elsewhere. Instead, the German manages to return to his own lines where he fights against Miller's squad in the climactic battle over the bridge and sheds the blood of those who have (however reluctantly) spared him. This passage is particularly thorny for it seems to argue that mercy in wartime is suicidal idiocy. Saving Private Ryan is so very skilled at depicting the horrors of war, it is, in that regard, a powerful advocate for avoiding war whenever possible. But in this instance, at least, the film seems to embrace the war's own barbaric logic: he who spares his enemy is not just a fool but a danger to the men with whom he serves.
And in the final analysis, I am not sure this picture is all that well served by its central premise about eight men being sent to save one. There were precedents in World War II and other wars of mothers losing a number of sons in a short period of time. The letter that General Marshall reads from Abraham Lincoln to< one such mother from the Civil War is a real one. And, indeed, 101st Airborne ranger Fritz Niland was ordered to the rear after his mother was notified that his three brothers were killed during a single week of fighting during June, 1944. But the army sent a chaplain after Niland, not an entire squad. The film's premise provides a certain element of drama as the grunts under Miller's command understandably grouse about their many lives being risked to save that of a lone soldier. And the situation provides the context for Miller's dramatic imperative that Private Ryan "earn" the sacrifice the other men have made to save him. Still, since the army didn't actually send a squad of men out on such a mission, it is perhaps unwise to imagine that it did. As a result, the film's narrative frequently focuses on the wisdom of such a decision, upon the merits of a mission like Captain Miller's in the very midst of the pivotal military campaign of our time. Films like Peter Weir's haunting Gallipoli rightly excoriate the sometime habit of military leaders who lose sight of the preciousness of the men they send into the field. But that particular concern about this particular war, at least in this precise sense, is an invalid one. The drama of the Overlord campaign is certainly great enough to have sustained this film had it simply chosen to follow one group of soldiers as they met the enemy first on the beaches and subsequently in the Normandy hedgerows.
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 twentieth century, in an era of sustained prosperity and relative peace, the allied victory in World War II takes on a aura of inevitability. A child sees D-Day as a glorious adventure and can't understand a father's relief at having missed it. An adult analysis judges Hitler's Germany no match for America's size and industrial might, and 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 G.I. 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 and by no means predictable course. With the western Allies licking the wounds of defeat, would Hitler have been able to turn more decisively to the east? Given more time, would his nuclear scientists have placed atomic weaponry in his hands? Could he have mounted such weapons in the rockets being perfected? On the contrary, might Russia's steamroller from the east have swept clear to the Atlantic? Any of these possibilities, and all are genuine, are to varying degrees disturbing.
By starting with fighting at Omaha Beach and then taking us on to the horrors of the interior, Spielberg illustrates that the incredible 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 was still not assured. Men had to keep fighting and kept on dying for another eleven months before V.E. Day.
Saving Private Ryan has many things to teach us, among them that war is 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 para-troopers 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. When officers survived, the American GI, used to freedom of speech, like Private Reiben (Edward Burns) in Miller's squad, didn't always agree with his commander's directive. In scenes associated with the reviled war in Vietnam, but true as well in the "good" Second World War, 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 listening to a wounded friend cry out for help that can't be risked. Through the decades Hollywood has minted money with its slasher flicks, showing innocent people fighting off the rampages of killers with knives. War, Spielberg reminds us, is the time when such nightmares become reality. Out of bullets and face to face with the enemy, one of Miller's men, Private Mellish (Adam Goldberg), is forced to wrestle over a knife with a man determined to stab him to death. At some level the Halloween and Friday the 13th movies make us laugh because we know they are mere thrill concoctions. No one laughs as Private Mellish struggles for his life. In a related scene, we see the rank fear of finding oneself suddenly weaponless. Sergeant Horvath and a Nazi soldier are facing each other when both run out of ammunition at the same time. In a scramble to find some means to protect themselves, they both end up throwing things at one another, whatever is at hand, first empty guns, finally helmets. In another context, this could certainly seem funny, but we feel the soldiers' frenzy of fear all too palpably to want to laugh.
Even in survival the soldier in the field experienced a 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 gets home. All these things certainly make us understand why a tough man like Sergeant Horvath carries around three canisters of dirt, one of soil from North Africa, another from Italy and a third 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 nor 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. This ultimate horror, perhaps, this understanding of rage so great as to reveal a willing murderousness in us all, is what my father understood and what sobered him. And he understood it at close range and not in the comfortable confines of a motion picture theater. War is hell.
As historian Stephen Ambrose has written, our entire civilization owes a debt it can never repay to those of my father's generation who braved the hell at Normandy in 1944.