Veterans Day 2016: What Saving Private Ryan can teach us about service and sacrifice

For those of you who might read this blog but might not know that yours truly is active duty military and is in the 23rd year of service in the U.S. Army, this is another self-indulgent, non-hockey post for Veterans Day 2016. Will completely understand those who stop reading, but had a chance to watch Saving Private Ryan again over the weekend for the first time since it came out in 1998, which might be surprising to some. The reality is- after doing multiple combat tours in Iraq (with the 3rd and 1st Infantry Divisions and 1st Cavalry Division) and another in Afghanistan (again with the 1st Cavalry Division) from 2004-2014, the movie wasn’t high on my list of things to see again because I didn’t know how I would react to some of the visceral images and a host of emotions the film was sure to evoke.

I’m happy to report that getting through it wasn’t that bad. In fact, if anything- I enjoyed it more than I did 18 years ago when I was a young captain who had not experienced combat (9/11 was still three years away), and could not relate to the real power behind the film. That power is found in depicting, to the best of director Steven Spielberg’s ability, the horrors of war and the enormous physical and psychological stress that combat puts on those who experience it.

Saving Private Ryan is a triumph in cinema- it is gritty and realistic. It is a mostly fictional accounting of a mission to retrieve one soldier from the front in France shortly after the invasion of Normandy after all of his brothers had died in battle in the preceding days leading up to and during Operation Overlord or D-Day- the allied invasion of Europe at Normandy. The story is loosely based on other events during the Second World War, and some of the first scenes of the movie- the amphibious landing at Dog Sector/Omaha Beach by the 1st Infantry Division, 29th Infantry Division’s 116th Infantry Regiment and Army Rangers under Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder, are based on one of the bloodiest engagements of the war. But even as realistic as SPR is, it cannot accurately capture the sudden violence and sheer terror you feel when a bullet cracks over your head or pings off of an armored Humvee you’re riding in.

As a combat veteran, I found myself focusing less on the action. Was it realistic? It sure was, but even as realistic as the filmmakers tried to make it, it still did not compare to the sounds, concussion and chaos you experience when someone really is shooting at you…or a roadside bomb goes off near your vehicle. SPR came close, and my wartime experiences pale in comparison to what veterans of the Second World War and Korean and Vietnam conflicts saw in terms of sustained kinetic engagements (read: firefights). However, as a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, my war consisted of long periods of time with very little happening- living on a forward operating base and doing staff work, going out on various patrols, missions or meetings out in our area with not much out of the ordinary. Until we’d get hit and in a very small but violent space, everything changed.

That was my war- SPR was not. But, as I re-watched it, I realized that my focus was less on the myriad battle scenes (I was admittedly uncomfortable at times, but save for the final bridge battle, it did not quite bring me back to Baghdad the way this year’s 13 Hours did- to me, the Michael Bay film was far more realistic in terms of recreating what my wartime experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan were like for obvious reasons given the setting, and is worth watching if you haven’t seen it).

No- while the action is an essential part of the tapestry Spielberg weaves, the film’s power is derived from the Soldier interactions and the dialogue between the Rangers who went out to find Private Ryan of the 101st Airborne Division and bring him home. The movie got a lot of that right, and so I wanted to share a few scenes with you to provide my perspective on what truly resonated for me the second time around.

 

Scene 1:

Pvt. Jackson: Sir… I have an opinion on this matter.

 

Capt. Miller: Well, by all means, share it with the squad.

 

Pvt. Jackson: Well, from my way of thinking, sir, this entire mission is a serious misallocation of valuable military resources.

 

Capt. Miller: Yeah. Go on.

 

Pvt. Jackson: Well, it seems to me, sir, that God gave me a special gift, made me a fine instrument of warfare.

 

Capt. Miller: Reiben, pay attention. Now, this is the way to gripe. Continue, Jackson.

 

Pvt. Jackson: Well, what I mean by that, sir, is… if you was to put me and this here sniper rifle anywhere up to and including one mile of Adolf Hitler with a clear line of sight, sir… pack your bags, fellas, war’s over. Amen.

 

Pvt. Reiben: Oh, that’s brilliant, bumpkin. Hey, so, Captain, what about you? I mean, you don’t gripe at all?

 

Capt. Miller: I don’t gripe to *you*, Reiben. I’m a captain. There’s a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don’t gripe to you. I don’t gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger.

 

Pvt. Reiben: I’m sorry, sir, but uh… let’s say you weren’t a captain, or maybe I was a major. What would you say then?

 

Capt. Miller: Well, in that case… I’d say, “This is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover… I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and am willing to lay down my life and the lives of my men – especially you, Reiben – to ease her suffering.”

So, why is this realistic? For one, it provides a pretty good look at how “Joe” in this case- Private Jackson (Barry Pepper) and Private Reiben (brilliantly played by Ed Burns, btw) question their orders and the mission. Capt. Miller addresses their “gripes” when Reiben addresses him, and Miller provides a textbook example of how a leader should respond when subordinates complain, even if they raise good points. As the good captain says- gripes go up, not down. Reiben speaks candidly to Miller, and we by now know that Reiben is irreverent but gets away with it because when the bullets are flying, he’s good in a fight. Pro tip- this is how a lot of the best troops are. The key thing is that when confronted with the subordinate’s unhappiness with orders, the leader doesn’t feed into the negativity by agreeing or airing his own reservations about the mission even if he has them. That’s how leadership works, but unfortunately- it’s easier sometimes to take the more self-indulgent approach and start bitching along with the rest of the troops, but that can impact unit cohesion and job performance. Here, Miller shows Reiben what right looks like and injects humor into his response when further pressed by his subordinate, essentially shutting the griping Browning Automatic Rifleman down.

Scene 2: 

Capt. Hamill: We sure as hell could use you around here, but I understand what you’re doing.

 

Capt. Miller: You do?

 

Capt. Hamill: Yeah. I’ve got a couple of brothers myself.

 

Capt. Miller: Oh.

 

Capt. Hamill: Good luck.

 

Capt. Miller: Thank you.

 

Capt. Hamill: I mean it. Find him. Get him home.

This is a small scene but it is an impactful one, because it illustrates the basic teamwork and camaraderie that exists by military members in combat. Captains Miller (Hanks) and Hamill (Ted Danson) don’t know each other, and one is in the Rangers while the other is a 101st Airborne Division Pathfinder, and after the mixup with Private Ryans (check out the Pvt Ryan from Minnesota- he’s played by Nathan Fillion of “Firefly” and “Castle” fame. Decorated character actor Paul Giamatti also makes a cameo as one of Danson’s sergeants in this segment of the film, but hardcore fans probably know about both) Danson’s company commander could have been angry at now having to deal with a distraught soldier and turned his frustrations on Hanks. He doesn’t- instead, he demonstrates the kind of leadership that so many in his position did and displays empathy.

Not all people are equal in abilities and talents, and the military is no different. Some commanders are brilliant, others aren’t- martinets or without the requisite people skills and intellect to handle the complexities of combat and stress. Here, you see two of the best examples of small unit commanders coming together. When Hanks informs Danson that he can’t stay and help out, the latter understands and wishes him well, then shows him a church where Hanks and his squad can bed down for the night. This is why the American military has been so good for so long- the values of loyalty and selfless service shine through in this scene.

Danson’s Capt. Hamill gets it- and on the surface he tells you it’s because he has a couple of brothers himself, but the bigger picture symbolism is about the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of the profession of arms- everyone who has been a part of our military sees it firsthand, and there is a larger point Danson is making here. It’s not just about believing in the mission to find (the Iowa version of) Private Ryan because he can relate to the feelings he has for his own siblings- it’s about finding Ryan because he is also a brother of that Army fraternity that is fighting and dying in droves on the European continent in June, 1944.

This clip is just a soundbite when compared to the others in this post, but it delivers an important message: Find him. Get him home.– it’s really code for- Ryan is family- our Army family, and if we can spare his parents the complete and total sacrifice of the Ryan male line in this war, we must do it. Not should, but must. Why? Because we are all his brothers, and as leaders we have an obligation to something much bigger than any one person or even unit.  That doesn’t resonate with Hanks as Miller here- it will take Ryan himself when he confronts the Rangers on the bridge and refuses to leave with them in the scene below to bring it full circle to Miller, and in his final moments, you realize that he gets it. But more on that later…

Scene 3: 

(if you don’t want to see the Vecchio discussion, the sequence starts at 1:44)

Capt. Miller: You see, when… when you end up killing one of your men, you see, you tell yourself it happened so you could save the lives of two or three or ten others. Maybe a hundred others. Do you know how many men I’ve lost under my command?

Sgt. Horvath: How many?

Capt. Miller: Ninety-four. But that means I’ve saved the lives of ten times that many, doesn’t it? Maybe even twenty, right? Twenty times as many? And that’s how simple it is. That’s how you… that’s how you rationalize making the choice between the mission and the man.

Sgt. Horvath: Except this time, the mission is a man.

Capt. Miller: This Ryan better be worth it. He better go home and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light bulb, or something. Because the truth is, I wouldn’t trade ten Ryans for one Vecchio or one Caparzo.

Why this scene? It illustrates the terrible burden of command in combat and what leaders must do when dealing with the loss of their subordinates. Capt Miller and Sgt. 1st Class Horvath reminisce about Pvt. Vecchio, who died earlier in the war, reminding us all of the true difference between leaders in civilian life and those who lead troops in war.

This scene, and the next one below, provide an important perspective on what is driving Miller: even though he agrees with his men, who don’t see the fairness in risking themselves for one person, he doesn’t have the luxury of voicing his misgivings, so he has to find every possible silver lining if he can continue to be the effective commander his men require of him.

He’s lost virtually his entire command…that’s critical in all of this. Captains typically lead units of 100 men or more with four lieutenants in charge of three platoons (and an executive officer or second in command to help lead the company). Miller’s company is down to less than 10 men- all of his officers dead or evacuated. Sergeant First Class Horvath (Tom Sizemore) a platoon sergeant now elevated to First Sergeant as Miller’s senior noncommissioned officer and most trusted subordinate. The weight of command is crushing Miller and for the first time, we see the impact the war has had on him after displaying unflappable calm in some of the most visceral of combat settings.

This gets to the heart of many moral and ethical challenges leaders wrestle with: the mission or the men (and women)? The answer is- unless you have been given an illegal order, you have to find the right balance and get the job done. Miller understands that, even if he’s conflicted about what he’s been tasked to do. He loves his men- those he’s lost, and certainly those still alive and in his charge. Adrian Caparzo (Vin Diesel), felled by a sniper’s bullet just a few hours before is now dead and it’s one more reminder that he’s failed in his personal mission to bring all of his men home. His moral dilemma is that where the other missions had clear objectives that Miller understood and agreed with, this one does not.

Scene 4: 

(sequence starts at 2:55)

Capt. Miller: Sometimes I wonder if I’ve changed so much, my wife is even gonna recognize me whenever it is I get back to her, and how I’ll ever be able to, tell about days like today. Ahh, Ryan. I don’t know anything about Ryan, I don’t care. The man means nothing to me; he’s just a name. But if, you know, if going to Remelle, and finding him so he can go home, if that earns me the right to get back to my wife, well then, then that’s my mission.

This one is tough.

Pvt. Reiben is in open revolt after Capt. Miller’s assault on a German machine-gun emplacement results in the death of the squad’s medic and friend, Arlen Wade (Giovanni Ribisi was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor if I remember correctly). The bonds that had brought the men so far are now breaking apart and as Reiben and Horvath exchange threats, Miller steps forward and we get the first reveal into his life before the Army, a big deal as the unit had a pool on their commander for whoever could succeed in getting him to open up. Here, he does so in order to diffuse a dangerous situation and in so doing, we learn so much about the captain’s humanity.

Our military is so diverse and populated by people who all have a unique story and their own reasons for volunteering- whether enlisting or being commissioned. Here, Capt. Miller is reconciling the things he’s done in battle- having killed enemy combatants (we saw it in the assault on Dog Sector Red, Omaha Beach sequence) and having seen so many of his men and others die- not only on the beach and bluffs overlooking the engagement area, but in the hedgerows in the days immediately after June 6, 1944, and now with the beloved Wade bleeding out and dying as his brothers could only huddle around him and watch their “Doc’s” life ebb away.

We have an idea of the horrors he’s experienced and the demons he’s wrestling with and now, he provides an important glimpse into the window of his soul, and he does it because he knows the mission is not yet accomplished, and it cannot be completed without everyone rowing in the same direction, to include the fed-up Reiben. This serves as a reminder that everyone in the military is human. Not all live up to the values and ideals of our service and our job is to weed those bad apples out. But everyone is motivated by different things. Miller finally breaks his silence to tell his men he’s a teacher, a baseball coach…but he also reminds them that he’s fighting for something bigger than himself. In this raw moment, they are allowed to come to terms with their own reasons for being there, and able to see the bigger picture so that they can continue on towards their rendezvous with Ryan despite suffering the setback of losing the one who was the symbol of their collective conscience- Doc Wade.

Scene 5: 

Pvt. Ryan: It doesn’t make sense, sir. I mean, why me? Why not any of us? Hell, these guys deserve to go home as much as I do. They’ve  all fought just as hard.

Capt. Miller: Is that what they’re supposed to tell your mother when they send her another folded American flag?

Pvt. Ryan: Tell her that when you found me, I was here, and I was with the only brothers I have left. And that there was no way I was going to desert them. I think she’d understand that. There’s no way I’m leaving this bridge.

When I commanded a basic training company at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri in the early 2000s, this was the scene I showed the new recruits during my first introduction to them after their arrival and “reception” by my drill sergeants (ha ha- veterans who experienced the joys of basic training will understand what I am talking about there). I would talk to them about the definition of a mercenary and then ask how many joined the Army to fund college- then waited for the majority of some 250-300 sets of hands to go up. The purpose of this was not to make them feel bad but to remind them that the Army as an organization was not necessarily a means to an end, and that the warrior ethos extended far beyond the payoff of a financial mechanism to afford a higher education when the enlistment was up.

I used this scene to try and illustrate for the new soldier/trainees that in some 2 hours of the movie, what it really all boiled down to was this exchange between Capt Miller and Pvt Ryan (Matt Damon). How should Ryan have acted when the Ranger captain showed up and told him that his brothers were all dead and to pack his shit because he was going home? Some out there might say, “hell yeah!” but that misses the entire point of what the movie was trying to show you. Even with the griping, Miller’s Rangers were as close as ever when the bullets started flying. They didn’t quit or desert, even though the death of Doc Wade stretched them to the breaking point of their willingness to continue the mission to find Ryan and their loyalty to Miller.

Ryan has his own loyalties- to the squad-sized element of 101st soldiers charged with defending one of the only intact bridges over the Merderet River and one that they know counterattacking German Panzer forces want to seize. Even though he understands what the Rangers are doing, he cannot reconcile a decision made by General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff (and a man about as far removed in the chain of command from a private as it gets), to pull him out of the fighting when he knows his brothers in arms are in for the fight of their lives. That’s what it all comes down to.

And, when Reiben shouts out, “Hey asshole- two of our guys already died trying to find you,” Ryan solemnly asks their names, and shows the deference of a man who knows all too well what it means to lose not only blood family to the war, but his comrades- “Army brothers” as well.

If you’ve served, you don’t need this scene explained to you. And, I’d like to think that for those trainees who saw that and listened to what I was telling them in a time of severe change and stress in their lives, it might have helped them to soldier through and not quit. I’ve run into a few of those Soldiers in the some 17 years since I commanded that training company. They remember me before I do them, and a few of them have had kind words for the leadership style I had and for taking the time to try and show them the history and traditions of the Army that early in their training. I wanted those new soldiers to develop a pride in self and service, so when I do on occasion cross paths with one of my former Alpha Gators, it means a great deal that they remember me and give me feedback about the experience they had in my company, both good and bad.

 

Scene 6: 

Sgt. Horvath: What are your orders?

Capt. Miller: We have crossed some strange boundary here. The world has taken a turn for the surreal. 

Sgt. Horvath: Clearly, but the question still stands.

Capt. Miller: I don’t know…what do you think?

Sgt. Horvath: You don’t want to know what I think.

Capt. Miller: Yeah, Mike, I do.

Sgt. Horvath: I don’t know. Part of me thinks the kid’s right. What’s he done to deserve this? He wants to stay here, fine. Let’s leave him and go home. But another part of me thinks, what if we stay, and by some miracle we stay and  actually make it out of here? Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess. That’s what I was thinking, sir. Like you said, Captain, we do that, we all earn the right to go home.

Capt. Miller: Oh, brother.

Amen, Sergeant.

This is a classic illustration of the ethical challenges of command in combat. Miller by authority of his position could have ordered Ryan to leave and have his men forcibly remove him from the bridge, but he knows that dog won’t hunt. Why? Because in his heart he knows Ryan is right and he (Miller) has no right to come between him and the skeleton crew of weary paratroopers who are not only undermanned, but don’t have the firepower to take on German Panzers and Tiger tanks. Miller’s Rangers don’t have the weapons to do it either, but in staying and putting their heads together, they know they can give the bridge’s defense a fighting chance. And that’s precisely what they do.

The bridge battle affected me more watching it after my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan than the opening D-Day sequence did. I think it has to do with the urban nature of the setting as opposed to the beach landing, but my heart rate went way up and I got the anxiety and fear at the pit of my stomach that I remember experiencing in places like Dora, Jihad (yes, that’s a neighborhood in Baghdad) Mekaniks and Kandahar. As Vietnam War veteran, Silver Star recipient and good friend Colonel (retired) Sam W. Floca Jr. once said- “Anyone who says he isn’t afraid in combat is either a liar or a fool.”

He’s so right! When confronted with people trying to kill me, I was afraid, and those taut, tense combat sequences at the end of Saving Private Ryan seemed to go on for an eternity as I watched as an Iraq and Afghan war veteran vs. when I first saw it in 1998. It wasn’t easy to sit through even though I knew what was coming and who was and wasn’t going to make it. The battle brought memories flooding back of the friends and men I knew and loved who didn’t come home from Iraq and Afghanistan. When Capt. Miller tells Ryan to “earn this” with his dying breath, the movie’s coda plays out the way it began- with one final lesson about sacrifice.

If you absorbed everything else along the way, then you didn’t have to wear the uniform to get it. It’s something we can all identify with.

And respect.

As you celebrate Veterans Day, I hope you can at least find the time to think about those who served (and are serving still) and helped to preserve a way of life we all hold dear. As we learned from our presidential election this week, our country is not perfect. Our system is flawed. Not everyone agrees on the direction our country should take. But we all should come together on the point that our country’s ideals are worth fighting for, and having been to other places around the world, I can honestly say that we’re all blessed and fortunate to be a part of this great nation and other countries that share similar values and a culture to ours.

In America, you have a voice and you can work to change outcomes you don’t want, but it takes people like the ones you see in these scenes to “earn this” for you (if you don’t make the decision to do it yourself). Liberty wasn’t just given, and it could be taken from us if we aren’t willing to stand by our convictions and fight for what we believe in.

On November 11- thank a veteran. And if you can’t do that or bring yourself to, then at least ponder what service and sacrifice truly mean.

 

7 thoughts on “Veterans Day 2016: What Saving Private Ryan can teach us about service and sacrifice

  1. Great, thoughtful commentary, Kirk. Thanks very much for sharing. And for serving.

    WWII was my father’s and uncles’ war. My dad didn’t share a whole lot, but he lost friends at Pearl Harbor, and watched some of his shipmates break down during the frigid hell of the North Atlantic convoys to Russia (he was a CPO on an escort ship). He was at D-Day, looking at the bluffs through binoculars as his ship’s guns became white-hot with constant firing. And he was with my mom in NYC on V-J Day, waiting for orders to the Pacific.

    After the war, he learned many of his childhood friends had lost their homes and livelihoods. You see, he grew up on a farm in Northern California, and about a third of his high school class (I looked at his yearbook) was Japanese-American. I think that hurt him most of all. He never went home again, staying with my mother in New England.

    We fought hate in Europe, found it in our own backyard, and battled it into what we thought was submission. But it’s a Hydra. And The Greatest Generation isn’t here anymore to save us.

    I’m sorry to drop this here, but I’ve been thinking of my parents these past 2 days and your post hit me hard. In a way I am grateful that they are no longer with us, as what is happening would bewilder them and break their hearts. (My dad would occasionally run across Rush Limbaugh on the radio, and would always have the same reaction: “Why is that man so hateful?”)

    Anyway, again, apologies. Please erase this response or edit if you feel the need – I understand.

    May God bless and keep you.

    Like

    • My gratitude to your father for his contributions as part of the greatest generation.

      I do not restrict or limit free expression- that’s what I fought for. I am saddened that so many are expressing fear & even hate over the outcome of the election- I think many dishonest media outlets & reporters have fanned the flames. As an Army public relations professional, I have seen media dishonesty up close & personal especially during the Surge in Iraq in 2007-08 & it seems to be getting worse as so many would rather engage in personal destruction rather than seek solutions & keep leadership accountable with balance & fairness.

      I would encourage independent, critical thinking Americans & people around the world to listen less to what people say & watch what they do. We’re focused on words, but actions will determine the path ahead.

      Our country need not be divided but it will continue to be if people don’t escape the echo chambers of groupthink& make an effort to contribute either by working as change agents for things they don’t agree with or trying to give the other side an opportunity.

      Thank you for the comment & in time I hope you will find solace & comfort in the coming days & weeks.

      Like

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