Thomas A. Bruscino, Jr.
Remaking Memory or
Getting It Right? Saving Private Ryan and the World War
Spielberg's highly acclaimed World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan
(1998), follows a small group of American soldiers led by Tom Hanks'
Captain Henry Miller on a unique mission during the Normandy invasion
of June 1944. Their mission: to find and bring home safely Private
James Francis Ryan, whose three brothers have died in the war within
days of each other. They do save him, he gets home, and the movie
concludes with Ryan returning to Normandy as an old man, tortured by
his memories and contemplating the significance of it all. Spielberg portrays World
War II combat in gruesomely realistic terms, especially in the
twenty-minute D-Day Omaha Beach opening sequence. The movie was both a
box office hit and mostly a critical success, winning the Golden Globe
for Best Drama and an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture;
Spielberg won the Oscar for Best Director.
film also garnered much commentary and divergent assessments from
movie critics, opinion columnists, and professional historians
alike. Many applauded its relentlessly realistic portrayal of the
horrors of war. But others thought it did not go far enough, leaving
out, for example, the horror of killing as well as dying. Some
considered it a fairly standard addition to the World War II combat
film genre, enhanced only by computerized special effects and highly
graphic depictions of violence. Some thought that violence made the
film an antiwar statement, but many more felt it honored the
sacrifices of the World War II generation. A handful called it
pro-America propaganda, a "sentimental 'flag-waver.'"
My intent here is to identify where Saving Private Ryan fits
into the memory and history of the World War II soldier's experiences
Dominating American memory of World War II has been the notion of the
"The Good War." In the words of historian David Kennedy, "Americans
remembered World War II as a just war waged by a peaceful people
aroused to anger only after intolerable provocation, a war stoically
endured by those at home and fought in far-away places by brave and
wholesome young men with dedicated women standing behind them on the
production lines ...."
Of course, some take exception to the "Good War" designation, pointing
out that World War II meant something very different to racial
minorities, especially segregated African Americans and interned
Japanese Americans. And historians have also questioned the aptness of
the good war label in light of the (lack of) women's rights,
atrocities in combat, the morality of dropping the atomic bomb, the
alliance with the Soviet Union and the disintegration of that
alliance, and the incomplete peace that led to the Cold War.
Largely ignored in the
discussion of the memory of the good war is the American soldier's
memory of the war and his purpose in fighting. The topic is
complicated for a number of reasons and the subject of ongoing
scholarly debate. Still the general consensus is that soldiers fought
for their buddies in a strong spirit of comradeship. In the words of
veteran and scholar Paul Fussell, "men will attack only if young,
athletic, credulous, and sustained by some equivalent of the buddy
system—that is, fear of shame."
The soldiers themselves insisted they were not fighting for the "four
or democracy or patriotism or any other great cause. Instead they put
their efforts in more banal terms—they just wanted to finish the job
and come home. General Eisenhower himself acknowledged the prevalence
of that view in the spring of 1945, when American units began to
overrun German concentration and labor camps: "We are told that the
American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least,
he will know what he is fighting against."
the war and for four decades afterward, the American popular notion of
World War II soldiers rarely deviated from the image of the tired and
dirty grunt fighting for buddies and the chance to go home. A few
cinematic exceptions prove that rule. Howard Hawks' Sergeant York
(1941), starring Gary Cooper, ostensibly a biopic of First World War
hero Alvin York, is really a propaganda vehicle to rally Americans for
the impending war with Germany. In the film, York overcomes his
religious pacifism to become a soldier only after he is inspired by
the greatness of America and American principles. Similar themes are
evident in Wake Island (1942; dir. John Farrow) and Bataan
(1943; dir. Tay Garnett). In retrospect, these early films seem
jarringly heavy-handed in delivering their message.
combat movies, especially about World War II, look
and sound very different from the early films. Certain themes recur
regularly: for example, the so-called ethnic platoon, consisting of some mixture of American ethnic, religious, and regional groups: for
and Italians from New York City, Scandinavians from the upper Midwest,
Irish from Boston, Poles and Greeks from Chicago, Detroit, and other
large cities, Hispanics from California or Texas, farm boys from the
Midwest, pious sharpshooting southerners, and so on.
Another constant is a clear detachment of the
American fighting man from any of the causes of the war. Whatever
their plots or major themes, the films paralleled the consensus
historical view of weary but wisecracking men fighting reluctantly,
unconcerned with abstractions like the four freedoms, trying to get
the job done and return to their homes.
stereotype, apparent already in films like Thirty Seconds over
Tokyo (1944; dir. Mervyn LeRoy), spread quickly after the war, and
is explicit or implicit in such diverse films, often based on memoirs
of observers or participants, as The Story of G.I. Joe (1945;
dir. William A. Wellman), A Walk in the Sun (1946; dir. Lewis
Milestone), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946; dir. William
Wyler), Battleground (1949; dir. Wellman), Sands
of Iwo Jima (1949; dir. Allan Dwan), The Naked and the Dead
(1958; dir. Raoul Walsh), and The Young Lions (1958; dir.
Edward Dmytryk). The most acute critic of the genre wrote that these
films "bring the war down-to-earth, removing the 'why we fight'
propaganda of the war years and treating those who fought it like
fallible human beings who are rising to the occasion out of instincts
A note should be added here: the movies are remarkably grim. They do
not, as a rule, sugarcoat war—they focus far more on the sacrifice of
the dead than the meaning of that sacrifice. The same is true of the
more epic-scale war films of the 1960s and 1970s—The Longest Day
(1962; dir. Ken Annakin et al.), Battle of the Bulge (1965;
dir. Annakin), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970; dir. Richard
Fleischer et al.), Patton (1970; dir. Franklin J. Schaffner),
and Midway (1976; dir. Jack Smight). Nor do the more ironic or
independent World War II combat films like The Dirty Dozen
(1967; dir. Robert Aldrich) or Kelly's Heroes (1970; dir. Brian
G. Hutton) make the common fighting man a crusader for a grand cause.
history and the memory of the soldiers' war had seemingly been
settled, and by the late 1970s, the World War II film began to fade as
Obviously, movies are not the only index of collective memory, but
even in other popular media, including television and comic books that
glorify wartime violence, one is hard pressed to find American
soldiers expounding the justness of their cause.
But is this the whole story?
It is worth taking a closer look at the lives of World War II veterans
to answer this question. The first thing to remember is that the vets
came home and got on with their lives. With some notable exceptions,
their country, having learned its lesson from earlier wars, rewarded
their efforts—most famously with the GI Bill, but also with home loans
and job benefits. The veterans did not need to explain what they had
done to merit such compensations. They got married, went to work,
bought houses, and had kids. They did not generally vote as a block.
They hardly organized for anything as veterans. In general, too, they
did not tell war stories in public venues, and produced few memoirs or
oral histories in the first few decades after the war. When vets told
war stories, it was usually within their families, or, most commonly,
at unit reunions. Many refused to talk about the war at all. Over
time, the war faded from the popular imagination, and the weary and
wisecracking G.I., detached from the great causes of the war, became
entrenched in memory.
The Vietnam war changed
things. World War II veterans had an ambivalent relationship with their
children and Vietnam. On the one hand, they had fought a war so their
sons would not have to. On the other, they had fought a war, so why
shouldn't their sons fight theirs, and as willingly as they had? There
a problem emerges. If members of the World War II generation had not
believed in some noble cause, why had they fought so willingly? Vietnam
made many of the World War II veterans ask themselves just that
question. They did so quietly, because the culture of 1960s and 1970s
America was not one that favored open discussion of the country's past
By the 1980s, the atmosphere
began to change in reaction against the 1960s and 1970s mentality of
American self-criticism. The country became more open to the idea of
past greatness, a trend personified in President Ronald Reagan, who
went to great lengths to celebrate America's historic successes,
particularly during World War II. This is best exemplified in his
"boys of Pointe du Hoc" speech given in Normandy to commemorate the
fortieth anniversary of D-Day. Both anniversary and speech helped
spark a renewed interest in the war. At nearly the same time, historians began practicing the new military history, which
highlighted the lives and experiences of common fighting men.
Historians, archivists, librarians, museum curators, journalists, and
history buffs started collecting questionnaires, interviews, and oral
histories from thousands of World War II veterans, all to better
understand the war they had fought. These efforts accelerated in the
1990s, as the war's fiftieth anniversary approached.
as members of the World War II generation have neared the end of their
lives, long years of reflection, experience, and history have caused
them to reexamine what it all had meant. They desperately want to tell
their stories—hundreds of oral histories put together by Stephen
Ambrose and his crew end with the vets thanking Ambrose for the
opportunity to talk about their war—and to understand their place in
the war. They do not manufacture memories—the vets are known for their
uncompromising honesty about their experiences—so they do not
retroactively ascribe allegiance to great causes to young minds that
never thought of the war in such terms. But they have begun to
intimate that they always silently believed in what they were doing
and that their war consisted of more than just finishing a job and
going home. The popular image of the World War II American soldier was
not exactly wrong, merely incomplete.
Compelling evidence undermines the popular stereotype and supports the
idea that World War II soldiers were in fact sustained and motivated
by a firm belief in the justice of their country's cause. Even during
the war, there were hints of a deeper meaning beneath their outward
stoicism, something Ernie Pyle, the fighting man's reporter, and
S.L.A. Marshall, a great student of men in battle, both recognized.
Pyle called it a "plain, unspoken, even unrecognized, patriotism."
Marshall opined that "ideas and ideals" caused men "to accept a
discipline and to hold to the line even though death may be at
hand.... Those who respect history will deem it beyond argument that
belief in a cause is the foundation of the aggressive will in battle."
Sociologists at the time, including the team that drew on many troop
surveys to compile the seminal multivolume study, The American
Soldier, came to similar conclusions.
Recently, historian Peter Kindsvatter has shown that, in cases where
American soldiers have lost faith in the cause, as in Vietnam after
Tet, they often lose their motivation, despite small group cohesion.
That never happened in the Second World War.
Stephen Ambrose, after analyzing thousands of veterans' accounts of
the war, put it this way: "They knew they were fighting for decency
and democracy and they were proud of it and motivated by it. They just
didn't talk or write about it."
Therein lies the
difficulty: for various reasons, they did not talk or write about
their motives, especially at the time. For one thing, by the 1920s and
1930s, the national memory of the motivations of soldiers from the
Civil War and World War I—what those earlier generations had
supposedly fought for, as captured in films, fiction, memorialization,
and textbooks—led to the World War II generation growing up in a
culture that dismissed or even disdained the idea of great causes
inspiring American soldiers to fight.
another, they did not need to talk about it--they all believed in the
justness of their cause, as even self-professed cynics (and veterans)
like Paul Fussell and Norman Mailer acknowledged. Kindsvatter observes
that "There was nothing to discuss or debate. To a far greater extent
than in any of America's other wars, the soldiers were convinced of
the justness of America's cause and the evil of the enemy's."
they must have said something for so many observers and
historians to conclude that a noble cause played some motivating role--some tangible indication that the men believed in what
they were doing. And indeed there is relevant material in the
questionnaires and oral histories gathered in the 1980s and 1990s.
Bernard Feinberg, a practicing dentist when the war started, explained
his reasoning for joining up as an Army private: "I was and am a very
patriotic American and also a Jew who had no use whatsoever for that
Nazi bastard Hitler and his overall plan of genocide for my people."
Robert Miller, a D-Day veteran, said "my flag is out on every
anniversary of D-Day in Normandy."
Clayton Hanks, who served in the 1st Infantry Division, recalled, "I
was raised very patriotically and I now have no regrets. Today many
things have changed and if I had another chance, I'd think twice. War
really is hell. My decision probably would be the same. I am proud to
be an American."
William Shiepe, when asked what he learned from the war, replied, "No
matter what our background we will succeed when we get together for a
In response to the same question, George Melochick said simply, "No
flag waving. I love my county and its people."
are but a sampling of the hints, the muted suggestions forty or fifty
years on that love of country had in fact kept them going.
they did embrace the patriotic cause, but did not say so during the
war or even denied it outright, only to admit it, in subdued terms,
half a century later. This poses a quandary for filmmakers—and, not
incidentally, historians—seeking to portray accurately the ordeals and
motivations of World War II troops. How to create a full picture from
the incomplete conventional image of the stoic GI? How to show that
he truly believed without betraying the reality of the time?
provides one solution: it links devotion to cause with memory. Critics
of the film who find nothing new in its portrayal of Captain Miller's
squad are correct—it does evoke the mixed ethnic squads on lonely
missions found in such classics as A Walk in the Sun and
Battleground. Nor does the film break new ground in showing yet
again that war is hell. Certainly it is more gruesome and graphic in
its depiction of the violence, and Spielberg's skill as a director
makes all the deaths and destruction hit home. But these are
differences in degree from earlier works, not kind. In this respect,
Saving Private Ryan, however well crafted, is pretty standard
the film departs from its predecessors is in the memory scenes, when
the aged James Francis Ryan visits the American cemetery at Omaha.
Critics who stress the thematic significance of patriotism are also
correct (if sometimes overzealous): these scenes do convey something
of the meaning of the war. "Earn this," Captain Miller's dying
admonition to Private Ryan, the elderly Ryan's entreaty to his family
to tell him he was a good man, and the shots of a sun-soaked, almost
colorless, American flag that bookend the film suggest that American
soldiers fought to secure the chance for a good life for everyone, a
life free from the evils of Nazism. But it is only a suggestion, akin
in tone and content to the statements of aging veterans recollecting
In that sense, at least, Saving Private Ryan does not remake memory,
it reflects it. In the process, by rewriting history, it has, for the
most part, at last got it right.
U.S. Army Command and General