Veterans Day

I wrote this on my Facebook account earlier today, and just now had the chance to post it here.  It was inspired by the poem Erick posted earlier today, and is meant to be read with that poem in mind.

One of my favorite movies is Saving Private Ryan. In some things, it is completely unrealistic (Ted Danson would not be caught dead supporting any war, much less appear in a real uniform)…but overall, it does the best job of any movie I’ve ever seen at showing the people in a war.

Most war movies have a different focus than Saving Private Ryan — they develop a single heroic character, surround him with a minimally-developed supporting cast, and follow the story arc through smaller buildup battles to an epic final battle in which the hero, though bloodied and bruised, triumphs over his enemy.

Those of you who have seen it may be wondering, isn’t that the story of Saving Private Ryan?

Well, a little. But it is more than that.

Think of Braveheart — a great, classic war movie. Mel Gibson plays William Wallace, the unwilling warrior who united a nation against the oppressive English. Who of you can name a single character in that movie? No, don’t give me stuff like “Oh, there was that Irish guy!” Names only.

But now think of Saving Private Ryan. There’s the obvious one, Private James Francis Ryan, the guy the squad is sent to save. Now think of the other guys. Captain Miller. Sergeant Horvath. Caparzo. Wade. Upham, the boy who became a man because the war forced him to be. Reiben, the Jewish guy who taunted the German POWs as they made their way into the FOB, who cried over the inscription of a Hitler Youth knife found on a German corpse. Jackson, the Bible-quoting sniper.

When any of these guys die, it hurts — and it’s only a movie. It hurts, because when they die, you have begun to feel some camaraderie with them. Your heart bleeds for the loss of Caparzo, the guy who just wanted to save a little girl from the destruction of war.

(Major spoiler alert, just for this paragraph…) And when Captain Miller, with his dying breath, grabs Private Ryan by the shirt and demands that he live a life worthy of the sacrifice of the men who died to make him both safe and free…at that point, the words “Earn this” means more than your simple campaign phraseology, because you know the names and faces of the men who died to make Ryan safe and free.

William Wallace, at least in the movie, died for an idea — the great, wonderful, pristine idea of making people free. Captain Miller, or at least the men like him, died to ensure that you continued to be free.

Simply asking people to remember those nameless brigades who have died…doesn’t have the same impact as when you see one man, know his name, and know that the purpose of his death was to continue the opportunity of America to provide a safe haven for freedom.

The part of the movie that is most poignant, however, is set up in the first few seconds of the movie. You hear a single bugle, playing the movie theme, and Spielberg shows a single shot of an American flag, sun shining through it, flying over the Normandy American Cemetery near Colleville-sur-mer. At the beginning of the movie, you’re merely interested in the beautiful artistic expression of the shot — but in the reappearance of this shot at the end of the movie, you realize that the flag — and your ability to breathe the free air that makes it wave — has been bought by the individual sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of Captain Millers.

People often think of the military as a single, homogeneous mass. That’s not a bad thing; the military trains its members to work as a single unit. But the sacrifice is never made by the Army, or the Marines, the Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard. The sacrifice is made by Captain Miller.

The five branches of the American military are, for lack of a better term, bureaucracies. And if you don’t agree with my assessment, try joining the Air Force — they killed a rainforest to make the paperwork just for my enlistment. The military bureaucracy doesn’t bleed. Military people bleed.

So today, don’t thank the military. Go find a veteran, and thank them. They’ve earned their freedom, and yours too.