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Private Ryan

July 20, 1998

Tags War and Foreign PolicyWorld HistoryU.S. History

Paul Fussell is an brilliant essayist and critic, and his essay "The Culture of War" is included in the Mises Institute book The Costs of War: America's Pyrrhic Victories, edited with an introduction by John V. Denson (Transaction Publishers, 1997, 1998).

You can purchase the book, which has been called the most important book on war in a generation, through our on-line book catalog.

The Guts, Not the Glory, of Fighting the 'Good War'

By Paul Fussell

Washington Post, Sunday, July 26, 1998; Page C01

Instructed by his experience as a volunteer in Civil War military
hospitals, Walt Whitman declared that the real war will never get in the
books. Nor in films either, we can say, after we've seen attempts to
represent more recent wars in such confections as "Sands of Iwo Jima" and
"The Longest Day." Loyal to its cliches of sentimentality and melodrama, as
well as its touting of well-known actors with guaranteed box-office appeal,
Hollywood is normally no place to go for accurate, unforgettable news about
World War II.

An exception to this dismal principle may be Steven Spielberg's "Saving
Private Ryan"--at least part of it. Despite its boys'-adventure-story plot,
which involves an attempt to locate and rescue a soldier whose three
brothers have all been killed in the war, the movie's treatment of D-Day is
so unrelenting in its appalling honesty that few combat veterans will
emerge from it without crying and trembling all over again.

Indeed, the first half-hour of this film should stifle forever all the
unfeeling cant about the Good War. I'd like the Omaha Beach section made
into a self-contained pseudo-documentary titled "Omaha Beach: Aren't You
Glad You Weren't There?"

Spielberg has emphasized the realism and authenticity of his product, and
there are shocking things here seldom present in Hollywood war films. The
weather on D-Day was vile and many of the GIs, already scared half to
death, had to stand for hours packed in rocking and plunging landing craft.
Because there was no place to vomit, they vomited on their buddies. The
troops were almost uniformly landed at the wrong place, and attempts to
straighten out the mess on the beach were defeated by the cacophonous
noise--German artillery, machine guns, mortars, all firing at once--whichmade orders impossible to hear. Plans having gone awry, the Americans had
no way to defend themselves, much less attack the Germans, and many were
murdered without firing a shot as, heavily loaded, they stumbled into deep

Blood, in run-of-the-mill war movies, tends to look too thin; in "Saving
Private Ryan" it is thick and when it is arterial blood it comes out in
correct rhythmic spurts. The medics are appropriately blood-covered, and
when they inject the blessed morphine, most often they insert the needle
right through clothing--quicker that way. Nor do they hesitate to use
overdoses of morphine to hasten death when appropriate. In the movie, this
is the reward given a boy with an obviously fatal wound who employs his
bloody mouth to frame his final words, "Mama, Mama."

But despite its authenticity about blood and noise, and about the tendency
of both sides to shoot prisoners with pleasure, the film neglects something
familiar to most combat infantrymen: open cowardice. In the battalion I
fought in, two young officers, after their first night on the line, simply
took off. They finally turned up in Paris. I also remember a new lieutenant
who, when the position he was commanding came under German machine-gun
fire, ran at full speed to the rear. While former infantrymen don't talk
much about the horror, they also don't willingly advertise such blots on
the myth of uniform American heroism.

It was T.S. Eliot who declared that humankind cannot bear very much
reality, and perhaps Americans especially were in his mind, what with their
optimistic impulse not to dwell on the nasty and to invoke every possible
euphemism to disguise unpleasant truths. The very word "combat" is an
example; "fighting" would be more accurate, if less implicitly heroic and
self-congratulatory. Hollywood is still the dream factory (the nightmare
factory, in Spielberg's movie), and if it really projected the whole truth
about anything, it would go bankrupt speedily. Honorable as it is in
places, "Saving Private Ryan" does not mark a new moment in Hollywood
history. Hollywood's purpose is profit, and it has learned that violence

Invasions don't happen every day, but the dangers confronting an
infantryman, if less dramatic, are constant--and all but impossible to
film. Living among such dangers daily can turn a man into a bundle of
anxieties, many of them lasting a lifetime. The soldier is obliged to
conceal his fears lest he cause a panic, or at least invite the contempt of
his fellows. Occupying ground just recently vacated by the enemy, he must
be careful where he touches the earth with a hand or a foot, because a
buried mine may go off. In the European Theater of Operations we learnedthat the least likely things left behind by the enemy might blow up when
touched: cigars, musical instruments, rolls of toilet paper,
innocent-looking food and drink, and, preeminently, desirable German
weapons like Luger pistols.

The fighting men of World War II knew one awful truth, an internal,
subjective feeling that cannot be captured by a film dealing with
externals. Having experienced the skill and persistence of the Germans and
all too aware of the Allied insistence on unconditional surrender, they
knew that the war would not end until they ended it, somehow, with their
bodies. Spielberg's film shows how painful this was going to be.

* * *

Paul Fussell served with the 103rd Infantry Division in World War II; he
was wounded during the Rhineland campaign. His books include "Doing Battle:
The Making of a Skeptic" (Little, Brown).

C copyright The Washington Post 1998

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