I watched Saving Private Ryan yesterday. It was the first time I had seen the movie all the way through. I enjoy great movies, but few sad ones. I knew enough about this movie to know it was sad. I also knew the plot and story. It is truly an inspired classic.
James Francis Ryan lives his whole life thinking about the actions taken by a group of 8 soldiers who risked their lives to save him. The command to do so came from General George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the Army. Private Ryan would be returned home because his three brothers died within days of each other and he was the only one remaining. The squad of 8 led by Captain John H. Miller and Sergeant Mike Horvath must scour the French countryside searching for one soldier to return him to his family. Captain Miller’s last words, “Earn this!” were the challenge to Ryan that caused him to wonder if his life measured up.
Several thoughts run laps around my brain in light of the US commemoration of Memorial Day, the holiday to memorialize those who died in military service to our country. Maybe they’re the same ones you considered after the first time you watched the movie.
First, the simplicity of their math pulled them through the worst parts of their job. Not having served in the military, I expect day-to-day, down-to-earth life-and-death forces you to simplify your judgment. I was struck by the numeric evaluations each person made. First there was the 8 for 1 comparison the squad made in the fubar scene. Then there was this exchange where Captain Miller explained how he wrestled with command responsibility:
Captain 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?
Sergeant Horvath: How many?
Captain Miller: Ninety-four. But that means I’ve saved the lives of ten times that many, doesn’t it? Maybe even 20, 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.
The math is almost surreal in its simplicity. Quite a number of Americans and people of other nationalities have been born free because of their actions. In the end, the men didn’t just save Private Ryan, they saved the bridge. Their sacrifice made a difference. Yes, I know this was a fictional account, but the last 72 years have proven their sacrifice effective. The numbers are staggering. Consider the impact of your life on the lives of others over the next 72 years? How are you doing?
Cost of Inaction
The second thought I had was what it must have been like to live each subsequent day as Corporal Upham. First he was instrumental in freeing a German soldier the squad took captive. Since one of their own died in that exchange, the squad wanted to kill the German, but Captain Miller let him go free at Upham’s urging. Later, Upham failed to take action that may have saved some of the lives of his fellow men, initially not providing ammo and secondly by not shooting back at the Germans who eventually killed Captain Miller and Sergeant Horvath. He chose inaction, in direct contrast to Ryan who refused to leave his squad with the Germans bearing down on them, even though he had an excuse to leave.
When we choose to act, we free ourselves from a thread of judgment and second-guessing that only come into play from inaction. When you act, you question the action, but you never have to question the failure to act. In choosing to do nothing, Corporal Upham had only negative consequences to consider for a long time. Imagine the consequences of the inaction in your life. Remember that feeling the next time you consider doing nothing when you could act.
Did we earn it?
Finally, I wonder as an individual and as a nation whether or not we have earned the sacrifice of the men and women we memorialize on Monday. What have we done with the gift purchased by the men and women who have died in the military of not just America but other free nations. Have we made good choices? Would they be proud of us, our tendency to let power corrupt us or our proclivity for laziness. We have tremendous resources beginning with our lives and the freedom purchased for us by their sacrifice. How are we doing?
I am grateful for the sacrifice made by every person who has been wounded or died in the service of the United States. However I must also admit that I could improve my stewardship of the freedom they sacrificed to purchase. But for my part, when I remember the Captain’s final words, I’ll want to question them applied to my life. When my time comes, I hope to be able to say that my life justified the sacrifice made for me by the those who gave their lives in service to the United States of America.
This was originally published on the Lead Change Group blog, May 30, 2010.