Private Ryan Saves War
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, October 1998
Like so many World War II veterans (I could see them all around
me in the theater audience), I was drawn to see Saving Private
Ryan. I had volunteered for the Air Force at the age of twenty.
After training as a bombardier, I went overseas with my crew to
fly some of the last bombing missions of the European war.
My pilot was nineteen. My tailgunner was eighteen. Every death
in Saving Private Ryan reminded me, as it must have reminded other
veterans, of how lucky we were, we who survived. My two closest
Air Force buddies who went through training with me and then on
to other theaters (what a word, "theaters"!)-Joe Perry
to Italy, Ed Plotkin to the Pacific-were killed in the last weeks
of the war.
I watched Private Ryan's extraordinarily photographed battle
scenes, and I was thoroughly taken in. But when the movie was
over, I realized that it was exactly that-I had been taken in.
And I disliked the film intensely. I was angry at it because
I did not want the suffering of men in war to be used-yes,
exploited-in such a way as to revive what should be buried along
with all those bodies in Arlington Cemetery: the glory of military
"The greatest war movie ever made," the film critics
say about Saving Private Ryan. They are a disappointing lot, the
film critics. They are excited, even exultant, about the brilliant
cinematography, depicting the bloody chaos of the Omaha Beach
landing. But they are pitifully superficial.
They fail (with a few honorable exceptions, such as Vincent
Canby in The New York Times and Donald Murray in The Boston Globe)
to ask the most important question: Will this film help persuade
the next generation that such scenes must never occur again? Will
it make clear that we must resist war, even if it is accompanied
by the seductive speeches of political leaders saying that this
latest war, unlike other bad wars we remember, will be another
"good" one, like World War II?
The admiring critics of the movie give their own answer to
that: It is a war movie, they say, not an anti-war movie.
Some viewers have asked how can anyone want to go to war after
seeing such horror? But knowing the horrors of war has never been
an obstacle to a quick build-up of war spirit by patriotic political
speeches and an obsequious press.
All that bloodshed, all that pain, all those torn limbs and
exposed intestines will not deter a brave people from going to
war. They just need to believe that the cause is just. They need
to be told: It is a war to end all wars (Woodrow Wilson), or we
need to stop Communism (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon), or aggression
must not go unpunished (Bush), or international terrorists have
declared war on us (Clinton).
In Saving Private Ryan, there is never any doubt that the
cause is just. This is the good war. There is no need to say the
words explicitly. The heartrending crosses in Arlington National
Cemetery get the message across, loud and clear. And a benign
General Marshall, front and back of the movie, quotes Abraham
Lincoln's words of solace to a mother who has lost five sons in
the Civil War. The audience is left with no choice but to conclude
that this one-while it causes sorrow to a million mothers-is in
a good cause.
Yes, getting rid of fascism was a good cause. But does that
unquestionably make it a good war? The war corrupted us, did it
not? The hate it engendered was not confined to Nazis.
We put Japanese families in concentration camps.
We killed huge numbers of innocent people-the word "atrocity"
fits-in our bombings of Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo, and finally Hiroshima
And when the war ended, we and our Allies began preparing
for another war, this time with nuclear weapons, which, if used,
would make Hitler's Holocaust look puny.
We can argue endlessly over whether there was an alternative
in the short run, whether fascism could have been resisted without
fifty million dead. But the long-term effect of World War II on
our thinking was pernicious and deep. It made war-so thoroughly
discredited by the senseless slaughter of World War I-noble once
again. It enabled political leaders- whatever miserable adventure
they would take us into, whatever mayhem they would wreak on other
people (two million dead in Korea, at least that many in Southeast
Asia, hundreds of thousands in Iraq) and on our own-to invoke
World War II as a model.
Communism supplanted Nazism as a reason for war, and when
we could no longer point to Communism as a threat, a convenient
enemy, like Saddam Hussein, could be compared to Hitler. Our leaders
used glib analogies to justify immense suffering. The presumed
absolute goodness of World War II created an aura of rightness
around war itself (note the absence of a great movement of protest
against the Korean War), which only an adventure as monstrously
evil, as soaked in official lies as Vietnam, could dispel.
Vietnam caused large numbers of Americans to question the
enterprise of war itself. Now, Saving Private Ryan, aided by superb
cinematographic technology, draws on our deep feeling for the
GIs in order to rescue not just Private Ryan but the good name
I will not be surprised if Spielberg gets an Academy Award.
Did not Kissinger get a Nobel Prize? The committees that give
prizes are, too often, bereft of social conscience. But we are
not bound to honor their choices.
To refresh my memory, I watched the video of All Quiet on
the Western Front. With no musical background, without the benefit
of modern cinematography, without fields of corpses, with no pools
of blood reddening the screen, that film conveyed the horror of
warfare more powerfully than Saving Private Ryan. The one fleeting
shot of two hands clutching barbed wire, the rest of the body
gone, said it all.
In Spielberg's film, we see Tom Hanks gunned down, and it
is sad. But it is a prosaic sadness compared to the death of the
protagonist in Erich Remarque's story, as we watch a butterfly
hover over a trench, and we see the hand of Lew Ayres reach out
for it and go limp. We see no dead body, only that beautiful butterfly,
and the reaching hand.
But more important, All Quiet on the Western Front does not
dodge-as Saving Private Ryan does, as its gushing critics do-the
issue of war. In it, war is not just horrible; it is futile. It
is not inevitable; it is manufactured. Back home, commenting on
the war, is no kindly General Marshall, quoting Lincoln, but prosperous
men urging the soldiers, "On to Paris, boys! On to Paris!
The boys in the trenches don't just discuss the battle; they
discuss the war. They ask: Who is profiting? They propose: Hey,
let's have the world's leaders get into an arena and fight it
out themselves! They acknowledge: We have no quarrel with the
boys on the other side of the barbed wire!
Our culture is in deep trouble when a film like Saving Private
Ryan can pass by, like a military parade, with nothing but a shower
of confetti and hurrahs for its color and grandeur.
Howard Zinn, author of "A People's History of the United
Control and Propaganda