In the age of the coronavirus pandemic, with a cascade of death all around us, it would be easy to give a slight miss to commemorating Memorial Day here in America this year. 100,000 deaths in only a few months is certainly more pressing than remembering the fallen from long-ago battles. Still, while our thoughts are with those who have died in this pandemic, and our prayers are with their loved ones, our thoughts and prayers should, on every Memorial Day, always be with the fallen, and their families and friends. That is why the day is set aside. But clearly, this year will be different. We, as a nation, should be grateful that this year precious few military service members have died in combat. Moreover, the 75thanniversary of the end of World War II was an understated series of socially-distanced ceremonies from Washington to Paris, and from London to Berlin. And with all the veterans of World War I now gone, ‘1917’ became an award-winning movie with notable cinematography to remind us of the horror war and the fortitude shown by those who serve.
Besides, we have been giving – if not a miss, then certainly short-shrift – to Memorial Day for years now: the nightly newscasts regularly call it: ‘The unofficial start to summer’, with all the cook-outs, trips to the beach, lake, or mountains, and the resultant celebrations that those abstractions conjure. And more: there are Memorial Day car sales, mattress sales, outdoor furniture sales, suit sales, dress sales. In fact, everything for sale, and Lincoln’s reference to the ‘cherished memory of the loved and lost’ misplaced and forgotten in the shuffle.
It needn’t be so.
If we accept that modern culture can, and often does, provide perspective on things large and small, then allow me to postulate that some of the most important words ever written or spoken that provide for us some guidance on how we should commemorate and observe every Memorial Day, and how we might determine if we have met that standard, come from a movie that has become a Memorial Day week-end tradition. On some network this week-end, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ will show for the umpteenth time. Many will focus on the second scene – the landing on D-Day scene that veterans of that fateful day have commented was the most accurate portrayal of the confusion, hysteria, and terror of battle. But the scenes that carrying the meaning and message of the picture come at the end. It is from these scenes that we find our challenge and our way home to the essence of ‘memorial’.
In the penultimate scene, Captain John Miller’s small platoon has found Private Ryan, and also now finds itself in a small French village with a bridge that it is essential for Allied forces to hold to prevent German reinforcements from getting to the coast to stall the invasion. Capt. Miller has a mission – bring Ryan home. Miller has previously stated that he is ‘mission driven’, and that is his intention – he wants to carry on. But Ryan convinces Miller that they must stay and hold the bridge. Miller, knowing his Private is right, orders his men to dig in for a battle.
In the ensuing fire fight Capt. Miller is mortally wounded, and as aerial support arrives, Ryan sees the wounded Miller, back up against a motorcycle, legs splayed out in front of him, and rushes to his side. Most of the rest of the unit have been lost as Miller surveys the carnage around them – the dirt, the fire, the smoke, the dust, the weaponry, the gunfire, the shells, the death, and the sound; what MacArthur called: “the rattle of musketry and the mournful mutter of the battlefield.” He looks all around, as if he is trying to take it all in, as if he is trying to make sense of this, as if he knows these will be the last things he will see in this mortal coil. Finally, he turns to Ryan and he says something. Only it is uttered in that hoarse, thin, reedy rasp that always seems to accompany final words, causing us to lean in, to listen harder. For whatever anyone’s last observations on this life might be, it is a sacred duty for the living, for those who remain behind, to pay heed and afford the final honor of attention.
The look on Ryan’s face captures what we are thinking: ‘What? ’We think we have heard but we more sense the words, for if we are lucky, we have sensed them before. They float in the air around the memorials of war. You might have noticed these memorials, you might have simply passed them by. It is a framed certificate in the lobby, or down a corridor of your city hall, perhaps a statue on your village green, a monument in the corner of your town’s park, a bronze plaque engraved with names and mounted to a granite boulder in front of your community high school. You sense them when you walk through one of the National Memorial Cemeteries that dot the nation, and you sense them most acutely at Arlington, where a nation’s grief, one family at a time, silently speaks honor across the ages.
But still, like Ryan, we are not sure what we have either sensed and heard. Ryan looks uncertain. Miller knows this look, because he has seen it hundreds of times before. Seen it because of who he is – not Army Captain, but who he really is. Earlier in the movie, Miller, required to avert a potential fight within the unit, and knowing that there is a betting pool underway about what he does in civilian life, decides to reveal what he does back home. It is an occupation just as important as Army Captain, just as courageous as officer, just as honorable as soldier, and perhaps even more noble than warrior – he is a teacher. And now we realize that what Captain Miller is giving to Ryan is not an order from a commanding officer, not a plea from a fellow soldier, not even so much as a request from a dying man. Miller, an honorable metaphoric representative of every serviceman or woman who has ever ‘given the last full measure of their devotion’ is giving Ryan, and because Ryan is a metaphor for all of us, giving us, something more in the tradition of a teacher – he is giving an assignment. Something for Ryan to do when he goes home, something for us all to do when we are home.
Miller, realizing that he must repeat his message, pulls Ryan close so that there can be no mistake of what is required now. He whispers the three word assignment that almost every soldier, sailor, Marine or Airman is too modest to request, too self-sacrificing to expect, too committed to honorable service to demand:
“Earn this. Earn it.”
And with that, he is no more. Ryan stands and looks down at his fallen commander, a fellow soldier who has given his life so that Ryan can go home and take up what Franklin said was the highest title in a democracy: citizen.
Through the magic of movie making, Ryan’s face begins to age, as he morphs in the old man who has returned to Normandy and gazes down at the white cross with Captain John Miller’s named carved into the pure marble. Ryan has made the pilgrimage to the achingly, hauntingly, impossibly beautiful American cemetery that sits just outside the French village of Colleville-sur-Mer. A sea of white marble grave markers march forever across verdant grass that sits atop a bluff looking out to the Channel. Here, this sacred ground looks down to a stretch of sand that will forever and always be known to all Americans as ‘Omaha Beach’. And Ryan weeps.
He has come to turn in his assignment.
Too modest to grade himself, and too honorable to have allowed such a monumental sacrifice go unanswered, he has come to the only place where an assessment of his efforts can rightfully be given. Only, when we look at Miller’s cross we see that he died on June 13, 1944, some seven days after the invasion. He can give no grade. So Ryan turns to the person who knows him the best – his wife.
Only he doesn’t ask her if he has made a material success of his life, he doesn’t ask her if they live in a mansion, drive fancy cars, eat in the best restaurants; he doesn’t ask her if they fly on private planes, wear designer clothes, have a second house down at the shore, or are members of the best clubs. No, he asks her something that sounds so simple, and yet is deeply profound; and, like many things deeply profound, surprisingly simple.
As the beneficiary of an ultimate sacrifice, Ryan knows that the criteria he has chosen is the only standard by which to judge his worthiness. It is a marking curve that is daunting and challenging if only because of the enormous array of obstacles the world throws at us. Greed, duplicity, arrogance, selfishness, thoughtlessness…the hurdles seem endless. But if confronted with an army of virtues – humility, gratitude, integrity, decency, prudence, justice – the hurdles are all manageable.
Through tears, Ryan looks in the loving eyes of his wife, he asks her what we need to ask ourselves, not just on Memorial Day – but especially on Memorial Day. A standard by which we may determine if we, too, when we stand before the sacred ground of the fallen, have ‘Earned this’:
“Have I lived a good life? Have I been a good man?”