November 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 7
Exactly a year ago in this space, I griped at Steven Spielberg for being insufficiently cognizant of the dreadful grandeur of World War II. This was in connection with the conclusion of his Indiana Jones trilogy, when the various miracles that attended the movie’s end failed to include the suggestion that the forces of history were gathering to break the power of Nazi Germany, whose minions had been skirmishing with Indy in the desert. Well, like half the rest of America, I’ve seen Saving Private Ryan , and I’ve never been happier to eat crow.
It’s a superb movie, but I think the tremendous response it has ignited goes beyond that. Stephen E. Ambrose, who served as a consultant on the film, recently put it succinctly: “Spielberg has brought generations together.” He told about an incident in Baltimore: Outside the theater after the show, a twenty-year-old boy went up to a seventy-five-yearold man and asked if he’d been in the war. The man said he had. The boy hugged him. Both of them wept. “I’ve had dozens of D-day vets, men I interviewed, call or write to tell me that now, finally, they can talk about the war with their families, because Spielberg has given the wife, kids, and grandkids some sense of what it was like …”
High time. And not only because these men and women have a momentous story to tell.
Col. Charles R. Cawthon served in Europe during the war and gave this magazine some fine articles about it; we published the most recent one on the fiftieth anniversary of D-day. He also wrote a book called Other Clay: A Remembrance of the World War II Infantry that I think is perhaps the finest single memoir to come out of the struggle. He went in with the second wave on Omaha Beach, and when Private Ryan opened, I wrote him saying that although I understood he may well have spent all the time he ever wanted to on the Normandy shore, if he were willing to go see the movie, I knew our readers would be interested in his response to it. Two weeks later the letter came back to me, the address crossed out, the word DECEASED stamped red next to it.
“They’re going,” Douglas Brinkley said to me at lunch the other day. “More and more of them, every day.” We were celebrating his having finished writing The American Heritage New History of the United States (see page 62), but he was talking about his work as director of the Eisenhower Center in New Orleans, where the new National D-Day Museum is taking shape (greatly aided, says Doug, by Private Ryan ’s success). The Eisenhower Center is seeking veterans’ memoirs, and not just from the European Theater but from around the globe. Doug told me that his predecessor at the center, Stephen Ambrose, had been considered something of an eccentric when he started gathering the oral histories of World War II veterans back in the 1970s. But now, with these men who survived the most appalling dangers in their youth falling to what Lincoln called the silent artillery of time, it is clear enough how valuable his work has been.
Saving Private Ryan has illuminated in the most vivid way just how much of a debt those of us who were born in the sunny decades after the war owe the people who paid with their lives to buy us that sunshine. Even as the movie has permitted many to speak across generations, it also reminds all of us what a privilege it is to know these familiar, unlikely heroes, our parents and grandparents who saved the world. In his memoir Colonel Cawthon, who now has joined the comrades he left behind in Europe a lifetime ago, says of those with whom he served, “These may be generally classified as ordinary men: if so, they make of ordinary an ornament, and humankind more acceptable.