War is loud. Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg's World War II film, is very loud. But the most impressive sound I heard was the silence. The audience remained silent as the credits rolled, silent as they filed out of the theater, silent in the long corridors of the suburban cineplex, silent even as they drifted out into the parking lot.
Piercing volleys of gunfire, exploding mortars, staccato bursts of automatic weaponry, sharp cracks of the sniper's rifle, low rumbles of encroaching tanks, thunderous bombs — all this plus the screams of dying men and then: silence. A haunting silence hangs heavy over a battlefield when the guns have fallen quiet, all words stifled by the suffocating stench of death. It is Spielberg's greatest achievement to reproduce that silence for members of my generation.
We who were still finger-painting when Saigon fell have had no direct experience of war. The 1991 Gulf War started in Super Bowl week and was over before opening day of the new baseball season. Viewer-friendly courtesy of CNN, it was chock-full of bombs so smart and planes so stealthy that charred bodies could only ruin the lovely pictures. It was war thoroughly domesticated for family consumption, not unlike the continuing adventures of Rambo.
My generation has grown up in the shopping-mall cineplexes that Rambo dominated. The sterile places which offer six mindless shoot ‘em-ups and a half-dozen juvenile comedies are ill-suited for material that aims above the frivolous, let alone historical instruction. Many of us owe what we know about the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail to Spielberg's Indiana Jones series. The director of mechanical sharks, robotic extraterrestrials, and computer-animated dinosaurs is an unlikely teacher of historical lessons. But he has filled more theater seats than any other and he knows the power of his art. As we have grown up on his movies, so too has he matured, and is now attempting to teach powerful lessons.
Saving Private Ryan's message is simple and emphatic. It is anti-war. It is antiwar in general, without fretting about the specifics of this or that war. It is anti-war in the same way that General Norman Schwarzkopf is anti-war: to know it, to have lived it, is to loathe it and strive to avoid it. Saving Private Ryan is anti-war simply because it brings the horror — and here even “horror” is too flat a word — of war to those who have not seen it, do not know it, cannot loathe it, and so might too quickly embrace it.
War is the protagonist in this film. We meet a not-so-merry band of soldiers, but the largest screen presence belongs to the war itself. It matters little which war, and Spielberg asks a new generation to do something even more valuable than remembering Mrs. Sullivan's sons, or the Rangers on Omaha Beach. Saving Private Ryan asks us to think about war itself.
Earlier generations thought about war because they lived through it, whether in combat or waiting for news at home. They knew it to be a “godawful mess,” as one of Spielberg's soldiers put it. Spielberg allows us to hear Emerson reflecting on the virtues that warfare brings to the fore, but not without a reminder that such reflections can only be a strained effort “to look on the bright side.”
Twenty years after the liberation of Europe, Pope Paul VI cried out at the United Nations in New York: “War — never again!” Another 25 years later, Pope John Paul II, a man of peace who came of age in a time of war, repeated the cry as the world prepared to liberate Kuwait. After that war the Holy Father wrote, “No, never again war, which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind it a trail of resentment and hatred…” (Centesimus Annus #52).
War teaches how to kill. Spielberg shows us the transformation of the company translator, who slowly, reluctantly, fitfully, but at last decisively discovers that he has it within him to shoot an unarmed man. What war does to the bad guys is awful. What it does to the good guys is tragic.
We tend to focus on what our soldiers do to an evil enemy. Fair enough. But war itself is an enemy that does terrible things to our soldiers, even when they are victorious. An 18-year-old American private gets in a bulldozer and executes his mission. Mission accomplished means that hundreds of Iraqi soldiers have been buried alive in their desert trenches. Necessary perhaps, but not noble.
Which is not to say that Emerson was wrong. Or that St. Thomas Aquinas was wrong about just war theory. Or that the boys of D-Day were not heroes in the cause of justice. All of that still holds, but it loses some of its force when we watch schoolteachers and cartographers learn the art of killing. The justifications for war remain, but their persuasive power is shaky, like sandcastles on the beach. Sandcastles easily overwhelmed by a tide crimson with the blood of the fallen.
War — never again! It is a cry difficult for the young to understand. Our experience provides no referent for the “again.” We need to be instructed about the reality of war. That the lesson might be taught in the suburban shopping-mall-cummovie-theater is surprising, but an occasion for gratitude.
In the face of the reality of war, words fail, as even Abraham Lincoln's words were insufficient to console Bixby, or to hallow the ground at Gettysburg. All that is left is silence. A silence that allows to arise in the heart a prayer, even as Spielberg's soldiers pray in their time of trial. In time that silent prayer forms a cry on the lips of those who have been witnesses. Saving Private Ryan has given rise to, as much as is possible across the decades, a cohort of new witnesses. And we, God willing, will join our voices to the cry of all witnesses, War — never again!
Raymond de Souza is a seminarian in Ontario, Canada.