Memorial Day – and the Saving Private Ryan character we struggle not to become

I hope that you’re all having a meaningful Memorial Day. As we observe holidays throughout the year there are movies that become associated with them. For Christmas, there’s an entire season of Christmas movies.At Thanksgiving, It’s a Wonderful Life is associated with the season. At Easter, it’s resurrection movies like Ten Commandments and the Passion of the Christ

One of the great movies that I’ve come to associate with Memorial Day weekend is Saving Private Ryan. As a fan of the military film genre, Saving Private Ryan is my favorite. I love the characters, the performances, the story, the themes. 

For men especially, I think that war movies speak to something inside of us. There’s a warrior spirit. There’s the desire to want to be the hero, to want to have valor. But in some ways, the character in the movie who men struggle against becoming is Timothy Upham (played by Jeremy Davies). 

When Captain Miller is putting a team together to go and search for the missing Private Ryan, he needs someone with them who can translate. Upham speaks both German and French. In this regard, he’s helpful, though he offers little aid for his military skills. In one of the most dramatic scenes of the movie, Mellish, one of Upham’s comrades, is in a fierce hand to hand combat situation against a German soldier. Upham is standing in a stairwell, paralyzed with fear. He does nothing to intervene when he could have saved Mellish in that situation. Ultimately Mellish is killed in the struggle. When the German soldier who has just killed Mellish leaves the building, he sees Upham cowering fear and crying. The soldier walks right past him. 

It’s easy to think that we’d be the hero, to think we wouldn’t be the man standing frozen in the stairwell. I think of the various domains of our lives. Being men, being husbands, going to work, growing in faith, leading families.

It’s easy to be the hero in our own mind. It’s easy to be a hero, philosophically. In that, I mean that it’s easy to have the ideas and knowledge of what’s heroic, noble, and valorous. But actually executing on those fronts is the challenge. It’s what separates the common people from the uncommon. It’s what separates the everyman from the superman. We don’t effortlessly become great. If we did, everyone would be great and do great things. It takes real sacrifice, humility, and character. I know these are things that I fail to live up to all too often. 

It’s easy to recognize greatness and know what it takes. It’s a lot harder to pursue greatness which requires actually doing what it takes. It’s easy to be a bystander, it’s easy to be afraid. 

In the movie, Upham isn’t portrayed as a bad man. But he’s also not a great man. There is a scene later in the film where he shoots a German soldier. But in the moment that really counts, he’s standing frozen in a stairwell when he’s needed most. 

Remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice 

On Memorial Day, we do honor hundreds of thousands of brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.

WAR OF 1812 – 15,000
CIVIL WAR – 364,511
WORLD WAR I – 116,516
WORLD WAR II – 405,399
KOREAN WAR – 36,516
VIETNAM – 58,209

To the hundreds of thousands of men and women who gave their lives in the service and defense of America, thank you.

Originally published May 25, 2020

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