What Private Ryan Saved

By Brantley Thompson Elkins


"Tell me I've led a good life," an aged James Ryan appeals to his wife in the epilogue to Steven Spielberg’s film, Saving Private Ryan. "Tell me I'm a good man."

Of course, we say to ourselves, as his wife says on screen, "You are."

But that isn’t the real point of the movie, or of the heroism of what is now called the Greatest Generation. The point is, that because of Private Ryan of others like him, billions of people across the world have at least had the chance to live fairly decent lives when they would otherwise have been condemned to stinking, rotten, miserable lives.

The twentieth century was one of such mass slaughter and mass injustice that it is easy to forget how much worse it would have been had World War II ended in an Axis victory or a stalemate. And it wouldn’t necessarily have had to involve the military conquest of America, as in science fiction novels like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

Neither Germany nor Japan had any serious ambitions in the New World, and there were doubtless any number of America Firsters or crypto fascists who welcomed the idea of an Axis victory in the Old World. It would have eliminated the Soviet Union, after all, and made America safe from Godless Communism. There are still apostles of the Rancid Right who think we took the wrong side in the war on that account.

We already know what kind of a world we ended up with by allying ourselves with the Soviets. But what Ronald Reagan called the Evil Empire eventually collapsed, not only because it could not compete economically or militarily with the West in the long run, but because its controlling idea was so artificial. Marxism was the creation of intellectuals, and pathetic intellectuals are the only defenders today of an ideology that belongs in the dustbin of history.

Communism never had any mass appeal. Even in the Soviet Union, the May Day and October Revolution parades were hardly spontaneous, and Stalin was worshipped as a tsar, not as the liberator of the working class or the peasants. The kind of people who voted for Communist parties in countries like France vote for neo-fascists today, and it has to be significant that racist skinheads are more prevalent in eastern Germany and the former Communist states of Eastern Europe than in the West.

Does anyone believe that a triumphant Nazi Germany would have collapsed under its own weight? The Nazis were smart enough to co-opt their capitalists rather than liquidate them, but what the Nazi ideology had going for it was its natural mass appeal. There was nothing artificial or unnatural about nationalism, militarism and xenophobia, and under the umbrella of those atavistic passions the Nazis could co-opt socialism in practice – after all, Germany had had a welfare state since the 1900’s, and the industrial complex that supported the German war effort was a state enterprise in all but name.

There isn’t any mystery about what the Nazis had in mind for the world – whatever part of it they would have ruled in the event of their victory. Even in the last days of the actual war, when the German forces were in collapse, shipments of Jews to death camps were given priority over military traffic. Multiply the Holocaust tenfold, a hundredfold, and you will have some idea what a Nazi hegemony over Europe, Africa and the Middle East would have been like. Tens or hundreds of millions of Slavs, Arabs and Africans would have followed the Jews to the gas chambers, and those not slaughtered would have been enslaved.

In the Pacific Rim, the Nanking massacre would have been just the beginning of China’s sufferings. Southeast Asia, Australia and perhaps India would have become satrapies of the Japanese Empire. And unlike the British and the Dutch, the Japanese wouldn’t have left. If the likes of Gandhi had opposed them, they would have been squashed like bugs. There might not have been any mass exterminations, but the brutality of Japanese rule in other lands would surely have matched that already experienced in Korea for a generation. Comfort girls in Korea and germ warfare research like that in Manchuria would have been the models for exploitation and victimization elsewhere.

And what of America? Our country might never have been conquered in fact, but it would have been conquered in spirit. Fascism rather than Communism could have become the intellectual fashion. Clones of Father Coughlin would have ruled the airwaves, and the Ku Klux Klan might have become as respectable as the Chamber of Commerce. Joseph McCarthy might well have become president rather than an upstart who was eventually put down. Our entire culture would have been poisoned. There would never have been a Civil Rights movement, there would never have been a Women’s Liberation movement, there would never have been a sexual revolution. Gay rights? Forget about it!

Common freedoms and decencies that we take for granted in our continuum would be unknown, and perhaps even inconceivable, in that alternate history. We would be pettier and nastier and more brutish people. All of us would be living stinking, rotten, miserable lives, and the worst of it is that we wouldn’t even know how rotten they were: we’d take them for granted. That this did not happen is what we owe to Private Ryan and all the ordinary heroes of the Greatest Generation.

It is easy enough to discredit the values that the average GI took to World War II, and brought back. Ask any black American of that generation what it was like to live in a time when black soldiers would be kicked off trains in the South to make room for Nazi prisoners – or what those black soldiers had to come home to. It has long been fashionable for liberals to sneer at ordinary middle class Americans of Ryan’s generation – Archie Bunkers, the lot of them. Some Hollywood "issue" movies still give the impression that the heartland between New York and Los Angeles is inhabited entirely by rednecks, neo-Nazis and skinheads.

Yet the heroes of the Greatest Generation were the greatest just the same. Perhaps the greatest thing about them was that they didn’t want to play heroes. Few of them bore any resemblance to swaggering Rambos, still less fanatics like the suicide bombers of today. Their icons were Willie and Joe, Bill Mauldin's comic figures of ordinary GIs like themselves.

They didn’t fortify themselves with mind-rotting propaganda or hate literature, or carry icons of maniacal religious or political leaders. They carried pictures of their wives or girlfriends, or failing that, pinups of Betty Grable. They didn’t want to sacrifice their entire beings to a cause, even a righteous one. They just wanted to get the war over with, get home safely if they could, and live normal lives.

Maybe the Private Ryans weren’t perfect. Maybe they didn’t all represent what was best in America. But they saved what was best in America, just the same, and our nation and indeed the entire human race owe them a debt for that. Troubled as they may be today, think of what our country, and the world, would have been without them.