The perennial problems of war and the challenge of establishing
and maintaining a just peace have occupied the greatest thinkers.
Can war be eliminated? If it must be fought, when and to what
ends should we fight? How must we fight? Are there limits in war,
or is war necessarily "total" and "hell"?
Do nuclear weapons change our answers to these questions? This
unit seeks to demonstrate the relevance of classical treatments
of war and peace for present day debate on these questions. It
includes selections from Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Thomas
Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, and Carl von Clausewitz -- each of them
theorizing about war, human nature, and the world.
Augustine and Thomas, both understanding man as sinner, suggest
that there is a certain order in nature. They seek to place limits
of justice in war and peace in light of man's ultimate salvation
and his responsibilities to God and neighbor. Kant and Clausewitz,
leaving God out of the analysis, seek to rationalize history and
the experience of war such that war is either overcome altogether
for Kant or made theoretically decisive and total for Clausewitz.
The films chosen to accompany these selections dramatize the
complexities of war and peace in situations in which war and peace
actually occur -- at particular times and places and to particular
people. Three of the films in this unit dramatize these questions
in the light of the American character and the virtues and problems
incident to American liberal democracy. The nuclear age of Fail-Safe
presents the extraordinary problem of seeking to avoid war through
a policy of mutually assured destruction, and suggests that such
a policy is ultimately amoral and irrational. The Americanization
of Emily presents a liberal ethics of self-preservation that
denies the virtue of war and suggests just how devastating the
pursuit of honor or recognition in war can be. Saving Private
Ryan indicates the dignity and even salvation to be found
in soldering well. Finally, the film Michael Collins is
included here for its compelling and complex picture of heroism
and statesmanship interlinked with political terrorism.
Augustine's Of Just War
St. Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430) writes when most of the known
world, Europe and Asia, is subject to the rule of the Roman Empire,
and thus pacified. Yet he laments the price that went into achieving
this fragile peace: "[T]he imperial city has endeavored to
impose on subject nations...her yoke... but how many great wars,
how much slaughter and bloodshed, have provided this unity!"
Moreover, the vast expanse of imperial city presents the potential
for civil and social wars.
Rome and all the earthly cities are, for Augustine, all Babylon.
He juxtaposes the earthly city, Babylon, to the City of God, the
city of the righteous on earth and the holy city of the saved
in the life to come. Every city on earth is Babylon for Augustine,
because life and the body, when compared with the soul and salvation,
are "this weakness, this plague, this disease" in which
we are never safe. The question philosophers ask, "what is
the good life?" is asked in vain if it isn't asked with reference
of the life to come or to salvation.
Justice therefore is also necessarily limited in the earthly
city, because the earthly judge, unlike God, the supreme judge,
can never know a man's conscience, his true guilt or innocence.
The guilty will at times go unpunished and the innocent will suffer
in this life. Yet, all the ills of this life do not lead Augustine
to believe that the soldier, the judge and the statesman, those
leading an active or political life, should lament and withdraw
from office for their part in the many possible miscarriages of
justice. On the contrary, he argues that these agents of worldly
justice must do their duty to human society; it would be thought
of as "wickedness" to abandon that duty. He concludes,
"though we... acquit the [man of action] of malice [when
justice is miscarried], we must none the less condemn human life
as miserable." Nevertheless, there is hope for earthly peace.
Augustine maintains that all natures seek peace; even the fierce
who wage war do so for the sake of peace.
The peace of the temporal world is to be prayed for and sought
by the Christian, insofar as it is possible. Christians may fight
as soldiers, in just wars, when necessary, and for the sake of
peace. In so doing, they secure the peace of Babylon, where they
live in exile, for in the temporal world, the two cities -- Babylon
and the City of God -- are commingled.
Thomas Aquinas's Christians and War
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 or 1227 - 1274) considers the fundamental
questions about war in the context of Christian revelation, continuing
Augustine's investigation into justice, war and peace. Thomas
takes for his authority not only scripture and over a thousand
years of Church tradition, including the writings of Augustine,
but also, the arguments of philosophic investigators, in particular,
the pagan Aristotle, whom he calls "the philosopher."
Thomas considers first, whether there is a just war. Determining
there is, he lays down criteria for justice in war (that is, in
the fighting of war) and justice to war (that is, in the determination
to fight or go to war). Just wars require a sovereign wage them,
they can not be waged by a private individual or group. They must
be waged for a just cause. And, they must be waged with just or
Next, Thomas considers two questions of justice in war. First,
whether it is lawful for clerics to fight. (He argues it is not,
for the duties of their office require they do not.) Second, he
considers whether it is lawful for belligerents to lay ambushes.
(It is not lawful to lie or break promises and disregard the laws
of war; however, combatants are under no obligation to declare
their every intention to the enemy. In fact to soldier well a
"soldier has to learn...the art of concealing his purpose
lest it come to the enemy's knowledge"). Finally, Thomas
considers, whether it is lawful for a Christian to fight on holy
days, when he has a special duty to honor God (It is, Thomas concludes,
provided it is necessary to safeguarding the commonweal.) Thus
Thomas, while accepting Augustine's Christian distinction between
the city of God and Babylon, follows Aristotle in bringing reason
or philosophy to bear on political life and war. Although Thomas
agrees with Augustine about the impossibility of perfect justice
on earth, he attempts to formulate principles based on justice
to guide political life, the life of the soldier, and the life
of the citizen.
Like Augustine, Thomas neither denies the courage of the soldier,
nor that the peace of the temporal world is a good for which just
wars must be fought. But unlike Augustine, who considers the human
virtues such as courage to indicate our need to endure the ills
of life, Thomas, again following Aristotle, tends to present the
virtues as positive expressions of our capacity for good, as our
sacrifices in war are for the sake of peace.
Kant's Perpetual Peace
Immanuel Kant begins his Perpetual Peace by noting the
satirical inscription on a Dutch innkeeper's sign upon which a
burial ground was painted. Kant notes that the inscription reads
'Pax Perpetua' or perpetual peace, and asks "is it only in
death that this sweet dream, the dream of perpetual peace, is
realized?" The inscription reminds us of Augustine's conviction
that true felicity comes only in the next life.
Kant says, "Whether the inscription had for its object mankind
in general, the rulers of states, who are insatiable of war, or
merely the philosophers who dream [of perpetual peace], we do
not know." In any case, Kant firmly puts philosophers on
the side of peace and practical politicians on the side of war.
Yet Kant, the political theorist or philosopher, calls not for
improved morality from these war-making politicians, but rather
for greater consistency. The practical politician, according to
Kant, ignores the philosopher or theorist as a know-it-all whose
ideas are irrelevant and insignificant; but, on the other hand,
the practical politician also criticizes the ideas of the theorist
as a danger to the state. If philosophy is dismissed as irrelevant,
Kant says, it cannot be condemned as dangerous. If it is dangerous,
it cannot be irrelevant.
Kant's defense for philosophy is found in his turning to conditions
for the 'Pax Perpetua,' the sweet dream of philosophers. Kant
regards himself as unique among the philosophers or theorists
in that he is the first to consider a state of perpetual peace
practically possible. His theory, far from being a danger to the
state, will assist in the attainment of a perpetual peace. In
introducing 'preliminary' and 'definite' articles required for
a perpetual peace among states, Kant describes the natural state
of humanity, which must be overcome:
The British historian B.H. Liddell Hart and others have blamed
the popularity of Clausewitz's ideas with Europe's generals for
the readiness for war of all of Europe's armies just prior to
the First World War and for the ensuing bloodbath.
As a theorist of war, however, Clauseswitz insists that theory
be firmly rooted in the actual experience of war. And, in actual
war psychological, moral and political forces continually impede
or rouse action. Thus he leaves open the possibility that generalship
and statesmanship can coincide or harmonize in war. "To conduct
a whole war or its great... campaigns, to a successful termination,
there must be an intimate knowledge of state [political] policy
in its higher relations."
War, for Clausewitz, is always the interaction of violence, chance
and politics. In practice, war is an extension of politics; and
politics, especially war, is always a matter of circumstance.
Politics is forever part of war because war itself is an act of
political policy. To make war is to employ violence with the ultimate
goal of imposing one's will upon another. The aim of war in theory
is to exhaust the enemy by rendering his armed forces powerless.
Yet, war in practice always has a political object which qualifies
the amount of effort, the means, one is willing to expend. Violence
is limited, not by independent moral concerns, as for Thomas,
but by interest and the political end the violence serves. Violence
for its own sake is irrational and inefficient.
Yet, the genius for command remains distinct from political skill,
for its object remains the exhausting of an enemy's will through
the application of violence. That genius is the balance of intellect
and temperament in a commander that permits him to overcome the
danger and chance of war and to excel at the complex activity
Fail-safe reveals various problems with the position of
some contemporary theorists that the nuclear bomb is the ultimate
tool of peace. [Consider for example Kenneth Waltz's "More
May Be Better" in his The Spread of Nuclear Weapons.]
The proliferation of the ultimate weapon to competing states makes
for peace among them. Perhaps it is therefore the ultimate expression
of Kant's account of "[Nature's] mechanical course ... [where
Nature's] aim is to produce a harmony among men, "against
their will and indeed through their discord." Reason gives
us the bomb for the sake of peace. We will not use it, so the
argument goes, because we wouldn't want it used against us. Nuclear
weapons deter the use of nuclear weapons.
In Fail-safe the Soviets and the Americans are in such
a nuclear balance: each possesses an uncertain capability to defend
against nuclear attack, but a certain capability to punish and
thus deter the other. After a series of unforeseen events, nuclear-armed
American bombers fly to Russia with orders to drop their payload
on Moscow. The well-trained pilots cannot be recalled once they
have passed their "fail-safe" points. When communication
with planes is interrupted, the bombers follow through on their
predetermined attack orders.
Although the Soviet Premier, the U.S. President and their deputies
ultimately overcome mutual suspicion and work together to avoid
a nuclear incident, they fail to stop the US airmen from dropping
their bombs. After Moscow is destroyed, the President of the United
States determines he must bomb New York. He reasons that America's
will is equivalent to Russia's and that he must demonstrate his
good will by sacrificing one of his own cities too. The film thus
indicates that we cannot rely on a state of mutually assured destruction
to keep the peace. Thinking about how, and when, and with what
means we are willing to fight wars -- rather than seeking to simply
deter the enemy -- is vital to achieving a just peace.
Yet, in the person of a professor who proferrs advice to the
President, the film presents the limits of reason construed narrowly,
and in deed, the limits of the Kantian argument that even "a
race of devils" can be made to assist in the creation of
a perpetual peace through the enlightenment of states.
The professor is a proponent of limiting nuclear war by agreeing
with the Soviets to target only military apparatus rather than
population centers. Nevertheless, having accidentally stumbled
into a first strike on the Soviet population center and political
capital, Moscow, the professor argues that the United States should
follow with a full scale nuclear attack on the USSR. He reasons
that, as rational calculators, the Soviets will perceive that
they cannot win a nuclear conflict. And, given the choice between
survival and extinction, the Soviets will surrender. According
to the professor, the Soviets will thus choose rationally as "calculating
machines" devoid of "human emotions".
Not surprisingly, the professor believes that his counterpart
in the Soviet Union will think as a good Soviet theorist should,
choosing the conditions (survival) necessary for the ultimate
triumph of Marxism. Because the professor does not subscribe to
Marxist theory, he concludes triumphantly, "the threat of
communism will be over, forever."
It is rather an American General who gets it right. The Soviets
are like the Americans in a more commonsensical way: They too
will fight with a natural, spirited defense of their own cities
and their own way of life. To the professor the General replies,
"that's hogwash, There will be Russian generals who will
react just as I would. The best defense is a good offense. They
see trouble coming, take my word for it, they'll attack and they
won't give a damn what Marx said."
Fail-Safe ultimately suggests, contrary to Kant, that
winning the peace requires a kind of goodness of men -- a willingness
to accept responsibility for our actions. As the President says
to the Soviet Premier: "All I know is that men are responsible.
We're responsible for what happens to us."
The Americanization of Emily
Like Fail-Safe, the Americanization of Emily is
a criticism of war. The film presents the "Americanized"
as those who possess a self-interested desire to avoid danger
and enjoy the material and physical pleasures of life. The title
character, a British war-widow, accuses her American lover, Charlie,
of a preoccupation with material good and profit and a lack of
nobility and civic-mindedness. To Emily, Charlie is, in short,
American. And Emily, while she loves Charlie, does not want to
Charlie is, truly, a self-professed coward who says he has made
"self-preservation" his religion. He is intent on puncturing
the pretensions of heroism, virtue, and sacrifice in war. Even
his job in the Navy, as a dog-robber, flies in the face of nobility
and sacrifice: A dog-robber is responsible for gratifying the
whims of his Admiral and the Navy brass; Charlie procures food,
booze, and women for his superiors. And, he brings others the
small pleasures of American peace-time life, such as Hershey bars.
Charlie is suspicious of the "nobility of war". In
one of the most entertaining and telling scenes of the film, we
see Charlie suggest that it is the war widows and those who exalt
the sacrifice of war -- those who build monuments -- not the statesman
or practical politicians, who perpetuate war. Charlie's criticism
reminds us of the proverbial Spartan woman burying her son: An
old woman came up to her and said, You poor woman, what a misfortune!
The mother replied, No, by the goddess, what a good fortune...
because I bore him so that he might die for Sparta, and that is
what has happened for me.
According to Charlie war is natural to us, but virtue is not.
It is not natural for mothers and wives to rejoice in the deaths
of their loved ones. What will save man from himself is not goodness,
but something traditionally ignoble: cowardice. Charlie, like
Thomas Hobbes, would rather have less virtue and more self-interest.
If we each pursue our own pleasure, and above all else fear the
violent death of battle rather than seek the recognition of success
in battle, then we will have peace.
While not an atheist, Charlie disdains taking his bearings from
otherworldly concerns. As he says to Emily, "You have to
commit yourself to life now, Emily. I don't want to know what's
good or bad or true. I let God worry about the truth. I just want
to know the momentary facts of things. Life isn't good or bad
or true. It's merely factual. It's sensual. It's alive... I want
to know what I am, not what I should be".
When Charlie is sent by his Admiral to the shores of Normandy
on D-day to make a film documenting the heroic contribution of
Navy men, he behaves true to form, seeking to flee the beach back
to the relative safety of the boats. Charlie's comrade Bus, drunk
on the pursuit of honor, fires on Charlie to turn him around.
Charlie is hit, and presumed dead. As "the first dead man
on Omaha Beach," Charlie is pronounced a hero and his picture
adorns every periodical in the free world. Yet, Charlie lives
and returns to England with the wounded, his cowardice having
saved his life.
Charlie may be a self-interested coward and deficient in the
habits of a disciplined soldier, but he has -- as we see throughout
the film -- other virtues such as honesty with himself and others,
and truthfulness. Wounded, both physically and emotionally by
Bus, he now intends to courageously reveal the truth -- to act
on principle and against his own interest -- to expose his comrade's
wickedness, his Admiral's derangement, and his own cowardice to
The issue of right and wrong action becomes even more complex
when Emily, now "Americanized" by learning that the
life of the man she loves is more valuable to her than his honor,
insists to Charlie that she'll not have principled action from
him. Rather, she'll "settle for [one of his] Hershey bars"
and their life together. She convinces him to abandon his intention
of revealing the truth and thereby avoid disciplinary action and
embarrassing himself, his Admiral, and his service. Charlie's
choice of this self-interested deception requires him to sacrifice
his principle for the sake of his country and its effort to win
the war. Emily has been "Americanized," but Charlie
has become more prudent, and even in a way more moral.
Charlie's hope for salvation in cowardice might remind us of
Kant's hope for perpetual peace achieved through enlightened,
self-interested action on the part of states. Yet, Charlie's actions
suggest there is more hope for peace in another part of his nature.
When Emily asks him early in the film if there is anything he'd
die for, he replies, "There are lots of things I'd die for,
Emily: [you], my home, my family, my country. But that's love,
For Charlie, love animates virtue, but making a principle of extreme
fortitude is folly: he continues, "now, if I were to bring
a raging lion into the house and wrestle it, just to prove that
I'd die for you, [Emily] that would be highly principled of me.
But, what's a lion doing in a man's house anyway?" This sentiment
echoes Thomas's treatment of courage and of our duties to others.
Charlie is not rash in the pursuit of glory, but when love and
interest are at stake he will venture his life.
Our ultimate judgment of Charlie has to be informed not only
by his shortcomings, but also by the ultimate goodness of his
actions. Charlie isn't inspired to a great act of heroism in the
service of his fellow soldiers, and he does, at Emily's urging,
engage in a deception of the peoples of the Allied powers by allowing
himself to be presented as a common soldier, heroic in his leading
the charge on Omaha beach. Yet, he is a faithful man. And, he
loves and would die for Emily, his home, his family, and his country.
Michael Collins is a complex, but ultimately favorable
picture of a modern political terrorist who turns statesman and
becomes the legitimate commander of regular, uniformed troops.
In the first part of the film, the title character learns how
ineffective it is for his Irish rebels to fight in the open against
the vastly superior British forces. The leaders of Ireland's Easter
rebellion of 1916, the battle with which the film opens, are executed
and Collins, together with the other rebels, is imprisoned. Collins
sees the futility of fighting in a large-scale battle against
an army his militiamen will surely never defeat in open combat.
He calls the Easter uprising the "great heroic ethic of failure,
all marching in step towards slaughter." In Collins we see
therefore another kind of criticism of war, war fought for the
sake of virtue.
The lesson Collins draws from the rebellion of 1916 is that he
must fight differently, more economically, more effectively and
less openly or honorably. For the remainder of the film we see
Collins's vision compete with that of Eamon DeValera, who seeks
first and foremost the righteousness of a perfect moral victory,
not the limited yet tangible political victory which Collins ultimately
An amiable and even charming insurgent, Collins employs the means
of political terrorism -- intelligence gathering and the assassination
of officials and collaborators -- successfully, but not without
inspiring vicious reprisals from the uniformed British army sent
to keep order. We wonder if Collins thinks that the ends justify
the means, the inevitable loss of innocent lives in the crossfire,
and the chaos or "general mayhem" created in the community.
Augustine and Thomas argue that there are intrinsic limitations
on just means appropriate in war. Certainly, Collins transgresses
them, but he claims to do so because he is seeking a peace worth
fighting for -- the political freedom necessary to guarantee an
independent Irish republic -- and, given the asymmetrical nature
of his conflict, only terrorist means can accomplish a just peace.
Clausewitz, in his On War, suggests that war is an extension
of politics, and that the political implies limits to what can
be achieved by force. Michael Collins illustrates this
point. Collins has to choose between continued fighting or accepting
a less than ideal political solution to the dispute in Ireland.
While Collins had earlier argued that "the moral force of
international opinion" is irrelevant and that "there's
only one kind of force [the British] understand," ultimately
he determines that "surely, it's time for peace." Collins
and his "invisible army" of insurgents bring the British
to the bargaining table where he is able to negotiate a peace
with the leaders of the Empire.
A negotiated settlement, he believes, will provide the degree
of political freedom necessary to achieve the final goal of Irish
independence. The movie shows that Collins' choice is not only
a practical one, but a moral one. It takes the virtues of both
courage and prudence to achieve the settlement with Britain, and
to persuade the Irish people to support it. To DeValera and some
of his former fellow terrorists this appears as a betrayal. Collins,
not surprisingly, discovers that peace requires more fighting.
It is necessary to fight against the men he trained and against
DeValera. Collins's days as a statesman are ended by the means
he employed: he is assassinated. Yet he is not defeated. His legacy
is ambiguous, it is found both in the peace of the republic he
helped found, and in the continued terrorist threats to the peace
of the Irish and British peoples. The film shows the necessary
limits to the goals achievable with force, and that the genius
of command and strategy is as often found off the battlefield
as on it. War-making accomplishes things that only force can accomplish.
Yet, war is limited in what it can accomplish. The generalship
of Collins -- his courage and his great skill in strategy and
as a leader of men -- ultimately serves the statesmanship of Collins.
Saving Private Ryan
Like Michael Collins, Saving Private Ryan dramatizes
Clausewitz's wisdom about war as the intersection between violence,
chance and politics. In focusing not on the commanders and statesman
and their decisions, but upon the common soldiers and their responsibilities
and trials, Saving Private Ryan shows that the moral and
psychological factors that impact war are significant at all levels.
So too, the film demonstrates how the genius of command, in the
person of Captain Miller, deals with the uncertainties of war.
Saving Private Ryan opens with news reaching the highest
command in the American Army that three of the four Ryan boys
-- all of whom are serving with the US Army -- have been killed
in action. General Marshall, in spite of the realistic advice
of his subordinates, determines he must give orders to find the
last of the Ryan boys and bring him home so his mother will not
lose her last son to war. To explain his decision, Marshall reads
a letter that Abraham Lincoln wrote to Mrs. Bixby, the mother
of five sons, who, Lincoln says, "have died gloriously on
the field of battle." Lincoln's letter, like the Americanization
of Emily, suggests a subtle but important difference between
the mothers of American sons, and the war widows Charlie criticizes
as perpetuating war by building monuments and "exalting in
sacrifice." Lincoln expects that Mrs. Bixby will feel anguish
at the loss of her sons, and only later, with the assistance of
a higher power -- and presumably reflection on salvation -- will
her grief give way to pride.
The next scene introduces us to Captain Miller, a man who has
been stripped of his company, in order to take one platoon to
comb the countryside of France in search of Private Ryan. Miller's
platoon questions the wisdom of the command's decision to risk
their eight lives to save one private from the chances of war.
Miller carefully upholds his mission, without endorsing or criticizing
the wisdom behind it. Yet, we suspect he shares his troop's judgment
that the mission is "FUBAR" (*** up beyond all recognition).
We see Miller, having lost one of his soldiers, consider the nature
of command in war. He rationalizes sending men to their death
by making the decision a game of numbers: The sacrifice of one
man saves the lives of "two, or three or ten others. Maybe
a hundred others." The mission saves a greater number of
men at the cost of a few.
But, this particular mission presents a moral difficulty for
Miller. He has lost one man already, and will lose more, in the
effort to find and save one soldier, Private Ryan. He reasons
that, for the mission to be worthwhile, Ryan must "go home
and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light bulb or
In the selected scenes we also meet Corporal Upham, a young soldier
under Miller's command. Upham is intrigued by war and its virtue,
especially the virtue of soldiers. When the other soldiers bellyache
about their mission, Upham quotes Tennyson's "Charge of the
Light Brigade", a poem about extreme duty and discipline.
He is also writing a book about the "bonds of brotherhood
that develop between soldiers during war." Moreover, Upham,
a German and French-speaking linguist and the intellectual of
the group, acts as the voice of right and justice in the conduct
of the war. He speaks out against the desire of his fellow soldiers
to kill a captured German, a gunner who has just killed one of
their platoon. Although there are also prudential reasons for
executing the German, since the platoon can hardly take the German
along on their mission through dangerous territory, Miller frees
the German when Upham reminds him of the rules of war.
Upham exemplifies the kind of love of honor and distinction --
and righteousness about war -- that so upset Charlie in the Americanization
of Emily. Through its presentation of Upham, however, Saving
Private Ryan also suggests reservations about war. Upham's
high sentiments are in every case belied by his conduct. He is
an outcast among the soldiers, whom he does not understand and
whose respect he cannot earn. His concern with justice in war
is diminished when he naively is taken in by the German's claim
that he "like[s] American," by his hollow citation of
stylish pieces of American popular culture ["Fancy smancy,
What a cinch! ... Betty Boop, what a dish..."], and by his
disingenuous performance of the National Anthem. Most important,
Upham is a coward who later stands paralyzed with fear when the
same German he persuaded Miller to free brutally murders yet another
of the platoon. We see not the futility of justice in the conduct
of war, but its costs.
In an ironic twist, Upham later kills the same German gunner.
He shoots him while he is again surrendering. It might seem from
this reversal that Upham has learned that he ought not to have
interceded with Captain Miller on behalf of the German earlier.
However, the film suggests that Upham's certainty and courage
in defending the rules of justice in war must be balanced by the
courage to defend the lives of his fellow soldiers. This same
lesson is demonstrated earlier in the film by the choices Miller
makes. When the platoon comes upon the bodies of ambushed Allied
soldiers, Miller determines to take out the gunner waiting to
ambush the next company. Miller does this despite its being unnecessary
to the mission of saving Private Ryan. Miller doesn't relent though
his soldiers complain, but considers the next company who might
also be ambushed.
In determining to follow the rules of justice in war and set
the German prisoner free, Miller inspires the insubordination
of his best soldiers. He is able to diffuse the situation that
develops only by appealing to the soldiers' common experience
of peacetime life. He reflects on his own life as a school teacher
and as a husband and how the experience of war has changed him.
He demonstrates both what the German missed in his account of
things American, and what he himself had earlier missed in his
effort to justify the mission by making it a numerical calculation.
Miller suggests that the soldiers whom he commands fight for each
other; they fight to save the next company who might be ambushed
by the German gun they have stopped to disable; and they fight
for Ryan. They fight for one anoher other because in so doing
they get one another other home and for themselves they "earn...
the right to get back to [their] wi[ves]" and to their unexceptional,
but good, American lives as school teachers and ordinary citizens.
In the final scenes of Saving Private Ryan, Miller and
his platoon complete their mission. Not only do they find and
'save' Private Ryan, but they assist again in the larger requirements
of an Allied victory. Using a bit of American native ingenuity,
Miller invents the "sticky bomb" and helps hold a strategically
important bridge. The platoon protects Ryan and assists in the
Allied victory, but does so at the cost of Miller's life as well
as that of four more of Miller's soldiers -- only two of the original
eight sent to bring Private Ryan home survive, including Upham.
The film thus presents war realistically in its terrible cost
in human lives.
Yet Saving Private Ryan reminds us of Thomas's account
of the requirements of charity or love. Thomas argues that one
is no worse a citizen or a son for being a soldier, and no worse
a soldier for being a citizen and a son -- that there is a duty
proper to each role. The story of Saving Private Ryan suggests
that being a good soldier, part of a brotherhood, reinforces the
goodness of citizenship and familial kinship. When Private James
Ryan, as an old man, stands at the grave of Captain Miller, he
wonders whether he is a good man -- which can only mean the sum
of son, citizen, husband, father, and soldier. We do not know
if Ryan has found the cure for a disease or led an otherwise remarkable
life. We do know that he has with him his family and in particular
a wife who does not hesitate to assure him that he is a good man.
In bringing his wife and family to Miller's grave he honors Miller
and Miller's sacrifice more than he might have had he built a
longer lasting light bulb or even a monument. Ryan has sought
to live his life as a good man. Ryan has led the very life Miller
hoped that he would live himself. In doing so, Ryan earns the
freedom for which Miller and his men sacrificed. The presentation
of Americans in Saving Private Ryan is what we might want
to be, at our most commonplace best.
These films bring the recurrent debates of war and peace home
to us in their complex particulars. Taken together with the selections
from our classical authors they help us to understand better the
questions of why we fight and whether there can be justice in
war -- in the decision to make war and in the execution of war.
They reveal certain perennial difficulties about the human experience
of war and its relation -- both morally and pragmatically -- to
peace. These selections reveal the complexity of seeking to win
the peace and fighting war for the sake of peace. They treat honor
and magnanimity, generalship and statesmanship, and love and charity.
The storytelling of these films suggests that the recurrent difficulties
our classical authors identify can, in our modern age, still be
instructive to us in our accounts of when, how, and for what we