I published a version of this essay for last year's Veteran's Day. It seems just as appropriate for Memorial Day.
1998’s Saving Private Ryan is one of the best films of the last 30 years. It is the World War II story of a group of Army rangers tasked, after surviving the amphibious landings of D-Day, to retrieve a paratrooper from the front lines and return him safely to the rear. The paratrooper’s withdrawal is ordered by the highest levels of government after all of his brothers have been lost in other campaigns of the war. Throughout the movie, we see the squad of rangers negotiate the dangerous French countryside, steadily losing members of their own small band of brothers and relentlessly pursuing their mission – even as they question the mission’s necessity. What makes Private Ryan so special? Why should they stick their necks out only to see Ryan returned safely home?
The film’s climactic final scene is emotionally overwhelming for me and for many of my former profession. The rangers have successfully linked-up with Private Ryan’s unit. A German attack is coming. Ryan refuses to leave his own band of brothers to fight without him. The rangers decide to stay and fight, and almost all of them die. The movie ends [LINK HERE] with two heartrending scenes. In the first, the captain of the rangers, with his dying breath, charges the young Private Ryan to “Earn this. Earn it.” In the second, an elderly Ryan in his twilight years is visiting the American national cemetery at Normandy. We see him at the ranger captain’s grave, questioning himself and his wife as to whether he has lived a life that could possibly justify such incredible sacrifice.
If I may be so bold as to speak for an entire community, veterans expect very little of American society. The benefits we receive cannot equal the sacrifices we make – especially the sacrifices of mind, body, or soul made in distant lands by many of our number. Accolades are unnecessary; civilians rarely appreciate how military members and veterans weigh recognitions of service, sacrifice, and valor. The discounts provided at our favorite establishments are heartily appreciated, but almost bemusing.
What we expect of American society is no more than we expect of ourselves. This Republic we have inherited remains an experiment, not a guarantee. Any study of history extending a timeline prior to the 20th Century shows that a constitutional republic of limited government built upon the foundation of individual citizens’ rights is an extreme outlier, not a norm. It is an exception because of the requirements levied upon each citizen to make this system not only survive, but thrive. In the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the most astute observers of American culture, it requires “well-considered patriotism.” It requires education, engagement, selfless service, and honor from each and every citizen. None of those requirements is one-and-done; each is enduring. It is a hard and relentless mandate, but one that each of us must fulfill if we are to bequeath to our children the same blessings we have so generously received from previous American generations.
“Earn this. Earn it.”