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"In a battlefield cemetery each marble cross marks an individual crucifixion.
Someone-someone very young usually-has died for somebody else's sins.
The movie 'Saving Private Ryan' begins and ends in the military cemetery above Omaha Beach. By sundown of D-Day, 40,000 Americans had landed on that beach, and one in 19 had become a casualty. The military brass purposely chose troops with no combat experience for the bulk of the assault force.
The brass reasoned that an experienced infantryman is a terrified infantryman. The odds of dying in the early waves were so great that an informed soldier might be paralyzed with well-founded despair. But the young and idealistic might move forward into the lottery of death.
Director Steven Spielberg made 'Saving Private Ryan' as a tribute to D-day veterans. He wanted, reviewers say, to strip the glory away from war and show the '90s generation what it was really like.
The reviews have praised the first 30 minutes of the film and the special effects that graphically show the blood and horror of the D-Day landing.
Unfortunately, American movie audiences have become jaded connoisseurs of special effects gore. In the hands of the entertainment industry, violence has become just another pandering trick.
But Spielberg wasn't pandering. Shocked by and wary of his depiction, I bought a copy of Steven Ambrose's book 'D-Day.' The story of the Normandy invasion is a story of unimaginable slaughter. Worse than I ever knew, and I thought I knew something about it.
The young men who lived through those first waves are old men now. Many have asked themselves, every day for more than 50 years, why they survived. It is an unanswerable question. The air was full of buzzing death. When the ramps opened on many of the landing craft, all the men aboard were riddled with machine gun bullets before they could step into the water.
Beyond this cauldron of cordite and carnage, half a world away, lay an America united in purpose like no citizen under 60 has ever seen. The war touched everyone. The entire starting lineup of the 1941 Yankees was in military uniform. Almost every family could hang a service flag in the window, with a star embroidered on it for each relative in uniform.
In the early hours of D-Day, with the outcome of the battle still in the balance, the nation prayed.
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'I fought that war as a child' a historian on television said the other night. I knew what he meant. So did I. We all saved fat and flattened cans and grew victory gardens. But we did not all go to Omaha Beach. Or Saipan. Or Anzio. Only an anointed few did that.
The men of World War II are beginning to leave us now. In my family, six have gone and two are left. We have lost the uncle who was on Okinawa, the cousin who worked his way up the gauntlet of Italy and the cousin who brought the German helmet back from North Africa.
These men left us with a simple request. You can hear that request in 'Saving Private Ryan.' I haven't read a review that has mentioned it, but it is what makes Spielberg's movie a masterpiece.
In the film, a squad of Rangers is sent behind enemy lines to save a man whose three brothers have been killed in battle. Higher headquarters wants him shipped home to spare his mother the agony of having all her sons killed in combat.
So eight Rangers risk their lives for one man. And when one of the Rangers is mortally wounded, he asks Pvt. Ryan to bend over so he can whisper to him. 'Earn this,' he says.
And that is the request of all the young men who have died in all the wars from Normandy to the Chosin Reservoir to Da Nang to the Gulf.
When the movie ended, the theater was silent except for some muffled sobs. But the tears that scalded my eyes were not just for the men who had died on the screen and in truth. Or for the men who had lived and grown old and were baffled about why they had been spared.
I walked out into the world of Howard Stern and Jerry Springer and 'South Park.' Into the world of front-page coverage of Monica S. Lewinski and the stain on her dress that might have been Oval Office semen.
'Earn this,' was still ringing in my ears. And the tears in my eyes were tears of betrayal."