“Where’s the sense of riskin’ the lives of the eight of us to save one guy?” –Private Reiben
War is so often a game of numbers: who can produce the most guns, churn out the most soldiers, the most tanks, the most bullets. But in this war of numbers, every part has a function, right down to the individual. In many ways, the individual is the most crucial part of the war machine. Two incredible films have taken a look at the relationship between the military and the individual: Johnny Got His Gun (1971) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). They are vastly different in the way they approach the topic, but each is remarkable and profound in its own important way.
Johnny Got His Gun is based off of a 1938 novel by Dalton Trumbo. We follow the events of Joe Bonham, a soldier from the First World War. On the last day of the war, he is struck by a mortar explosion. The explosion presumably destroys his legs and arms to the point where they are amputated and there is extensive damage to his trachea, nose, eyes, jaw, ear drums, and tongue, which are also removed or incapacitated. The explosion also damaged his cerebrum, to the extent that one doctor comments “This young man will be as unfeeling and unthinking as the dead till the day he joins them.”
WWI was a field of combat where dozens of new brutal methods of killing were employed. As a result, doctors had to adapt and learn new methods of treating these horrific new injuries. Joe, considered to be catatonic near the point of being brain dead, is viewed as an opportunity for the doctor’s to learn. “There is no justification for his continued existence unless we can learn from him how to help others.” What they do not realize though, is that Joe is very much conscious. We hear his thoughts regularly throughout the movie and we see him dream of past events intermixed with pseudo-realities in which he converses with his father, Jesus, and old girlfriend. We see him use all that he knows to try to get to the outside world. However, communication with him is nigh on impossible and it is well over a year before anyone realizes that his movements are not muscle spasms, but attempts to communicate. At this point, high ranking military officers and doctors are brought in to communicate with him by Morse Code. He asks to be helped. He wants company and to be outside, not locked in the utility closet of the hospital ward. He even has plans on how to earn a living (as a circus freak), an idea which he hoped would alleviate some of their fears. When his request is denied, he asks to be killed. This request is also denied and, when a nurse attempts to comply, she is removed. He is left alone as an experiment of science and foremost, the military.
This take on the individual within the military machine is clearly pessimistic, but it reflects a very real aspect of war. Soldiers will die, but there are opportunities for saving other men by learning from what opportunities can be garnered. However, in the case of Joe, he is unwillingly martyred. In fact, there are many parallels drawn between Joe and Jesus. Both are subjected to extreme pain and agony so that the suffering of others can be reduced. However, in Joe’s case (and possibly Jesus’), this martyrdom is a result of someone else’s will.
Saving Private Ryan takes a very different approach to the individual, one that shows the importance of the individual. James Francis Ryan is one of the four Ryan brothers fighting in the Second World War. But, by D-Day, three of the four have died. As a result, it is decided that Private Ryan is to be sent home so that his mother does not have to bear the agony of losing all her children. Eight incredibly good men are sent off on the task to find one man in all of France and bring him back alive. Captain Miller commented that it was like “finding a needle in a stack of needles.” The mission was not popular among the soldiers, and with good reason. By the time that they reached Private Ryan, two of the eight soldiers had been killed by Germans, including their medic. By the end of the movie, only two of the original eight soldiers sent to retrieve Ryan are still alive. The loss of every single one of those six is a blow to the viewer, tragically rendered on screen.
What Saving Private Ryan shows is the dedication and bonds that could develop during combat, how the individual may not have been important to the man up top, but how he was worth the world to the man by his side. Captain Miller embodies this friendship most overtly. He knows exactly how many men have died under him and we can see how visibly shaken he is whenever one of his own dies. He cares deeply for every man under him, but he also cares for those not under him. He has never met Ryan, and knows little more other than what has happened to his brothers, but he risks his life and the life of seven others to help him. Another great example is when Captain Miller decides to storm the machine gun pit at the radar station. Taking out this machine gun was not necessary to complete the mission, but Captain Miller did it because it would save the lives of other soldiers in the future, strangers, but brothers nevertheless.
Saving Private Ryan also speaks very strongly about sacrifice. Captain Miller’s dying words were “Earn this. Earn it.” Ryan took this to heart, later saying “I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.” Miller knew that, even though he may not be around to see it, everything that he did would have a consequence and he was determined to make the world as good as possible before he left it.