Private Ryan’s Question
Just the other day I saw again the movie Saving Private Ryan. Near the end of the film Captain Miller, dying from a gunshot wound, tells Private Ryan, “Earn it.” At the end of the film we are returned to the beginning where the old man and his family are visiting the military cemetery above the beaches at Normandy. The old man turns out to be Private Ryan. Kneeling at Captain Miller’s grave he turns to his wife and says, “Tell me I’m a good man; that I’ve lived a good life.” While this question tugs at the emotions of the audience, I believe we are left with more questions than answers at the close of this film.
It would seem that Private Ryan carried a great deal of guilt for having survived when his savior dies. The question he asks is rhetorical, requiring no answer, unless, of course, Private Ryan’s life was anything but good. The fact that he had to ask this question of his wife, a person who would likely not tell him the truth if his life had been less than good, makes the question all the more absurd. One knows whether one has lived an ethical life, a life in which one fulfills one’s obligation to the other before thinking of oneself. One knows whether his or her life was earned rather than given simply by the measure of regret one has as time passes.
As I look back on my own life I am satisfied with my contributions to the world in which I live. I have no regrets and were I to drop dead in this very moment I would traverse into the unknown happy, joyous and free. This is not to say that I would do everything exactly the same if I were given the chance to do things over again; to the contrary, each mistake proved to be a tool for change. I learned, sometimes the hard way, that doing the same thing over and over expecting different results did not work for me. Learn from the mistakes, do things differently and one need not ask the question that Private Ryan asked in the end. He would simply know the answer so the question would be left unasked.
In war, as in life in general, events are random yet predictable through applied probabilities. If something can happen it will happen, we just don’t know when or to whom. One can calculate the odds in war as to how many people will die as a result of battles waged as well as how many will survive. While the probabilities do not say exactly which people will live and which will die, in the end the numbers are accurate. The fact that Captain Miller dies and Private Ryan lives to return to Normandy those many years later is a result of randomness and does not suggest any purpose in the two instances, rather, it confirms the very nature of the odds of survival. It is something like this quote from “Nuke” LaLoosh. “This [baseball] is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.”
The point is, if you have to ask whether or not you have lived a good life, if you are a good person, chances are the answer is no. Private Ryan asked the wrong question and the audience is left without a resolution.