We Are All Privates Ryan
By Jonah Begone
Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier. - Samuel Johnson
During a recent exchange of e-mails about political beliefs with a former reenactor, I had cause to mention and describe my service in the United States Marine Corps. It wasn't defensive and I wasn't bragging; I was merely responding to a suggestion that the current commander-in-chief, George W. Bush, expects that servicemen ought not to think for themselves. I responded by stating that when I was in the Marines (1974-1978) I was an MOS 2813, Cable Systems Repairman, who was responsible for troubleshooting and repairing damaged telephone lines. I mentioned that I attended six months of communications-electronics schooling that encouraged and required me to think for myself.
In the course of our well-mannered little debate, my correspondent privately admitted to me that he had never served in the military and that this was a matter of embarrassment for him. I then remembered the Samuel Johnson quote above.
When I was a reenactor I had occasional interesting conversations with various reenactment leaders who had never served in the real United Stated armed forces. Most of them were sheepish about the fact. One fellow - at the time a prominent East Coast leader - admitted that his service career was all of two days in a military hospital in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. I replied that at least he had an impressive locality going for him! It often seemed that the more bombastic and military the reenactment leader, the more likely it was that he never served in the real military.
When I was a junior in high school I knew that I wanted to enlist upon graduation. Which branch of the service was the question... I assumed Army, but the Air Force looked attractive. Being intrigued by the Marine recruiter during a senior "Career Day," I signed up to listen to a presentation by the Marine recruiter. It was about that time that I read a newspaper article about some woman being threatened by a gang of some sort; I forget why this was happening. But what stood out in the article was the statement that her son, a former Marine, was standing watch over her in her home and that he owned a shotgun. A formidable obstacle indeed! It was then that I knew that in thirty years or more hence, I would want to be able to describe myself as a former Marine rather than a ex-soldier, sailor or airman. (In case you didn't know, there is no such thing as an ex-Marine - Semper Fidelis.) So I enlisted in the Marine Corps upon graduation and served four years, getting an honorable discharge as a Sergeant (E-5). As I spent more than 180 days of consecutive service before May 1975, the government officially considers me a Vietnam Era Veteran - a flattering and somewhat embarrassing designation.
I never saw any time in Vietnam, let alone combat. The closest I ever got to Vietnam or, indeed, any Vietnamese, was in helping to tear down the telephone network put together in a Camp Pendleton refugee camp after the refugees left. My four Carter Era years in the military were much more like civilian work than truly being in the military. After all, I spent three years at the same base in California only two hours from home, working with a civilian in a civilian industry. I recall seeing a sign outside of the Base Telephone headquarters showing a big yellow Seventies happy face with the slogan, "Relax and Have a Happy Day, America - Your Marine Corps is On Duty." I hated that thing, mainly because it seemed so emblematic of my mid-Seventies experience. And the only hostile fire I ever endured was when I once fired a .22 at an iron object on base and got a small bit of the bullet back at my leg, causing a slight scratch. I don't even have a scar to brag about!
What's funny to me are memories of some reenactors I still know. One fellow was one of the teenage unit "Young'uns," and I can well recall him in my mind's eye, running into formation late during our epochal "125th Anniversary Appomattox Confederate Surrender March" in April 1990. He has since served a long and credible service in the Marines and the Army and is a Gulf War veteran, awarded with an impressive collection of medals. These days he sends e-mails with the following quote appended at the bottom: "At ease was never that easy to me. I don't relax by parting my legs slightly and putting my hands behind my back. That does not equal ease. At ease is not being in the military. I am at ease, bro, because I am not in the military." - Mitch Hedberg. I also recall tenting with my pard Mal Stylo, a Vietnam War veteran - a real one, that is, who saw some combat in the Navy. Despite the fact that both have been in combat, modestly, neither has any pompous notions about the respect due them from service. They've earned that attitude as far as I'm concerned.
I also recall a story told by another reenacting friend, a man who had a truly fascinating and longtime history with reenacting with, however, no time spent in the real military. He was at his mother's house, and she was entertaining a man who had been in combat and was telling some exceptionally gripping war-related stories. His mother then said, "Bob, tell him about some of your experiences when you did reenacting." He hastily declined and described to me a bout of extreme embarrassment, which we both found hilarious.
So... what about my disappointed correspondent who has never been in the military? What could I say to him?
I presume you have seen Saving Private Ryan. It's an excellent film because it's so articulate about describing our indebtedness to the veterans who fought in World War II. (My all-time favorite war film is the superlative Band of Brothers, which I describe here.)
The message of the film is contained in a short sequence at the end of the film: Private Ryan, now an old man, is surrounded by his wife, children and grandchildren and is looking at the headstone of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks). Recalling the sacrifices on his behalf more than fifty years ago, he tearfully tells his wife, "Tell me I have led a good life." His wife is puzzled by this and asks, "What?" Ryan again says, "Tell me I'm a good man." His wife replies, with finality, "You are." I have never seen such a profound and moving concept expressed so simply.
That's the important matter regarding military service. Not whether you have served, what you did, with whom, or whether or not you have been in combat. The important thing is, what sort of a person have you been? Has your life justified the sacrifice of blood by the combat veterans? Do you dishonor them with your precious life with all of its squandered freedoms and opportunities? Or have you lived your life in such a way as to bring credit to the nation they fought for, your family they have defended and yourself? We are all Privates Ryan, you see, even the warriors of today, who I'm sure would be the first to admit it. Each generation is deeply in debt to the previous generations.
I was first made aware of this notion by another reenactor - a Vietnam veteran - who asked in a newsletter article I was editing how the self-indulgent and self-destroying entertainment celebrities of today were honoring men who had given their lives for them. At the time I thought he was misplaced or a little over the top in his sentiment, but with the passing of the years I have come to agree with his argument.
We are indeed all Privates Ryan. This idea is expressed very well by a fellow Marine:
It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier, who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag. - Father Dennis Edward O'Brien, USMC