"Saving Private Ryan" and the U.S. Military Ethos

Mackubin Thomas Owens

Appeared in the September 25, 1998 edition of the Providence Journal.

Since the Founding of the Republic, but especially for the last 100 years, the ethos of the U.S. military has been oriented toward the requirement to win the nation's wars. This warrior ethos is now under assault from three sources: first, from advocates of "identity politics," especially radical feminists and homosexual activists; second, from those who would shift the focus of the military from war fighting to constabulary missions such as peacekeeping and humanitarian operations; and third, from "technophiles" who argue that future war will be relatively bloodless because of information technology and long-range precision strike weapons.

The most sustained attack on the traditional military ethos has come from feminists and their ideological allies, who argue that the ethos excludes women by stressing aggression, male bonding, and other "macho" attitudes. These purported characteristics led a former adviser to the secretary of the Army, Madeline Morris of Duke Law School, to criticize the U.S. military ethos as "masculinist" and call for the U.S. military to embrace an "ungendered vision" in which unit cohesion is achieved by compassion and idealism rather than by "macho posturing." They led former Assistant Secretary of the Army Sara Lister to dismiss the Marines as "extremists" who are out of touch with liberal American society.

We can be grateful to director Steven Spielberg for providing us with a grim reminder of why the traditional military ethos is sometimes necessary. His monumental film, Saving Private Ryan, makes it clear that, like all regimes, liberal democracies must sometimes use force to ensure their survival, and when they do, they need organizations that can prevail in the chaos that is war.

From first to last, Saving Private Ryan realistically portrays the pervasiveness in war of "friction," which the Prussian military writer Carl von Clausewitz called "the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper." More importantly, the film demonstrates the importance of the traditional military ethos in countering the effects of friction.

Clausewitz observed that "everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war....  This tremendous friction, which cannot, as in mechanics, be reduced to a few points, is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance."

The opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan place the audience right in the middle of the chaotic interaction of friction and chance. The operational plan for the amphibious assault on Omaha Beach, portrayed with such striking realism by Mr. Spielberg, was extremely detailed. Unfortunately, as another Prussian, Count Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder), observed, "no plan of operation extends with any certainty beyond first contact with the main hostile force."

In conformity with von Moltke's dictum, most of the amphibious tanks that were supposed to provide cover for the Omaha Beach landing sank before reaching shore. Combat engineers in the initial assault wave were supposed to destroy the obstacles that the German defenders had arrayed on the beach and mark the approaches for the landing craft carrying the subsequent assault waves. But strong currents carried the landing craft of the first wave off course by as much as 1,000 yards.

As a result, most of the obstacles were not destroyed and as the follow-on waves approached the beach, men began to use the obstacles as cover from the murderous German defensive fire. Because of this manifestation of friction and chance, landing craft began to stack up, men wading ashore were mowed down, and others, paralyzed by fear, drowned as the tide came in.

Military organizations, of course, attempt to reduce the impact of friction. According to Clausewitz, friction is countered by training, discipline, regulations, orders, and "the iron will of the commander," in other words, virtues associated with the traditional military ethos.

The importance of these virtues is illustrated by the fact that the Omaha Beach landing surely would have failed had it not been for the selfless leadership of small unit commanders such as the officer played by Tom Hanks, Capt. John Miller, and the discipline and courage of individual soldiers who kept moving forward, individually and in small groups, despite the most powerful emotion known to human beings--fear arising from the instinct of self-preservation.

The traditional military ethos places a great deal of importance on unit cohesion, which research has shown to be a critical element in countering friction and achieving success on the battlefield. The foundation of cohesion is something at which feminists and their ideological allies scoff: male bonding--the brotherly love that develops among those who have nothing in common but facing death and misery together.

The importance of male bonding and unit cohesion is described in J. Glen Gray's classic study of combat in World War II, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle: "Numberless soldiers have died, more or less willingly, not for country or honor or religious faith or for any other abstract good, but because they realized that by fleeing their posts and rescuing themselves, they would expose their companions to greater danger. Such loyalty to the group is the essence of fighting morale.... Comrades are loyal to each other spontaneously and without any need for reasons."

In Mr. Spielberg's movie, Captain Miller is given the mission of removing a paratrooper, Private Ryan (Matt Damon), from harm's way because all his brothers have been killed in action. Ryan expresses the essence of this mystical but frequently misunderstood bond when, having been found by Miller's patrol, he refuses to leave his comrades. "These are my brothers now," he says, "the only ones I have left."

Readers of Shakespeare will recognize the allusion to Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech before the battle of Agincourt: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother." Both the St. Crispin's Day speech and Ryan's words are remarkably economical expressions of the bonds of military brotherhood, founded on mutual respect and the willingness to entrust one's life to one's comrades, that underpin the unit cohesion and the military ethos without which militaries fail in battle.

To succeed in war requires a fighting force that can operate in the face of mortal peril. Such a force depends on the military virtues of leadership, physical bravery, and commitment to duty. It is doubtful that an organization motivated by Madeline Morris's "ungendered vision" would have made it ashore on Omaha Beach. Before we jettison the military ethos that has served the nation so well in the past, we must contemplate the risks of guessing wrong. Saving Private Ryan is a good place to begin.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of The Claremont Institute, professor of strategy and force planning at the U.S. Naval War College, and a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam. Used by permission of The Claremont Institute.