Memorial Day is always a bittersweet holiday for me. I enjoy having a day to partake in BBQ and beer (Texas BBQ though, not what Yanks call “BBQ”), while wearing my favorite, ratty, American flag t-shirt and watching war movies.
As much as I love reflecting on this brilliant country a bunch of old dudes created a couple hundred years ago, there is a weight that lies heavy on my heart on days like Memorial Day. It’s the simple reminder that freedom is never free. Our freedom comes at inestimable price. More often than not, that debt is only satisfied with blood.
When I was in high school “Saving Private Ryan” made its silver screen debut. Always a sucker for war movies, I went to see it on opening weekend. Completely unaware that what I was about to see would have a lasting impact, I sprung for cherry sours, a Coke slushy and found a seat.
The first thirty minutes of the film were unlike anything I’d ever seen on screen and easily the most intense. At the time I was only vaguely familiar with the D-Day invasion. What I knew of D-Day I’d learned from 60s flicks like “The Longest Day.”
Unlike the older World War II films where a bullet to the heart resulted in a theatrical fall sometimes accompanied by a bit of obviously fake blood and famous last words, “Saving Private Ryan” was the goriest movie I’d ever seen. A soldier reached down to pick up his arm that had been blown off and another lay on the ground, his guts strewn across the sand. The water was red with blood and soldier after soldier fell in similarly violent fashion, some never making it off the landing craft.
When the movie was over, the crowd of tear-stained faces shuffled out in a heavy silence. For days I mulled what I’d seen — the pain, horror, and loss that nothing in this life can prepare you for. What was so obviously the terror of war was not what I had ever pictured as war. What I thought I knew about sacrifice and fairness was suddenly irrelevant and juvenile.
Fast forward to my college years. When I had the opportunity to spend time at the University of Caen studying World War II, I leapt at the chance.
I met members of the French Resistance (yes, it existed), visited the memorial cemetery at Omaha Beach as part of a research project on World War II cemeteries — that experience alone was life altering, met with World War II vets, visited just about every war site of significance, and spent time in innumerable tiny war museums littered across the provence. I left with a profound appreciation for what these men and women did for freedom. It changed me.
I doubt, in fact I’m certain I’d never have considered studying World War II if not for “Saving Private Ryan.”
There’s a larger point here: It wasn’t someone preaching freedom at me or telling me evil unchecked can cost the world millions in lives that changed my heart and mind. No one was yelling at me about civic responsibility or how I needed to vote when I was old enough to have the privilege. No one was spouting off political platitudes or lecturing me about how terrible Democratic policies are for the country. No, it was a movie that helped me understand freedom.
When you come to an understanding of the fullness of freedom, the rest falls into place.
If by some chance you haven’t seen “Saving Private Ryan,” add it to your list. It’s essential viewing. And if you have high school aged kids, watch it with them.
On this Memorial Day, may we take a moment to reflect on the fact that freedom is never, ever free.
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