I like to watch war movies, and recently, as I was surfing through Netflix, I decided to re-watch one of my favourites: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Although the award-winning film was released back in July 1998, the creative cinematography and masterful storytelling ensure it still holds up, in my honest opinion, as one of the most brutal depictions of war. This is due to one of the more enduring parts of Saving Private Ryan, something that has been collectively etched in each movie-goer’s mind: the opening scene that depicts the Omaha Beach D-Day landing.
This 24-minute scene is unmatched in film history in its ability to viscerally transport you to June 6, 1944. It captures the nervously trembling hands and stress-induced vomit of Allied infantry and armoured divisions as they approached the coast of France; the overwhelming barrage of gunfire that rained upon the landing craft from heavily fortified emplacements overlooking the beaches; the treacherous beach-clearing that was made further difficult and dangerous by barbed wire, metal tripods and wooden stakes littering the shore. When the scene ended, I reflected on what I’d just seen. I couldn’t help but appreciate how each of these soldiers profoundly understood the importance of their individual responsibility, and how it contributed to ensuring good triumphed over evil. These men, and their passion for the good, provide a great inspiration to that true soldier in all of us.
Coincidentally, I also came to read that this November was the 80-year anniversary of the Tehran Conference, the strategy meeting between Joseph Stalin, Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, that eventuated in a commitment from the British and Americans to launch the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Soon after the Tehran Conference, on December 23, 1943, President Roosevelt appointed US General Dwight D Eisenhower the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Eisenhower had an impressive list of World War II awards and decorations, and his consideration for the position was certainly bolstered by his role in overseeing the invasions of North Africa and Italy. But, he was ultimately picked over more experienced generals. This was partly because of his affable leadership that allowed him to have serious disagreements with British allies—Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery—without upsetting their important relationship. However, I believe Eisenhower’s greatest strength as a leader was his ability to help his men recognise and understand how each individual soldier’s order engaged in the larger cause. How the little battle he fights fits into the larger battle. How, like the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, with the experience of death and destruction all around them, their personal efforts are contextualised as part of something that is contributing to the triumph of good over evil: the liberation of Europe, the surrender of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II. This leadership strength was certainly used with great effect in the D-Day invasion with Eisenhower’s June 6, 1944, order of the day, issued to rally and impress on his troops the importance of the mission:
Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, you’re about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven all these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.
Eisenhower’s inspirational brilliance is no better captured than in the below photograph as he addresses the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR). This was one of the airborne divisions comprising approximately 13,100 American paratroopers tasked with conducting parachute drops over Normandy. Its mission was to block German approaches into the vicinity of the amphibious landings at Utah Beach—the day prior to D-Day, shortly before they parachuted into France. It took nine months of meticulous planning and execution to coordinate the largest seaborne invasion in history . . . only to be distilled to orders that would last less than a few minutes to these 20-something-year-old paratroopers: “I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle.”
This style of empowering military leadership motivates what the English theologian GK Chesterton called the “true soldier”:
The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.1
Both Eisenhower and Chesterton should come as a reminder of the “true soldier” in all of us. That is, knowing the place we all hold in propagating the good. And also, that freedom and truth stir a chord within each one of us that is worth protecting, no matter the enormity of evil and suffering that faces us. We see this in the biblical stories of the judges: those individuals who served roles as military leaders in Israel in times of crisis. These judges’ ranks in Israel were like that of Eisenhower in World War II. However, even more profoundly, the judges served as God’s reminder to the people of Israel as to how the little battle they fight—whether that was against the Canaanites, the Midianites or the Philistines—fits into the larger battle: the spiritual struggle for the kingdom of God. One great example is the fifth biblical judge, Gideon. Gideon is introduced as he threshes wheat in a winepress, cowering away from Israel’s present enemy, the Midianites. Despite his obvious shortcomings, God sees in him “mighty valour” (Judges 6:12). Gideon is elected to lead Israel to overthrow the Midianites, and his faith, humility, obedience, perseverance and wisdom inspire his vastly outnumbered army to decisive victory, liberating the Israelites.
Judges like Gideon showed the Israelites the importance of their individual acts of good. That by collectively living uprightly, Israel would become an inspiration to the world, standing against the corruption to make good prevail. It is as Chinese general and strategist, Sun Tzu, wrote in his classic work The Art of War, “He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.” The name given to the judges finds its proper context in Hebrew (mō-wō-šî-a‘)’: “deliverer”. The judges, therefore, had an important spiritual role in reminding Israel of their responsibilities and inspiring them that one soldier diligently and passionately living for the good has the power to sway the outcome of the battle.
My hope is we can all be reminded—particularly as we watch movies like Saving Private Ryan—that leaders like Eisenhower and the biblical judges can be an inspiration to us all, showing us that small, but compounding acts of love and kindness lay the foundations for victory of the good in all our lives.
Tyler Van Der Veer works in marketing. He enjoys spending time on a board in the ocean, cooking meals inspired by travels around the world and reading books about 20th-century history. He writes from Auckland, New Zealand.
1. GK Chesterton, Illustrated London News, January 14, 1911.