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“Saving Private Ryan and Postwar Memory in America� – John Bodnar

Many of the themes that John Bodnar articulates are politically controversial. I have never been interested in politics; however, I do agree with Bodnar’s views on the American politics of war. In particular, Bodnar focuses on the film directed by Steven Spielberg – Saving Private Ryan. The general theme of Bodnar’s article is that the typical American narrative of heroism, patriotism, and democracy that infused wartime America began to fall apart in the aftermath of WWII. Bodnar explains these “honorable and moral� virtues were based on an illusion that the American government wanted to feed American citizens.

At the time, in an effort to ease the anxieties of the American people about wartime events, the government made promises in an attempt to empower the American people. Bodnar explains, the “Forties’ call to patriotic sacrifice were contingent on assurances of a more democratic society and world…Franklin D. Roosevelt took pains to make democratic promises in pronouncements like ‘The Four Freedoms’� (Bodnar, 806). At the same time, the Office of War Information was enforcing Hollywood producers to make films that both “helped win the conflict,� and reminded “audiences that it was a “people’s war,� which would bring about a future with more social justice and individual freedom� (Bodnar, 806). The OWI was basically telling Hollywood to make films that depict the typical pro-US government and military as the heroes and champions of war.

Bodnar states as a central point to his argument that after 1945, ordinary Americans realized war’s incredible state of brutality, which caused people to associate the cruelty of warfare with other forms of malice in their lives and in society. More importantly, once war exposed how barbarous men could be, it did not take much to see that people became fearful of warlike behavior. Fellow citizens began realizing that perhaps the faithful and honorable American family-man was not inherently patriotic and loving, but was in fact “domineering and ruthless� (Bodnar, 809). This recognized the evil that lies in the hearts and souls of “the people,� which goes against the hope of a more democratic and prosperous future for America. As Bodnar states, “Once it was demonstrated that violence could be homegrown and did not reside only in the visions of dictators, it followed that America itself could produce victims as well as patriots, treachery as well as loyalty� (Bodnar, 809).

It was established decades ago that Americans held this point of view about warfare, so how is it then, that a film that was directed in the twentieth century (Saving Private Ryan) so gallantly displays the men of war? Bodnar’s view was that, while Spielberg’s film reveals the brutality of war, it ironically preserves the WWII image of American soldiers as innately averse to bloodshed and brutality. One of the most poignant points that Bodnar made was that Saving Private Ryan attempts to maintain the memory of patriotic sacrifice more than it desires to explore the cause of the trauma and violence. He further states that this film is more concerned with restoring the romanticism of heroism than it is with ending the problem of devastating wars.

In closing, the politics of warfare are sometimes hidden and difficult to dissect. However, Bodnar made it clear that the failure of Saving Private Ryan to evoke the memory of “a people’s war� reveals the film’s conservative politics. Bodnar closes with the view that the “past, present, and future are now contingent on standards of individual behavior rather than on democratic ideals such as a quest for equality, a just capitalism, or citizen participation in political life� (Bodnar, 817). In other words, America’s future is best portrayed by the honorable individuals, rather than by democratic reforms. This view is still present in American government today.

-Hasti Fashandi