Courage Under Fire

The American cemetary at Omaha Beach, Normandy, France.

I still remember the first time I saw the movie, Saving Private Ryan (not to be confused with that other classic Saving Ryan’s Privates). It was my first movie in a stadium seating theater and I was in the “sweet spot”; about halfway up and dead center of the aisle. To say that it made an impact on me is putting it lightly. From the opening scene in the American cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy France to the ending where an old man hopes he’s fulfilled the wishes of his wartime comrades, I love this movie. I realize that’s a little weird coming from someone who has, on many occasions, expressed some level of pacifism. It’s even more weird that I’m writing about it here, where much of my audience’s pacifism exceeds mine. But, there is much to learn from this film, about leadership, about sacrifice, about love and about courage. It’s courage I want to speak on today.

Most of you know in real life, I’m a firefighter. It’s a field that’s mostly working class, fairly conservative and overwhelmingly male. There can be significant periods of downtime in a shift and, in the evenings, much of that is passed watching television. A lot of sports, bawdy comedies and action movies; especially war movies and westerns. Saving Private Ryan is a favorite and will be watched almost every time it’s shown. Firefighters can identify with the characters in the movie. Especially, Private James Ryan. Ryan is given a chance to walk away and miss a crucial battle that many of his friends probably won’t survive. Instead, he insists on staying and fighting. Firefighters and soldiers have some things in common, namely a feeling of brotherhood and camaradie achieved through hours of hard training and tough situations which won’t let either of us walk away when the going gets tough. So, it’s easy to see why Ryan is an appealing character to us. One that’s less so is Specialist Timothy Upham. Watch this and you’ll see why:

I still remember the first time I saw this scene. Watching Upham freeze up while his friends were fighting for their lives, causing their deaths and then his final reaction of killing the German soldier a little later pissed me off…, at first. Then, and almost every time I’ve watched it since, I was distinctly uncomfortable. Because, all too often, I’m more like Upham than Ryan. Oh, not at fires or such; things happen so fast in those situations that training kicks in and I’m doing whatever needs to be done without even thinking about it. No, my fear, my cowardice shows up when I have the chance to stand in solidarity with people who’ve been beaten down, oppressed or just generally  taken advantage of and I don’t do it. Every day I all have a chance to be like Ryan, fight past my fears and do the right thing. Instead, like Upham, I give into that fear and keep my mouth shut while someone rants about birth control, gay people or any other controversial topic of the day. I tell myself I have to pick my battles, or that whatever I might say would just go in one ear and out the other. But the truth is, all too often, I don’t want to be different or get into an argument and have to defend my position. So, I hunker down and withdraw into myself more and more. Sometimes, if it goes on long enough, I’ll finally speak up. But it doesn’t always go on long enough or piss me off enough that I fight through and that’s a shame. Because, as a Christian, I’m supposed to stand up for the people who are being slammed. That night in the garden, Jesus didn’t want to face what He knew was coming and begged God desperately to find another way. But, in the end, He went willingly. And, because He did, I have a chance to do the same. It’s a chance I need to start taking more often.