Tim O' Brien, Wilfred Owen & "Saving Private Ryan"
The theme of disillusionment in war as reflected in the works of Tim O'Brien, Wilfred Owen, and the film "Saving Private Ryan"
More than being a mirror of everyday life, literature has also been a venue for expressing messages that are political in nature. This was evident in literary works that address humanity's experiences in different world wars soon after the 20th century had emerged. With the declaration of the first, then eventually the second, world wars, human, particularly American, society had also been involved in the Cold War. This long history of wars fought by the Americans may have shown the patriotism and courage of its people, but praise and glorification of the war was given in the midst of numerous criticisms from the civil society. Criticisms against war efforts were expressed by the civil society because they were the ones who know very well the negative and detrimental effects that wars have on people's daily lives, including also the plight of soldiers who took the responsibility of fighting for their country and for what they believe was 'morally right' (i.e., their country was on the right side of the war).
In effect, wars most bring detriment to humanity -- more factions, conflict, and destruction -- than peace, justice, harmonious living. Whether a war was won or lost, it became evident from human history that both winners and losers suffered the physical destruction and disillusionment that inevitably arises after every conflict or war. Works of literature have shown this theme of disillusionment in the eyes of the military soldier, people who can best explicate the meaning and significance of war in people's lives. The theme of disillusionment shown in the novel "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien, the poem "Dulce et decorum est" by Wilfred Owen, and the movie "Saving Private Ryan" all ponder the question, "was the war worth our (soldiers') sacrifice?" Did humanity arrive at a better and more meaningful progress in history after each world war? From what these works illustrated, the answer to these questions is no: war led only to disillusionment, the loss of hope after realizing that war was just a political strategy meant solely to destroy the enemy (at all costs) without putting any regard to peace, justice, and humanism. Thus, the following text discusses how O'Brien, Owen, and "Saving Private Ryan" reflected the theme of the soldier's (and in effect, civil society's) disillusionment because of the horror, death, and destruction that wars brought to humanity.
In the poem "Dulce et decorum est" (translated as "It is sweet and proper to die for one's country"), poet Wilfred Owen expressed his disappointment on the war efforts given in the First World War. This war marked the beginning of a war-stricken century as humanity embarked to commit itself in another world war and eventually, the Cold War. Owen's theme of disillusionment was evident in the images of suffering and terror soldiers had experienced and illustrated in the poem, which included physical exhaustion ("like old beggars under sacks, knock-kneed, coughing like hags") and loss of morale ("All went lame, all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of gas shells ... "). Combining these two illustrations of detrimental effects of wars, the poem successfully establishes the 'mood' of the poem, which discourages and implicitly criticizes conflict more than it glorifies the patriotism and human sacrifices of the soldiers.
Indeed, the poem's effective use of imagery was a tool that helped build the theme of disillusionment. By illustrating the emotional and physical turmoil that soldiers had to go through in a battle, readers were able to understand how fighting the war can in fact lead to disillusionment and loss of hope not only for one's country, but most crucially, to one's self. The internal conflict that leads to disillusionment in an individual was between his/her will to live and responsibility to sacrifice himself/herself for his/her country. Striving to achieve these two things was physically and morally difficult during times of war; its complexity increases when the individual realizes that in fact, they are alone in the war they were fighting. Soldiers, as Owen made his readers realize, were just a means towards an end, and their plight was the least of the government/political leaders' concern than winning the war and asserting its power over another country. Thus, the poem ended with Owen's version of the 'truth' about the war: there is only disillusionment in war and the belief that "Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori" was "the old Lie."
O'Brien resounded Owen's assertion about the truth about war. For the author of the novel "The Things They Carried," the war was devoid of any beliefs about patriotism, bravery, and sacrifice. What O'Brien's experience as a soldier in Vietnam during the Cold War was soldiers did not have a sense of purpose as fighters for their country; as a result, injustices and inhumane acts were committed against innocent civilians. However, he also offered sympathy for soldiers like him, for they were also victims of the war. They were war victims because they were forced to engage in a conflict they do not fully know and fight for a principle (i.e., Communism threatened democracy and freedom in the world) they did not even believe in. What his experiences told him was that in war, there are 'multiple, relative truths,' truths that each soldier had created and believed to escape the stress and physical, moral, and emotional exhaustion they felt.
O'Brien's point was best explicated in the story, "How to tell a true war story," wherein he elaborated about his concept of multiple, relative truths created by his fellow soldiers to survive the disillusionment that war brought to them. In it, he stated (68-9):
[a] true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue ... If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted ... then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie ... you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.
Evident in this passage was the author's disillusionment to the morality embedded in fighting in the war, an argument put forth by the government and politicians in order to entice its citizens to participate in the war. Apart from the presence of disillusionment, O'Brien also reflected Owen's belief that fighting for the war is the "right thing" to do, labeling this belief a lie, in the same manner that Owen considered sacrifice for one's country as the lie that made humanity tolerate wars and its horrors.
Owen portrayed war through violence and commitment of inhumane acts, and O'Brien had similarly characterized it as the embodiment of "obscenity and evil." These similarities in war's characterization showed both authors' belief that peace and justice after war was not only futile, but also impossible. O'Brien's testimonies about the 'mental and spiritual brokenness' of the soldiers during the war reflected how people realized the war as an effort accomplished to gain only political dominance. Soldiers, like Owen's First World War fighters, were merely instruments to a greater cause -- a cause that benefited the government and political leaders at the expense of civil society.
The movie "Saving Private Ryan," directed by Steven Spielberg, captured the hopelessness and disillusionment of the soldiers and civil society, this time in the context of the Second World War. In the film, the soldiers' sense of purpose was tested and their disillusionment surfaced when a group of soldiers, headed by Captain Miller, was ordered to search for and save Private Ryan. Private Ryan's seemingly important status for military officials brought into fore issues…