A Fine Instrument of Warfare
Jeff Shaw

Many PNL readers know that US media culture celebrates war. However, a student in the class I’m now teaching at SU on militarism and the media commented, “Before we started this class, we didn’t know militarism existed.” Comments like this fuel my interest in teaching students to read our war culture with critical precision.
One of these students wrote the following article. Focusing on an archetypal character in combat films, Shaw’s analysis of “Saving Private Ryan,” a militarist classic, punctures the notion that Spielberg’s film is a pinnacle of realism.
—Karen Hall


“Well, sir, seems to me, God gave me a special gift, fashioned in me a fine instrument of warfare.”
- Pvt. Jackson, Saving Private Ryan


The war movie is an ideological force in our society. It teaches us how to think and act in ways that support the repressive forces of government. Within the militarist ideology of many movies, and especially war movies, there is a character that appears over and over: the soldier who refuses to fight. The reasons for his “pacifism” vary (usually simple cowardice), but we are always supposed to dislike this character. He is also the one who always seems to stand apart from the group. Without this character there would be complete unity when decisions had to be made. The fundamental point of this character is usually revealed at the end of the movie when the soldier reforms, picks up his weapon and kills an enemy. Every time this happens, there is a deep sense of relief. We can’t help but think, “it’s about time!” rather than feel sad about the creation of another killing machine. We are manipulated into believing the military ideals intrinsic to within the film.

I have chosen to analyze the character of Cpl. Timothy E. Upham from the movie Saving Private Ryan. The character is an interpreter in a US Army squad in Germany during World War II. The squad’s mission is to retrieve a soldier whose brothers have been killed in action. During their travels Cpl. Upham refuses to fully join in with how the group is thinking and is portrayed as a sniveling coward. The viewer is led to despise this character at several pivotal, action-packed, emotional scenes because of his cowardice and effemininity.

Militarized Masculinity
Most US war movies present a military ideal of masculinity. When we come across a Cpl. Upham, he is stripped of his masculinity and stands out as the misfit. The film’s casting reveals the intention to feminize the one soldier who won’t fight. Actors whose careers are based on being gritty tough-guys play the “normal” soldiers. Cpl. Upham is played by Jeremy Davies, a pretty-boy actor well known from the soap opera “General Hospital.”

Cpl. Upham is further feminized before he performs a single action. The other men are hardcore soldiers; he is an interpreter. His knowledge of a second language implies higher education, another war movie symbol of femininity or weakness. With the other characters so emphatically masculine, Upham’s femininity stands out. That we are led to dislike him is all the more alarming.

In one important scene, during a small battle, the US medic is killed and one German survives. The US troops plan to execute him after making him dig his own grave, but Upham points out the illegality of the plan. Since there is no time to take the man back, they take his weapons, blindfold him and send him off alone in the general direction of their base. While this wonderful act of compassion by Upham shows that standing against the group isn’t always a bad thing, his act of kindness later turns deadly.

When Pvt. Ryan is finally found, the soldiers decide to help complete the mission assigned to Ryan’s unit rather than leave with Ryan as instructed. Again we see the “tough guy” ideal personified, this decision portrayed as courageous and heroic, not stupid and suicidal. When the battle comes upon them, Upham’s cowardice emerges. While his fellow soldiers are being killed, he cowers in corners, unable to fulfill his simple task of distributing ammunition to the soldiers who do fight.When his closest friend within the unit gets into a close-combat fight, Upham cowers at the bottom of the stairs, too scared to prevent the slow, gruesome stabbing of his friend. The soldier who kills his comrade is, of course, the very German whom he made his unit release. At the end of the battle we finally see a new Upham who ambushes a group of Germans, forcing them to drop their weapons. When the soldier who killed his friend tries to close in on him Upham fires his weapon and kills the now unarmed German. Only by abandoning the behavior he has shown for the entire film is the character redeemed.

“Real Men”
Since movies are a very popular and influential part of our culture, it is important to look at what this character tells us about militarism. First, the movie shows that tough, gritty masculinity is the proper way for men to behave. Males who act otherwise aren’t “real men.” Every person we “like” in the movie behaves this way, the stereotype of the stoic tough guy always ready for a fight. If a “real man” is always up for a fight, then males must be ready to fight over anything even if the fight has nothing to do with them. Consequently, convincing men to fight an assigned enemy becomes easy.

Another ideological function of the Upham character is to demonize those who refuse to fight, no matter what the reason. When it seemed that killing the enemy wasn’t the proper decision, we are shown that the German soldier should have been killed the first time, even if unarmed. Here, “we must get them before they get us” is justified, as is the belief that making a defenseless man dig his own grave and then executing him could be a rational action. Conversely, anyone who believes that a fight is wrong – because of fear, politics, religion or any other reason – is completely wrong. If the fight is always right and staying out of the fight is always wrong, then protesting the fight makes no sense. And further, in war movies any man who is against a war or battle becomes the worst thing possible: feminine.

Don’t Question Authority
A powerful theme common to war movies, and exemplified by Upham’s role, is that of assimilation and unity within a military unit. Upham’s cowardice is only exonerated when he acts like the others, stands up to the Germans, and kills the man whom he released earlier. The message is well accepted: in a military group there is no room for independent thought. Everyone must think and act the same or people will die. Moreover, in a militarized civilian society one cannot argue against orders because independent thought is not permitted.

This ideology embedded in our entertainment exemplifies how cultural forces we are exposed to every day work their way into our thoughts. We are not told how to think because people might rebel against forced thought. Instead, we are manipulated into a way of thinking through vivid portrayals of how people should think and act. Through repetition, these ideas become common wisdom as the ideals of a military society infiltrate the minds of many US Americans. When we are
constantly bombarded with images of what is “right”, even in our recreation, how can we escape this idea? That a character such as Upham can become a cliché within war movies shows the power of this force.

Jeff Shaw is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University.