Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I don’t remember my father having much to do with me when I was a kid. He wasn’t part of my care or upbringing; he didn’t read me stories; he didn’t play with me; he didn’t take me to ball games. Because Mom told him to, he did prepare breakfast for my sister and I on school days, at least until we got into the cold cereal and Pop Tart habit. But he didn’t wait around to eat with us.
To be fair, this wasn’t unusual for a man of his time and culture. Raising kids was the mother’s responsibility; his was to bring home the paycheck, and occasionally to get involved in discipline when Mom couldn’t handle it or was fed up. It wasn’t until we got older that there was a bit more of a relationship.
Having been in the Army (but not having seen any action), Dad liked war movies. So in 1998, when the Tom Hanks film Saving Private Ryan was released, we went to see it together. The story is set during World War II and the Allied invasion of Normandy. A squad of American soldiers is sent to find Ryan, who is missing in action. His three brothers, all soldiers themselves, have already been killed. He is the only brother left, and the rescue is ordered to save his mother further heartbreak.
Dad got up to use the restroom right before the gut-wrenching ending, set in Arlington National Cemetery. Although I couldn’t believe he would pick that moment to leave (I know, when you gotta go…but really?), I was a little glad he did; I didn’t have to worry about my father seeing the tears streaming down my face (I was in my forties at the time).
But that wasn’t the only gut punch of the movie. One of the most iconic scenes is the storming of Omaha Beach, where hundreds of Allied soldiers run ashore to their deaths, picked off from above by enemy guns. The scene is shot from the perspective of one of the grunts, as if seeing through his eyes. The on-screen movements are herky-jerky and dizzying, like someone running wildly; all around are the sounds of men dying, screaming in terror or pain. The scene is meant to be immersive, to give the viewer a better sense of being there.
I was reminded of this scene recently as I read a piece written by Jo Ann Beard, in which she mused on what might have been running through the minds of young men going to war, knowing that were never going home, knowing that they were meant to be more cannon fodder than heroes.
Do this thought experiment with me. Imagine the scene on Omaha Beach, shot from an aerial view. The boats land; soldiers pour en masse onto the beach, rifles at the ready. This is how we might film the story of an invasion, of war.
Now zoom in on one soldier. Look at his face. What do you see there? What thoughts and emotions are betrayed by his expression? What does he expect to happen next? This is how we might film the story of an individual, who carries a whole unique history with him onto that killing field.
Try the same experiment with Arlington. We can view the cemetery from above, and tell the story of national loss. Or we can zoom in on one grave marker and ask about the story of that individual. What were they like as a kid? What kind of family did they grow up in? What were their hopes and dreams? For what reasons did they join the military?
War is about nations and their clashing politics, ideologies, and economic interests. But it’s also about people, about individuals with names and unique histories. We can read, for example, about the war in Ukraine from the comfort of our homes far away. We can shake our heads at the casualty statistics. But each casualty is a person; each person has a story.
My point, of course, is not just about large scale conflicts but smaller, everyday battles. As the heroes and heroines of our own stories, we see the world from one vantage point, one camera angle. The other people who populate our stories, including and especially the ones with whom we are in conflict, are lesser characters, seen only from our own central perspective.
But everyone has a story, and things may look different from their point of view. Though our stories overlap, they are not the same; though we are together at this point in time, our histories are different. They do not see themselves as I see them, they do not see me as I see myself, because we are cast as different characters in different roles in different stories.
I’ve spoken of the role my father played in my story, but he had a story of his own, one that he seldom shared and I shall never know, now that he is gone.
But I can imagine, and in the imagining, find new possibilities for how the story might be told.