My father served in the United States Navy in World War I. He came to America from Russia, fleeing the violent pogroms in which his own father had been murdered. Enlisting in the Navy partly because he felt a great sense of gratitude to the United States, he was very appreciative of this country that welcomed him and provided safe haven.
Our family was very patriotic. We would always “buy American.” It was unthinkable for us to even consider buying a foreign car, and we regularly attended the Memorial Day parade in which my father and other veterans marched.
Watching Saving Private Ryan rekindled that deep sense of patriotism that I felt as a child. It is a moving story of soldiers banding together to protect America and its values of democracy and to destroy an evil enemy. Center stage is Captain John Miller played by Tom Hanks. Captain Miller is an exemplary soldier and human being, a man who assumes a leadership role not because he wants the glory, but because fate has placed him here. A school teacher by profession, he now finds himself leading a group of soldiers into battle. It is not where he wants to be but it is where he needs to be. He understands the aphorism of the Ethics of the Fathers: “In the place where there is no man, strive to be a man.” Circumstances have placed him into a leadership position he did not seek, and now he rises to the occasion to fulfill his mission.
What is striking are Miller’s private and public personas. To his charges, he is the wise and experienced leader. In private, however, he reveals his self-doubt and anguish over the loss of his men. There is a moment when he, alone at night, cries like a child, all the while looking over his shoulder to make sure no one sees him in this vulnerable emotional state. Leadership requires this dual sensibility, to project strength while at the same time feeling the pain and uncertainty of your charges.
Miller doubts himself; but, in spite of it, he accepts responsibility when he realizes that this is what is required to achieve success. He even places his own life in danger to save the lives of others. Moreover, Miller is a humble man, self-effacing, never lording over his men; rather he asks them for counsel in the process of his own decision-making. He does not assume that he knows it all, but rather wants the best advice available before giving his men orders. Here, too, he models the wisdom of Jewish sages who say that “man should never act as a judge alone,” but always consult others before deciding important issues.
The Ethics of the Fathers tells us the wise man is he who learns from every man. Observing how John Miller deals with crisis on a daily basis provides us with a role model of how to be a mensch. Both by profession and by personal inclination, he is a teacher, always conscious of his own obligations and the expectations and needs of others. He knows that a teacher is responsible for his students in many ways. He not only transmits knowledge to them, but he also mentors them, giving them wisdom for life so that they can grow into responsible adults. His life reminds us to ask a question of ourselves: what do my words and actions, especially at moments of crisis, convey to those around me, who look to me for guidance and support? What do people learn from me?