Earn This

By Kevin Shannahan

There is a scene in Steven Spielberg’s superb “Saving Private Ryan” in which Tom Hank’s character, Captain John Miller, lay dying. The advancing German attack had just been stopped and the tide of the battle had turned. He pulls Private Ryan to him and utters a simple phrase “James…earn this…” It is one of the most powerful scenes in any movie I’ve ever seen. After Captain Miller dies, the scene shifts to the modern day as James Ryan, now an old man surrounded by his family, stands before Captain Miller’s grave wracked by doubts that he earned his life after the battle.

I was 37 when the movie came out in 1998. As I get older I appreciate “Saving Private Ryan”, more and more. When my grandchildren were born, I really understood the scene’s power. What made the movie great were not the battle scenes, not even Captain Miller’s dying injunction to “earn this” but the scene at the cemetery. In a few short minutes, the movie distilled the meaning of Memorial Day, one of our most misunderstood holidays.

For much of the country, Memorial Day is a 3 day weekend, a start to the summer, an occasion for sales and BBQ’s. Some television networks play nothing but war movies all day, something I’ve never understood. The day alternates between beach, BBQ, sales and mawkish “look at me” displays of cheap and easy patriotism from the popular culture. A popular song with the lyric “We’ll put a boot in your ass” is more fitting for a barroom brawl. The men and women doing the hard and dangerous work of keeping this nation’s enemies at bay deserve better. They deserve dignity, not posturing.

For a much smaller part of our nation, Memorial Day has a more personal meaning. They are the widows and parents whose hopes for the future were shattered by a knock on the door from an officer in a dress uniform. They are the children whose memory of a parent dims with time or is nothing but a photograph. They are a family in Alexandria, Louisiana whose portrait of a son in a Marine uniform sat on a side altar in the cathedral with a rosary draped over it.

In a way, it is a good thing that Memorial Day is not so well understood. I would not wish America a return to the casualty rates of the Civil War or World War II in which much of the nation had a very personal stake in the war.

Captain John Miller and Private James Ryan may be fictional characters in a movie, but they personify the values we should remember and honor on Memorial Day. We “earn this” every day. Every teacher who does his or her best to bring up the next generation, every parent who gets up to go to work to support a family and set an example for their children, everyone who does what he or she can to make the world around them just a little bit better honors the sacrifice of the men and women who made it possible. From the men at Lexington and Concord, to Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg, to Normandy Beach and the Korengal Valley, the men and women who died laid a sacred obligation on us. “Earn This.”

I do not begrudge my fellow citizens a day at the beach or grilling. I plan on enjoying some time off work myself. Hold your children a little tighter. Be a good wife or husband. Work hard and fulfill your obligations to yourself and others. Be a serious person, worthy of those who went before you.


May 27, 2018

4 thoughts on “Earn This

  1. I think of these lyrics from a Billy Ray Cyrus song every Memorial Day:
    All gave some some gave all
    Some stood through for the red white and blue
    And some had to fall
    And if you ever think of me think of all your liberties
    And recall some gave all
    Thank you to those who served (And don’t forget the wifes served too)

  2. You have written some good articles prior to this one, but I believe this to be your best. It spoke eloquently the feelings many of us have, and it evoked memories of past sacrifice and dedication to country. My father was a Merchant Marine during World War II and, while not in a recognized military branch, he too served as one who ferried supplies to allied troops on foreign soil. He was on three ships sunk during the War, and fortunately survived to return to home and family. I remember food stamps, victory gardens, and such during that time. Many of us who grew up during that time have sought ways to serve as adult civilians, in order to pay forward service to honor the sacrifice of those who secured our freedom in times past and who continue to do so today. Again, good words, Kevin.

    • Excellent Kevin and to the point. My mother and father were part of “the greatest generation.” (Tom Brokaw). They sacrificed more than any other Americans in history. My Dad spent his entire career in the military. After his retirement he continued to serve in high school ROTC programs. While he shared his experience in the Korean Conflict, he never spoke of WWII and the Battle of the Bulge. We must NEVER forget those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

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