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Summary Description

“Saving Private Ryan” is a movie which focuses on the question of the worth of human life and examines the conduct of soldiers during wartime. The film focuses on the interpersonal conflict between the soldiers when they have been given a mission to perform which could conceivably cost all of them their lives. Outright conflict develops between the characters about their roles as soldiers in the unit and the roles which discipline and order play in group dynamics. At its core, this movie is about the often innate interpersonal conflict between leaders and the led.

Conflict History

Ten American Rangers, led by Captain Miller, are given a dangerous assignment shortly after D-Day. Their assigned mission is to find and rescue a single American soldier, Private Ryan. Private Ryan is the sole survivor of four brothers; the others dying in combat during World War Two at nearly the same time.

The ten Rangers infiltrate behind the German lines beyond the Normandy beachhead, searching for Private Ryan, in order to bring him “out of the war and allow him to return home.” Throughout the mission, the Rangers question the logic of risking the lives of ten men to save one. Conflictual tension grows between the soldiers and their leaders, Sergeant First Class Horvath (the company First Sergeant) and Captain Miller (the company commander). The reason concerns the need for the mission and the risks which the men are taking, for the sake of an individual. The conflict increases as the unit begins to take casualties and the task of finding a single paratrooper somewhere behind enemy lines appears hopeless.

Conflict Context

Every military commander is faced with a double dilemma while trying to accomplish his mission. Implicitly, he realizes that some of his men will die during combat operations. At times, he may knowingly send his soldiers to an almost certain death. Unless the commander is a sociopath, he will have grave misgivings and incur a great deal of guilt and even shame over the decisions which he must make and the orders he must give. He must do so often in the face of great uncertainty. This is a huge challenge to any commander. However, if he does not give those orders, his mission may fail and perhaps even more of his men will die because of his inability to lead and make decisions.

Conflict Parties

Primary: Sergeant Horvath and Private Reiben confront each other directly over whether or not the mission to save Private Ryan is worth continuing in the face of losing more members of the unit. The private directly challenges Sergeant Horvath’s authority as a Non-Commisssioned Officer (NCO). The confrontation is also a direct challenge to Captain Miller’s legal authority as a commissioned officer in the United States Army, who is carrying out a direct order from his superior officers. By extension, it is also a challenge to the authority of the United States Army. Captain Miller becomes a primary party when he intercedes in the confrontation between Sergeant Horvath and Private Reiben once the conflict escalates into a stalemate situation.

Secondary: At the beginning of the conflict, Captain Miller is a secondary party during the face off between Sergeant Horvath and Private Reiben. Even though the challenge is to his authority as the commander, he remains on the side line, until the conflict spirals and reaches a stalemate.

Interested Third Parties: The other soldiers in the unit are interested third parties because the outcome of the conflict and how it is resolved will impact their lives and whether or not they continue the mission. How the conflict is resolved will also impact the relationship which they have with Captain Miller and Sergeant Horvath. If the two leaders are unable to resolve the conflict in an acceptable manner and restore good order and discipline, then unit cohesion will be lost. The leaders will have lost their ability to lead, even they may maintain the legal authority to do so.



Survival: This is the primary issue for combat soldiers, both within this fictional context and in real life situations. To survive the war and return home is the primary need of any combat soldier. All of the Rangers, including Captain Miller, the leader of the unit, desire this. Within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, survival is the primary need of the individual. Because of the inherent dangers of combat, both leaders and soldiers realize that there is a high risk of suffering a grievous injury, a mortal wound or getting killed outright. However, when the objective appears clear and attainable, even if costly, such as the storming of the German defensive positions on Omaha Beach, the risk seems acceptable. Also, under the conditions of D-Day, American soldiers and leaders realized that they literally had no other choice. To engage in combat was a survival mechanism by itself.

As the 116 th Regiment’s commander, Colonel George Taylor, after landing at Omaha said, in an attempt to motivate the pinned down Americans: “There are two kinds of people on this beach, those who are dead and those who are about to die.” In other words, to stay meant death, and the only way off the beach was to fight.


Authority: A central issue of combat leadership, then, involves controlling and leading soldiers so that they can overcome this most basic of instincts in order to get the assigned mission accomplished. Authority is both real and perceived. Real authority is granted to officers as legal authority under the tenets of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Under the UCMJ, officers are authorized to punish offenders of the code through reductions in rank, imprisonment, and under extreme cases, death. Private Eddie Slovik, for example, was executed for desertion during World War 2.

Perceived authority is that subjective quantity which is granted to military leaders when they prove to their men that they are true leaders. In other words, they inspire their soldiers, through charisma and willpower, to follow them blindly in combat situations. These men are the type of soldier commonly referred to as natural leaders.

Within the hierarchy of the military, the enlisted men follow the orders of the non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and officers appointed over them. Officers occupy the top tier, the NCOs occupy the middle tier and the soldiers the lower rung. So long as all of the parties understand their roles and positions, equilibrium will exist within the unit.

Unit cohesion: For soldiers, the ultimate goal is survival. In order to accomplish this, they will do whatever is necessary. But how and why do soldiers continue to fight on in the presence of overwhelming physical danger or conversely, the lack thereof? The answer lies in unit cohesion. This is an extremely subjectively defined word. When a unit possesses cohesion, it may well fight until every member is dead. If a unit does not possess it, the unit will quickly fall apart and no longer be combat effective. The process of building unit cohesion is not a simple one. It starts with the individual soldier and builds throughout the entire unit.

Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall has suggested that the reason most soldiers fight is to keep themselves from looking bad in front of their peers. No soldier wants to look like a coward in front of his fellow soldiers. These are, after all, men with whom he has lived, with trained with and prtied with for at least some period of time. Some of these soldiers may share a common ethnic background, as did the 144 th Regimental Combat Team, which was composed of Japanese-Americans; or the famed 10 th and 11 th Cavalry Regiments, which, except for their white officers, was composed entirely of African-Americans. Some may be from the same geographical area, if not the same home town. The 29 th Infantry Division, known as the “Blue and the Gray” Division was composed almost exclusively of soldiers from Maryland and Virginia. The German unit with which Lieutenant Erwin Rommel marched off to France during World War One was composed of men all from the Baden-Wurrtemburg area of southern Germany, an area approximately the size of the counties of Fairfax, Loudon and Prince William. The main idea behind such geographical grouping is that it is easier to recruit (or draft) men into the same units as are their friends, relatives and neighbors.

Unit cohesion is arguably easier to attain when soldiers have known each other for an extended period of time. When soldiers have been with each other for a sustained period of time they know each other; they know each others strengths as well as each others weaknesses. They know, most importantly that they can rely on each other in dangerous situations. Although peer pressure may not be overt, it still exists. This peer pressure, an integral part of unit cohesion, places covert pressure on soldiers to perform their duties and to risk their lives time and again because they are concerned about what their comrades will think of them.

Leaders have an integral role in developing and maintaining unit cohesion. Relationships will develop between the leaders and their soldiers. If the relationship is based on mutual trust and respect, the bonds of cohesion will be that much stronger. If a leader is tyrannical and leads based purely on his legal authority, the soldiers may follow him, but the cohesion will not be strong and may evaporate under stressful conditions.

Interests-based: The American Rangers’ primary goal is survival, rather than mission accomplishment. The enlisted men distrust a mission which they perceive as suicidal. They have survived the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach and the subsequent costly battles against the Germans. Now they have been ordered to find a single American and bring him out of the war. Behind this, they realize that they will continue to fight for the duration of the war, while Private Ryan is allowed to return to safety of home and hearth. They see nothing special about this unknown individual. They prize their lives and the lives of their comrades above that of someone unknown to them.

Non-realistic: The military style of communication is one of formal discourse, where there exists a stratified, although flexible, forum for interaction, both at the personal and group level. Even though Captain Miller and Sergeant Horvath have endured personal hardship and have shared combat experiences, there remains a formality between the two, even though they plainly admire and respect each other. The interaction between the enlisted men and their two leaders is even more remote. Captain Miller’s reticence about his life as a civilian is an example of this remoteness, also known as the ‘mask of command.’

The noted British historian, John Keegan, describes the mask of command as the ‘face’ which a commander wears in front of his soldiers. The mask of command shields the commander from his soldiers and prevents him from exposing his emotions, doubts, fears and inadequacies to those he commands. Leaders develop and possess certain styles for leading their soldiers. The mask of command can be a composite of cultural norms, combined with formal military education (such as training at Eton or West Point) and real world combat experience. The important point is that every commander develops his or her own style of leading. Again, this isolates the leader from the led and ensures that a certain aloofness and distance is maintained. Once this distance is established, it helps maintain order and discipline. After all, if an officer became friendly with his soldiers, it would be that much harder to discipline them, or to send them to their certain death.

This style of communication sets up certain barriers between the soldiers. These barriers insulate as well as isolate the leaders from the led. The communications barrier protects the leaders from getting to close, or personal, with the soldiers they may have to order to their deaths.

The environmental hardships which all of the Rangers are enduring together are also issues which cannot be resolved. In other words, there is no way to get out of the combat situation, other than by getting killed. When it rains, all of them get wet. When the Germans are shooting at them, there is no discrimination on the basis of rank.


Precipitating Events

Two of the unit’s soldiers are killed during the mission prior to meeting with Private Ryan. The second soldier, the unit’s medic, is killed when the unit takes a German pillbox, which the unit encounters accidentally. Conflict quickly arises when Captain Miller gives the order to take the pillbox, even though it outside of the parameters of the mission. The other soldiers, especially Private Reiben, question the logic of deviating from the primary mission to engage in a dangerous ancillary mission. However, Captain Miller insists, even to the point of taking the pillbox on his own. Once he sets this example, the rest of the soldiers fall into line and follow his orders. When the pillbox is captured, a German prisoner is taken. When the rest of the soldiers want to execute the prisoner, Captain Miller orders the man released under his own recognizance. For the soldiers, this is the breaking point. Their medic has just died and their commander has ordered the release of one of the soldiers responsible for his death. Clearly, for the Americans, it is only fair and just that they kill the remaining German soldier in retaliation for the death of one of their own.

Issue Emergence, Transformation, Proliferation

One of the story’s primary issues is the value of human life. As the audience, we are asked to think about that value and what makes one person perhaps more valuable than another. The soldiers themselves, including Captain Miller, do not believe that Private Ryan’s life is worth more than any of their own. While Captain Miller understands the potential futility of the mission (Ryan may already be dead or captured) and that perhaps he could lose all of his soldiers’ and his own life; Miller keeps focused on his higher priority, his mission and his duty as an officer.

As the Rangers continue the mission and their hope of finding Private Ryan begins to seem agonizingly futile, their questions about the validity of the mission increase. Individually and as a group, they strain against the leash of authority which is keeping the unit in line.

When Captain Miller seems intent on waging his own private war against the Germans, such as the encounter with the German pillbox, the Rangers begin to question his orders. By questioning his orders, they are challenging his authority as an officer and as the leader. After Captain Miller orders the release of the captured German, the men further question the legitimacy of this order. Again, the issue is one of the relative worth of human life. This issue is far to subjective to completely answer. Captain Miller views the German as a human being, not simply as an enemy to be hated, feared and killed. The Rangers disagree. They do not view the German as human, despite his pleadings and his failed attempt to sing “the Star Spangled Banner.”

The mission seems more impossible with each incident, such as when the unit stumbles across more and more American dead. The Rangers begin checking identification tags (Dog Tags) with a sense of gallows humor. Meanwhile, more American paratroopers are filing past, simply staring at the fun which the Rangers are poking at the expense of their dead friends. The Rangers have become desensitized to the violence and to the tragedy which their fellow American soldiers have suffered. Their only concern is for their immediate well being and safety. In the chaos of combat, such things as “Duty, Honor, Country” seem to be anachronisms.


Polarization between the parties occurs in the context of the leaders and the led. The officers and the NCOs are given the legal authority which the Army requires to maintain good order and discipline within the ranks. The officers and NCOs are expected to comply with orders from their superiors and ensure that their unit carries out its assigned mission. Further, the Army has empowered them with the rank that goes with that authority and is emblematic of Army discipline and order. The enlisted men have been trained since their induction into the Army to follow the orders of their superiors. The Uniformed Code of Military Justice is the instrument of justice which enforces military discipline. The Army expects loyalty and obedience from the lowest ranks to the highest echelons of command. But loyalty and obedience are highly volatile when soldiers are in conditions of extreme physical danger. When the soldiers begin to question the moral and legal authority of their leaders, unit cohesion breaks down. If the soldiers feel that the leaders no longer have the moral authority to continue in their role, they will rebel, especially under combat conditions.


The primary issue of potentially sacrificing ten men for the sake of one comes openly to the forefront when T/4 Medic Wade, the unit’s medical corpsman dies of his wounds received during the assault on the pillbox. A German soldier was captured during the assault and the American Rangers turn on him and begin beating him. They are exacting their revenge for the death of a comrade.

When Captain Miller orders the release of the captured German, the soldiers nearly rebel. In their world view, all Germans are the enemy as should be killed. If the prisoner is released, then he could conceivably go back to the fight and continue killing Americans. They have lost one of their own men and are determined to exact their revenge. Instead of allowing the Rangers to murder the German, Captain Miller forcefully intercedes, exerting his authority and will over the men.

The conflict worsens when Private Reiben announces his intention to desert the unit and Sergeant Horvath draws his automatic pistol and threatens to shoot the recalcitrant soldier. When Private Reiben refuses to obey the sergeant’s verbal command, he is directly challenging the Non-Commissioned Officer’s legal authority. He is also challenging the sergeant’s subjective leadership within the unit.

Indirectly the private is also challenging Captain Miller’s authority. Sergeant Horvath’s force of personality is no longer enough to keep the soldier under control and he resorts to the next level of authority and force. The act of drawing the pistol functions like the tail of Cerberus. Once Sergeant Horvath does so, it would be nearly impossible for him to back down without suffering a severe loss of face or of credibility. Even with the pistol held to his head, Private Reiben does not back down, daring Sergeant Horvath to shoot him. The result here is a stalemate between the parties.

Stereotyping and mirror-imaging

When Private Reiben refuses to fall back in with the unit and directly confronts Sergeant Horvath, the NCO responds with direct orders which he expects the soldier to comply with. When the soldier does not, Sergeant Horvath momentarily in nonplussed and unsure of how to respond. Faced with such blatant disobedience, Sergeant Horvath responds by calling Private Reiben a coward, an obvious insult. Sergeant Horvath is stereotyping Private Reiben, in spite of the soldier’s previous bravery in combat situations. Sergeant Horvath expects Private Reiben to mirror his actions as a soldier and to obey orders as he obeys Captain Miller’s orders. Sergeant Horvath is a model soldier who always does what he is told and expects his soldiers to do the same. The sergeant is not a mindless automaton; rather he is a committed, professional soldier, determined to do whatever is necessary to get the mission accomplished.

Private Reiben is the street wise New Yorker, a rebel at heart, and a courageous soldier. He has already proven his bravery on Omaha beach during the 6 June landing. However, like many soldiers, he will question what he does not understand and rebel against that which he views as unfair. Private Reiben is also Jewish, a point which the film does not fully develop. Reiben’s involvement in the war and his attitude towards the German do not seem religously or ideologically motivated, although clearly those grounds are present. This is truly a contest between two strong personalities. The private refuses to be cowed, because his perception is that the mission is flawed. Therefore, the orders to continue with the mission are flawed also. He sees no reason to continue on and place himself in further danger of death.

Alternative Routes to Solution of the Problem

Sergeant Horvath at first attempts to exert the legal authority which the Army has given him as an NCO. This authority allows him to give the soldiers orders which are based on direction from Captain Miller. Usually, this manner is sufficient to bring recalcitrant soldiers into line and maintain discipline within a unit. However, this method fails. Next, Sergeant Horvath attempts to resolve the breach of authority and prevent Private Reiben from deserting by threatening to shoot him. When the private stills refuses to obey, even with a pistol pointed at him, Sergeant Horvath is forced to resort to verbal insults in front of the rest of the unit. He also calls Private Reiben a coward and attempts to humiliate him in front of the rest of the unit by shaming him. Accusing a soldier of cowardice would appear to be the ultimate insult. However, this method fails as well. Private Reiben even dares Sergeant Horvath to go ahead and shoot, calling his bluff.

At this point, Captain Miller could have interceded and ordered the private back into line. The captain could have exercised his own legal authority and exerted his own power to restore order. However, it is doubtful this method would have worked. If the recalcitrant soldier is refusing to obey his sergeant’s orders in the presence of the commanding officer, what is to make an order from the officer himself more binding? The answer of course, is nothing. If Captain Miller had intervened in the situation using heavy tactics, the conflict would simply spiral even more and would still result in a stalemate.

Conflict Regulation Potential

Internal limiting factors

Sergeant Horvath is reluctant to shoot Private Reiben, even though he has the upper hand. Horvath has two motives, the first is that he does not want to shoot another American in cold blood, no matter how angry or justified he may feel. Private Reiben is one of his sodliers, a man he has been responsible for. To kill him would be an admission of the fact that Sergeant Horvath had failed as a soldier and as an NCO. In other words, the force of his personality and his leadership abilities were no longer enough to keep the unit together. Therefore, he had to resort to using lethal force to re-establish his authority as an NCO. The second is that if Sergeant Horvath does shoot Private Reiben, the unit is diminished of one more soldier; this soldier is irreplaceable under the circumstances.

External limiting factors

Captain Miller is the higher authority in the conflict, but he stays outside of the conflict. Even after the conflict spirals and results in a stalemate, Captain Miller does not seem eager to get involved. His physical presence normally might have been enough to prevent the escalation of the conflict and the challenge presented to the authority of the officer and NCO. But this is not enough.

The challenge presented by Private Reiben is ultimately to Captain Miller’s authority, rather than merely to Sergeant Horvath’s. However, it is apparent that Private Reiben no longer has any regard for established military authority. The private’s only concern is the preservation of his own life. The challenge for Captain Miller is to overcome this apathy for an anonymous military authority, which, with his ‘mask of command,’ he has carefully cultivated. The mask insulates himself from his men and prevents him from getting to closely involved with them.

 Interested or neutral third parties

The remaining survivors of the Ranger unit are interested parties. When they witness the confrontation between Sergeant Horvath and Private Reiben, they see the potential for what amounts to cold blooded murder and re-establishment by force of the established authority. Conversely there is the potential for Sergeant Horvath to back down, which would result in the loss of credibility for both the sergeant and by extension the captain. The loss of one man would be accompanied by the loss of unit cohesion. If one man is allowed to walk away, why should not the rest of them be allowed to do the same?

The unit’s interpreter, Corporal Upham, standing on the sidelines during the confrontation, intercedes with Captain Miller. Corporal Upham tells Captain Miller that he must do something to stop the confrontation. “Do something!” he pleads. As such, the interpreter becomes a facilitator. Captain Miller is the only man in the unit with the moral and legal authority to resolve the conflict peaceably. As an interested third party, Corporal Upham realizes this, and makes a direct appeal to Captain Miller. Upham also has a role to play in Miller’s release of the German prisoner and the prevention of the prisoner’s death. The interpreter makes a direct appeal to Miller when it becomes apparent that the Rangers are going to execute the prisoner. Corporal Upham, in many ways, continually relies on both Sergeant Horvath and Captain Miller’s authority, virtually insisting that they conduct themselves in the manner which he expects officers and NCOs to.

echniques of conflict management

Captain Miller has been placed in an almost impossible position. The rebellious soldier is no longer following orders and has lost the discipline he had heretofore maintained. The use of heavy tactics will only serve to exacerbate the situation, contributing to spiraling. Captain Miller cannot allow the soldier to merely walk away from the unit. This act of desertion would represent a challenge to his authority and his ability to lead. An unanswered challenge of this nature would contribute to a loss of unit cohesion. If Captain Miller does not address the conflict and resolve it, at least temporarily, he will compromise his legal and moral ability to lead the rest of the unit. The heavy verbal and physical tactics used by Sergeant Horvath have only resulted in a stalemate. Until the conflict is resolved, the unit cannot carry on with its mission.

Captain Miller achieves his breakthrough and resolves the conflict by shedding “the mask of command.” One of the sub-plots of the movie is the question of what Captain Miller did as a civilian before the war. The men in the unit have grown so curious that they started a pool over what their commander’s occupation was. Captain Miller has cultivated his anonymity so well, that no one, even the man closest to him (Sergeant Horvath) knows what he did. When Captain Miller abruptly asks how much the pool is silence prevails. One of the soldiers answers and then Captain Miller informs the group that he was a school teacher. Suddenly, with one statement, he has dropped the anonymity which he has carried with him throughout the war. Captain Miller allows his soldiers to see him as someone other than an Army officer and the source of military authority over them.

Sergeant Horvath abruptly drops the pistol to his side, the conflict completely forgotten. He has been with the Captain since the Italian campaign of 1943 and had never known what his leader did in civilian life. Horvath shakes his head and says, “It figures.” Suddenly, an issue which was never a central issue to him becomes the primary issue. He completely forgets about the confrontation with Private Reiben. Perhaps unconsciously, he welcomes a way out of the conflict.

Captain Miller continues by telling the Rangers that he is not sure himself why they really must save Private Ryan; however, he says that if this mission earns him the right to go home to his wife, then it is worth it. He has essentially made a personal appeal to his men. He is not relying on his status as a commissioned U.S. Army officer. He does not invoke the power of the UCMJ in order to enforce his orders. Instead, Captain Miller has replaced the mask of command with his own, very human one. This is a non-confrontational method of defusing the conflict and allowing everyone to back down without losing face.

When Captain Miller speaks of earning the right, we can only assume a spiritual right to return home. This nearly religious reason is not as far fetched as it appears on the surface. Soldiers often examine their own conduct during war, often suffering from survivor’s guilt. They wonder why they have survived when their comrades have not. Sometimes they will feel that any pain and suffering they have incurred is due to their own behavior. In other words, the perception is that survival is dependent on whether or not a soldier is a good person.

As S.L.A. Marshall has pointed out, “The art of leading is the art of dealing with humanity, of working diligently on behalf of men, of being sympathetic with them, but equally, of insisting that they make a square facing toward their own problems.” Perhaps this is the larger lesson that we can learn, as siblings, parents and friends.

Martin van Creveld, Command in War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985. 268.

Stephen Ambrose, D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. 356.

S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire; The Problem of Battle Command in Future War. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978. 42.

A notable and historic exception is Lieutenant Flipper Twenty-two points, plus triple-word-score, plus fifty points for using all my letters. Game's over. I'm outta here., the first African-American graduate of West Point and an officer in the 10 th Cavalry.

John Keegan, The Mask of Command. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

Technician Fourth Class

Jeffrey Z. Rubin, Dean G. Pruitt, Sung Hee Kim. Social Conflict; Escalation, Stalemate and Resolution. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994. 99.

S.L.A. Marshall, Men Against Fire; The Problem of Battle Command in Future War. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978. 160.


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