Almost a decade ago Steven Speilberg directed an Academy Award winning film most remember well: Saving Private Ryan. The story was simple and powerful. The government, having realized one family, and specifically one mother, had lost several of her boys in combat during the Second World War, felt obligated to protect her from losing another. They felt so obligated in fact, that they delegated an entire group of soldiers to change course, risk their lives and pursue nothing other than securing his safety. Some of those men died as a result.
Think about that for a second.
It was during a war, not just any war, but arguably one of the most gruesome, horrific, and dangerous wars mankind has ever faced, with everything at stake. In perhaps an unprecedented point in history, the world was truly faced with the potential of changing permanent course and not for the better. The human loss was staggering.
It was a scary, scary time. The enemy was identifiable and fierce. Our country was united, prepared, and dedicated. Men were drafted to participate in the war, but more often than not, were happy to enlist out of a sense of duty, obligation, and morality. Women at home lined up to do their part for the same reasons. The “Greatest generation” was more than willing to do whatever needed to be done, to sacrifice whatever needed to be sacrificed for the greater good.
And yet….and yet, and yet, and yet….in spite of everything there was to lose, even they acknowledged there was a limit on what one person was expected to give. Even they acknowledged that sometimes certain sacrifices are too much to ask of certain people. Even they acknowledged, sometimes those who give all deserve an exception.
This is something I have pondered for years given the similarities of any military based war and our current War on Disease. All wars are fought with the same mentality, whether it is the War on Terror or the War on Drugs. There is an expressed concensus that the ends always justify the means, the potential loss of the war assumed so much more catastrophic. Any means necessary becomes the status quo; those who question that, rebellious cowards without honor.
Such has been the case throughout history and still today, as evidenced by the current thinking about combating infectious disease. It’s mankind against the virus, all consequences of battle acceptable given the outcome is its ultimate defeat. The best we have to offer strategically comes in the form of good personal care, common sense, and a little something known as the vaccine, once referred to as “the mighty sword”. Employment of all 3 by all humans is not only encouraged, it is expected. Much like accepting being drafted to military combat in previous generations, we are all expected to dutifully do our part. To not do so is met with resentment and indescribeable disgust.
Selfish. Hateful. Unworthy. Immoral. Unethical. Irresponsible. Sinful.
These are the terms commonly used to describe someone who refuses to join forces on the front line of defense, specifically via vaccine. How dare you put others at risk? How dare you think of yourself over others? My God, at what point do you put your own rights aside and just do the right thing?
It’s not just the questionable science regarding vaccine safety we are debating; it’s more the mentality that when it comes to infectious disease, we are all supposed to be on the same side, fighting for our very survival. That unless we all band together to battle such a dangerous foe, we won’t be successful. That in this one instance we must think of the greater good over our individual safety. That by not doing so, we weaken the entire army, not only individually, but wholly, selfishly living under the protection others provide without giving the same sacrifice in return. That no matter what the consequence of using the "mighty sword", the consequence of not using it is far worse.
And yet….and yet, and yet, and yet…at no point during or after the film was released did I hear anyone suggest that Private Ryan didn’t deserve saving. No one suggested that he was being selfish, or dangerous, or immoral, or sinful by being allowed to sidestep direct combat, living freely in the comfort and safety others were providing for him. As mentioned, it was our government who put the value of his life over that of the greater good in that particular instance. The individual was more important than the whole.
Yes, some of the soldiers assigned to the duty were frustrated that their own lives were being used to accommodate his rescue, but it was only momentarily that any of them suggested the mission wasn’t worth it. In fact, it was Private Ryan himself who initially refused to be saved, wanting more than anything to honor the memory of his fallen brothers by continuing to fight. Even he didn’t recognize that he wasn’t being saved for his own sake, but for his mother’s.
My family was drafted like yours in the War on Disease. In the early 1970’s, my mother enlisted my brothers and I, not only to fulfill our obligation to society but more important and more realistic, to protect us individually from dangerous disease. In the late 90’s, early 00’s, I followed in her footsteps with my own children for the same reasons. I trusted that the war was real, that the enemy was fierce and worthy, that the consequences of not enlisting far outweighed the consequences of doing so, that those who accepted our enlistment did so with the greatest concern for our safety, and that in the event something went wrong, we would be cared for. I was wrong on all accounts.
I showed up to every appointment on time, never missed one for anything including illnesses, and dutifully accepted that I was doing the right thing for all the right reasons. I never questioned authority, following orders precisely. I am not nor ever was a draft dodger; quite the contrary.
But as a result of our service, I am the mother of 1 moderately wounded and 1 critically wounded soldier. Their health, their life’s potential, and their overall quality of life has been forever altered for the worse, although we will never cease in the attempt to recover them fully. My children are heroes in the War on Disease. So am I. So is our family. We fulfilled our moral obligation ten fold.
It wasn’t until their egregious injuries for having joined the front lines were dismissed and ignored that I realized I had been misled. I became angry, hurt, dismayed and outspoken at the casualness with which their lives were cast aside as acceptable collateral damage, and truly, so, so needessly. I was sickened and forever changed by the incomprehensible betrayal of my government and medical community.
It wasn’t until then I began to warn others of our painful fate, urging them to be more cautious and informed than I had been; warning them that unlike a soldier wounded in combat that will be medically treated and forever honored for their sacrifice, whether injured by enemy or friendly fire, injured soldiers in the War on Disease received no such respect or reverence. In fact, more often than not their injuries weren’t (and still aren’t) even acknowledged, let alone treated.
I believe I will never understand how the life of a person who is harmed or killed by infectious disease is more valued than the life of a person who is harmed or killed by the effort to prevent it. And I believe I will never stop advocating for the later for that very reason. The current dissent we are experiencing stems from those who feel the same. (Which begs the question, who really is unethical here? Those who value only the first, or those who value them both?)
In the end, I sacrificed 2 of my children to a war, just like the mother in Saving Private Ryan. When they asked me for my third, however, it was simply too much to ask. Mrs. Ryan wasn’t selfish, immoral, unethical, or sinful for wanting to keep her last remaining child safe from danger, and neither am I.
Her name is Abby, and I saved her from the front lines not only for her sake, but also for mine. Because sometimes, yes, just as our government believed then, even now there are times the individual is indeed more important than the whole. Even now, families are being asked to give up too much; in fact, it happens once every 20 minutes.
But most important I chose to save her because the day our family’s honorable service was dishonored as imaginary, irrelevant, and deserving of nothing, the day we did nothing more to serve.
Julie Obradovic is a Contributing Editor for Age of Autism