Wars and Memories of Wars

The Great War changed irretrievably the expected trajectory of the West. It seemed possible at one time to believe that history would continue on its progressively upward course. They Shall Not Grow Old (2018; HBO, or for rent on Amazon Prime) is a unique perspective on that war and the those who experienced it first-hand. It allows us to hear, in their own voices and words, the thoughts and memories of the soldiers in the trenches, via audio recorded before they were no longer around to tell their stories.

Besides their voices and their memories, Peter Jackson used computer technology to transform the black-and-white, uneven frame rates, into color with enhanced sound. The pictures of bombs exploding at the front lines, combined with the audio, is impressive. I think the colorizing is a bit of a novelty idea (particularly when their faces in close-up shift and their eyes change colors, like a bad video game), although there are striking scenes, especially one where a child dressed in blue is sitting in the midst of a bunch of drab-clad soldiers (you can see that picture here).

The more impressive fact is that there is footage from the Imperial War Museum to which Jackson gained access which had never been seen before this film. The team working on the film worked through 600 hours of interviews and 100 hours of film footage. This, to me, is the accomplishment of the film. The idea of colorization, in order for us to see these places and people and events in the way they would have appeared to those involved, is interesting, even if disconcerting at moments. But hearing first-hand accounts while watching the events unfold easily makes the entire project historically significant. This is 1917 in its reality, and amplified.

Toward the end of the film, when the soldiers return home, the extremely high unemployment and the disregard for the soldiers returning, is striking. They’re sent as young men to do a job, and discarded, both in death and after the war. And yet, the veterans are strangely sanguine about both the war and what happened after. With the horrors of war, particularly the new horrors of modern warfare and the increased ability to cause death from a distance, I expected far more talk about the moral and mental devastation that they had experienced. But there is very little of that, even toward the end of the movie.

They Shall Not Grow Old falls somewhere between jingoistic and nationalistic war films, glorifying the victors as heroes (propaganda from all sides included), and the films that highlight the war-is-hell psychological effects of battle. There is no flinching from the blood and death (the mud over which the soldiers lay down boards is a pretty good metaphor for the whole enterprise), but there is also the boyish sense of adventure—and most of them were boys, many of them lying about their ages in order to fight).

There is also a sense of a clear enemy, though not as clear, perhaps, as World War II Germany. But at least from the interviews included in the film, there is not the expected hatred and viciousness toward the soldiers on the other side. There are numerous moments where the veterans talk about how they see the Germans captured as simply boys like them, fighting for their country. They all understand what they’re doing and there is no personal antagonism.

That seems to me to have changed with the rise of both Communism and National Socialism. Those enemies were perceived as clear and demonic, and the dehumanization of the enemy continued into Vietnam and modern conflicts. Maybe it is ordinarily true that you have make your enemy less than human in order to kill him. But from what you hear in They Shall Not Grow Old, that characterization seems generally foreign to the British soldiers who were interviewed.

Watching another war movie, The Outpost (2020; for rent on Amazon Prime), based on a true story and a book written about the events by CNN’s Jake Tapper, the feeling was entirely different. The Outpost is a frenetic and unending attack on the senses, and the pressure never lets up for more than a few seconds. It tells the story of the bloodiest and deadliest battle of the war in Afghanistan, and the story of what would be a highly decorated unit.

But beyond all that, my overwhelming feeling at the end of The Outpost was an identification with the pointlessness felt by the soldiers and the commanders. There is no sense that they are there for commendable reasons, or that anyone is welcoming them as deliverers, as some countries would have welcomed Western war powers in the World Wars. More than that, the enemy is often unclear and hard to identify. Sometimes there is overlap of the enemy with the people whom they are, ostensibly, to help.

I just happened to see these in close succession, but they both raise the issue raised by many war movies, the question of Edwin Starr about war: what is it good for? From a just war perspective, war is good only for one thing: the defense of those who are being threatened and overrun; in a Christian sense, it is for the sake of one’s neighbor, who needs defense.

But aside from the arguments whether or not war can ever be just—arguments worth having—something else comes out of, especially, The Outpost: the tension between the possible pointlessness of a particular conflict on the one hand, and the heroic actions of men and women (here, mostly men) on behalf of those with whom they are fighting. These men do their jobs and do them well, for the sake of their fellow soldiers, even when they can’t see a purpose to the action as a whole. Could the entire army, or the Marines, or the other branches refuse to fight as a protest against what they view as an unjust war? They could.

But the fact is, they are in this situation here and now, and their comrades are under fire. Even true and realistic arguments are pointless in those moments. Their bravery isn’t necessarily for the country, or for some higher ideal of freedom; it is for their friends and even for those in the unit with whom they would rather have nothing to do. When the battle is over, the loss of life and blood seems irredeemable, and for them to have been put in such a hopeless situation seems unacceptable.

It is not just in war that people live and work and fight in apparently meaningless situations. Though most people are not subject to the immediate threat of death in the way that soldiers are, the example is intriguing. What do we do when we wish we were not in a situation, when the decisions of others (perhaps not without our own contributions) have put us in this place, and when we might otherwise have impressive arguments for why such situations ought not to exist or be tolerated? What should we do when we face certain death—and in the long run, that is each one of us?

In a course of events over which we have no final control, we simply do what is necessary in the moment. We fight for the sake of our neighbor who is being threatened, who is being unjustly attacked. We might wish we didn’t have to do it. The entire situation might seem unnecessary. And yet, here we are, and we have a job to do. Maybe bravery even consists of doing necessary things in the midst of unnecessary circumstances. We can complain all we want, we can rail against the pointlessness and injustice. But as Bruce Cockburn once memorably and fittingly sang, “Everything is bullshit but the open hand.”