A war without a reason why?

December 21, 2018

Matt Stanley, who teaches history and political science at Albany State University and is the author of The Loyal West: Civil War and Reunion in Middle America, reviews a new film about the First World War from director Peter Jackson.

THEY SHALL Not Grow Old, the critically lauded documentary about the First World War that opens this week in the U.S., begins with the voice of an aged British veteran attributing the reason for one of the largest and most lethal conflicts in human history to mere “bad feelings” between Germany and England.

This mystification of the war’s causes would have alarmed W.E.B. Du Bois, whose The African Roots of War identified colonialism as the conflict’s origin-source. Published in May 1915, as alliances of belligerent empires bludgeoned one another from Vimy Ridge to Gallipoli, Du Bois’ treatise maintained that European dominion in Africa was “undisguised robbery” that had produced “national war-engendering jealousies.”

Connecting the color line to the assembly line, the bread line and the front lines, Du Bois lamented how the constructions of nationalism and racial prejudice obfuscated the common bonds of the men in and beyond the trenches. He likewise understood the role of pro-war institutions in competing for new markets and natural resources, particularly oil.

A scene of soldiers in the trenches from Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old
A scene of soldiers in the trenches from Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old

Imperialism, which Lenin famously described as “the highest stage of capitalism,” was indeed the casus belli. The war’s critics as well as its architects openly admitted as much. Even Woodrow Wilson, one of the most effective repressors of the left in U.S. history, thought it obvious that “the seed of war in the modern world” germinated through “industrial and commercial rivalry.”

But that vital theme and others are conspicuously missing in They Shall Not Grow Old.

The film is not comprehensive, nor does it claim to be. Its dearth of context and glossing over of critical points is one of the pitfalls of the filmmaker’s decision to narrate only through the oral histories of actual veterans, overlaying their words onto original film footage from the First World War. Even so, this spoken memory approach evokes an incommunicable sense of feeling, achieving an immersive and intimate — if incomplete — social history.

DIRECTED BY special effects innovator Peter Jackson, whose grandfather served with the 2nd South Wales Borderers, They Shall Not Grow Old relies entirely on remastered hand-cranked archival film — including previously unseen footage — from Britain’s Imperial War Museum.

The detail-rich byproduct of a years-long restoration process, much of the movie is colorized, with added sound effects of explosions and chatter enhancing the realism.

Review: Movies

They Shall Not Grow Old, directed by Peter Jackson.

As part of a two-day limited release, many U.S. multiplexes are showing the film in 3D, part of a deft manipulation of both artistic media and the historical record.

The disconnect between voices, names and the faces we see on screen — the film’s lack of characters and its flattening of space and time — means that it feels more like a museum exhibit than a narrative film. Yet it is an aesthetically dazzling, near-hypnotic, and somewhat eerie moviegoing experience that numerous critics have rightly described as the cinematic equivalent of bringing the dead to life through digital taxidermy.

Jackson’s view from the trenches is also a remarkable piece of history from below. Former British soldiers, in their 70s and 80s at the time of the recordings, recount their decisions to volunteer. Enlistment motivation is presented as mostly a requirement to country or social environment: the necessity of “doing your bit” in a process that affirmed masculinity (of a Victorian type) by allegedly turning boys into men.

Though the title is taken from Laurence Binyon’s 1914 poem, “For the Fallen,” the content often deviates from staid traditionalism. Following the raw recruits — many of them smooth-faced boys as young as 14 — from their homes through training, soldiering, combat and finally the return home, the film underscores the basics of a soldier’s life: food and firearms, drills and drinking, sex and sickness.

War is hell, to be sure. But it is also obligatory and, surprisingly often, a jolly good time.

The filmmakers build genuine tension as their subjects anticipate combat. The proliferation of heavy artillery, tanks, machine guns, poison gas, flamethrowers, airplanes and, of course, “no man’s land” forms a sensory experience. Going “over the top” is tactile.

The film is at its most effective in communicating the sights, sounds, and smells of carnage — the perceptual dynamics of communal latrines, carcass-devouring rats, and being covered in human “jelly.”

Successfully linking image to feeling, the filmmakers convey the trauma of shelling and being gassed, as well as the psychological effect of killing and, ultimately, the difficulties of reintegration into civilian life. The outcome is a ravishing production and retrieval of the past through a “medley of perspectives” approach that proves limited by both source material and curatorial choices.

INDEED, IF what They Shall Not Grow Old includes is often astonishing, what it omits is glaring.

We bear witness to only one military theater. By and large, there are no women or civilians, some of whom performed work in mines and at sea that was as dangerous as certain types of military service. There are no strikes, mutinies, or antiwar or anti-conscription demonstrations. There are no deserters or dissidents in the ranks.

There are no colonial actors or troops, even though 4 million of them, including 1 million Indians, served in the British army, and thus there is no hint of the explosion of ethnic or nationalist conflict within the British Empire.

In fact, there is no empire. Nor is there any discussion of formal politics. There is no allusion to the war’s problematic peace, or the postwar economic arrangements that set the table for the soaring inequality, economic collapse, the rise of fascism during the 1920s, and what Eric Hobsbawm called the “31 years’ world war.”

Perhaps these constraints are to be expected, given the director’s narrow focus. But more troubling still is a story totally devoid of power relations. Incredibly, in a film that explores the most class-conscious society on earth, whose armies still featured an aristocratic officer corps, there is no mention of social class whatsoever.

The result is a war with little meaning or broader dependency — one that veers between exciting, unpleasant and horrific, but feels almost entirely like an inevitable condition.

Even as a discrete social portrait of the frontline British (English) volunteer on the Western Front, there are few stakes apart from the interpersonal because They Shall Not Grow Old offers no sense of interrelation between the actual battlefield and the political battlefield.

While the film vividly captures the common soldier’s role in a “totalitarian war,” it never speaks to the causes of or feelings elicited against incompetent officers, inconclusive campaigns, or injustice within or outside the ranks.

In reality, the grunts of 1914-18 often possessed clear political identities, interests and enemies. The expansion of industrial capitalism in the decades leading up to 1914 had led to the unprecedented growth of socialist and national trade unionist movements and their concomitant radical and labor parties.

At the time the “guns of August” sounded, over 1 million French workers carried union cards. In Germany, that number was 3 million; in Britain, it was 4 million. European socialists had long planned to conduct a general work stoppage in the event of a continental war.

Yet a combination of bureaucratic compromise and top-down repression funneled much of these radical ambitions into wartime mobilization, and owing to universal conscription, the makeup of armies came to mirror the planetary gap between rich and poor.

AS IN all wars, sacrifice and suffering were classed. In Britain and Germany, where industrial production required skilled laborers, unskilled workers proved the most vulnerable. In less industrialized France, which mobilized over 8 million men (over 20 percent of the total population), rural peasants made up the largest proportion of war dead. Moreover, wage declines, food shortages and police surveillance all disproportionately impacted working people.

Military rank followed social rank. Though officers and wartime propagandists presented the military as a unifying force — a notion They Shall Not Grow Old mostly perpetuates — worker-soldiers remained keenly aware of how the army recreated the rigid British class system. One trooper’s remark that his staff officers “had heard of trenches, yes, but as the West End hears of the East End — a nasty place where common people lived” — overlaid the social geography of the front onto that of London.

Identifying universal truths, popular memoirs including Robert Graves’ Good-Bye to All That, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and Henri Barbusse’s Le Feu noted the relative comforts of the officer class, the pressure from officers and civilian authority figures on non-officers to “fall into line” or else face ostracism, and the tendency of older generations and ruling pro-war institutions to espouse nationalist militarism “in a way that cost them nothing.”

Military service paralleled the proletarianization of the industrial workplace in its hierarchy, disorientation, alienation and conception of man as the handmaiden of machine.

Jackson’s film suggests that some soldiers felt exploitation, comparing their army work to factory work. As one veteran recalls, “You were a laboring boy more than you were a fighter.” But it omits how class consciousness occasionally shone through in mutiny, the targeting of officers or “live and let live” sentiment.

The film gives the impression that enlisted men in different uniforms had much in common, with one veteran even admitting that the German enemy was “the same as us.” Yet we don’t sense that “Tommy” and “Fritz” (the nicknames of ordinary British and German troops) typically had more in common with each other than they did with their own officers.

As it happens, class solidarity was stifled by nationalist fervor, and class action was restricted through heavy-handed upper-class officers. As socialist and Scottish veteran John Campbell remembered, “There was no true comradeship in the trenches...it was simply a case of members of the working class held down by brutal and iron discipline.”

Even in death, the British class system was such that the Imperial War Graves Commission, founded in 1917 to register and maintain the graves of British soldiers, quickly faced intense backlash from officers’ families, who objected to their well-heeled loved ones being buried among the “Other Ranks.”

JACKSON’S DOCUMENTARY not only ignores class as a category, but also obscures any sense of political space or wartime chronology stemming from social conflict.

Beyond the front, the revival of strike activity in 1916 saw mass strikes and worker demonstrations from Berlin to South Wales, and from Vienna to the “Red Clydeside.” These stoppages coincided with renewed antiwar efforts by the Independent Socialist Party in Germany and the pacifist wing of the French Socialist Party. Soldier mutinies and antiwar demonstrations swept across the continent in 1917, giving way to the Russia’s February Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power.

Even though policymakers had initially reckoned that a continental war might serve the useful purpose of silencing or fracturing ethnic centrifugal currents, nationalist independence movements erupted from Ireland to Mesopotamia. All the same, the reanimated soldiers audiences see on screen appear hermetically sealed from wider developments, as well as from their French and American allies.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a triumph of sight, sound and the recovery of the past. Through affecting content and stunning technical achievement, Jackson and his team have crafted a compelling representation of the British soldier in France.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that representation as fragmentary. As always, the decision not to “politicize” is, in fact, a political one.

In detailing hardships and horrors devoid of causes and interests, They Shall Not Grow Old presents a war with no authors, no beneficiaries, and no contingency, thereby reinforcing the very fictions of inevitability and powerlessness that render such bloodshed possible.

We as viewers gain an understanding of army life and combat as intensely human experiences. We gain less of an understanding of war.

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