When you see a dead body in full color, you grieve it all the more. Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old is currently available to stream after making a successful run in theaters earlier this year, and it’s worth seeing even though you will likely be horrified by what you see. Jackson used all the toys in his effects chest to restore preserved footage of World War I and audio testimony from British veterans of that conflict. The resulting celluloid is breathtaking not only for its quality but also for its carnage. Again and again, you see photographs of young soldiers, weary but still excited for adventure, and then you watch Jackson smash cut to bodies. There are bodies in trenches. There are bodies piled into in mass graves. There are detached limbs with no host body to them visible on screen. There are bodies left in vast battlefields strewn with barbed wire, and only swarms of flies and packs of rats willing to come tend to them.
Many of these soldiers were children. Jackson’s movie includes testimony from veterans who volunteered to enlist before they had turned 18, lying about their age to qualify for service either of their own accord or because recruiters instructed them to do so. Virtually all of these veterans recount going into battle with starry eyes, eager to aid in the cause of war. Then they arrived at the front. Nearly three-quarters of a million British servicemen died in that war: shot, stabbed, diseased, drowning in mud, you name it. Here is what some of the surviving veterans said of that conflict once they returned home.
“It was horrible.”
Watching the footage from They Shall Not Grow Old is jarring because even though I live in an age of total media saturation, I rarely seek out, nor am I routinely subjected to, the catastrophic physical consequences of war. You will not see bloodied and mangled bodies on CNN. You likely also won’t see them on Twitter, as that would violate their “sensitive media policy.” There’s a good reason for blacking this shit out, obviously. Those who have lost loved ones in armed conflict aren’t exactly eager to see those same loved ones’ corpses all over national television and the Internet, nor are many viewers hungry for broadcast images of human wreckage. As a result, those corpses go through an unofficial post-production embalming process. You’ll see flag-draped coffins. You’ll see 21-gun salutes. You’ll see a stylized version of mass death, but you won’t have to lay eyes on death itself. You're more likely to see troops at an NFL game than to see them actively doing their duty. All of the pageantry, none of the bloodshed.
Again, there are compassionate reasons for this, but that bit of good taste has the nasty side effect of providing an added benefit to warmongers who profit off romanticizing the CAUSE of war—the same aggressive froth that hyped up so many of those British soldiers—but do not want you to see the very real and grim effects of it. If you did, you wouldn’t cheer for war, and that would be bad for business. Every war is a product launch now, and those launches are meticulously planned. In that extensive planning, war is framed as charity, and Americans are encouraged to thank the troops for their service to that charity without seeing, in full detail, what is often the endgame of that service.
And if you never see the true end result of war, then defense contractors and politicians alike can sell it to you in perpetuity. You can have a defense budget the size of ours (close to $700 billion) go unquestioned when so many Americans and their representatives have been hoodwinked into believing in war, and when they then go one better and join in on hoodwinking others. Here was Vice President Pence selling war to West Point grads last month:
“It is a virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield for America at some point in your life,” Pence said. “You will lead soldiers in combat. It will happen. Some of you may even be called upon to serve in this hemisphere.”
We do a disservice to people who have fought in wars if we continue to wage them. But Pence and others clearly despise that idea and would prefer that you not cotton to it. Instead, they smother us all in patriotic correctness and endlessly venerate the troops and remind us again of SERVICE and SACRIFICE, because they know that, as packaged now, invisible dead troops can help SELL war rather than the opposite. Death, in fact, justifies the cause, because if someone died for it then it must have meant something. War becomes self-validating. You are shown the need for war in far more detail and higher resolution than you are a dead soldier in Afghanistan (we have over 2,000 of those and counting). And lionizing troops and demanding the public incessantly and unconditionally thank them for their service obscures the particulars of that service. They are selling war to you and selling it to the troops themselves, indirectly plying them with the prospect of public adoration, and perhaps the occasional free license to commit war crimes.
This is a vicious cycle that has played out among men for centuries now. The kind of worldly lessons those poor British soldiers took home from the battlefield are often buried, or war is subsequently presented as the only way to learn such lessons, to achieve a mythical and false concept of proper manhood: manhood that is then repeatedly sold to those with fragile and hungry egos. Last week was the anniversary of the D-Day invasion of World War II and, like clockwork, such a somber occasion served as a cheap opportunity for wingnuts and military fetishists alike to take the bravery of older generations and wield it as a cudgel upon newer generations they presume to be lacking in such manhood.
I could tell Piers up there that the whole point of such historic sacrifices was that so future generations would NOT have to be so resilient… that they could live more mundane lives and not be subjected to the kind of violence and depravity that helped shape the character of “The Greatest Generation”—a sobriquet that, on its own, infers that mass war breeds greatness. Some people want to do something besides fight, you know? The thought should be, “Hey, your forebears gave their lives so you could play Breath of the Wild in peace, and now you can!” not, “Your ancestors were real men and you’re just a sniveling pussy who plays video games all day.”
I watched Jackson’s film on an airplane. More specifically, I watched it on a flight that, by sheer coincidence, doubled as an Honor Flight, where vets are flown to DC to visit memorials and then flown back home. The gate area at Reagan was festooned in bunting and American flag balloons. Please know that my seat was directly in front of the toilet, so my screen wasn't visible to vets who might not wanna catch a glimpse of this movie on the ride home. When I got off the plane in San Francisco, all the veterans had stayed aboard to come off last, which meant the other civilian passengers and I got to stroll through a receiving line at the SFO gate lined with families holding up signs and service members and policemen and various other well-wishers there to thank each vet for their service, as they deserved. I felt really bad passing through there because I’m just some pud who has never served in the military. Those people were not there for me, nor should they have been. I felt guilty. Unaccomplished.
That guilt has been weaponized by war profiteers and by pundits and by a draft-dodging president and by other Americans who believe, to this day, that war is character, and that every participant in it deserves to be canonized. Believing that is not only a gross lie, but it allows war to flourish and cheapens the accomplishments of the men on that flight and so many others who waged war to ensure a peace that has never truly arrived. Troops shouldn’t die so those they leave behind can also go die, but that’s where the world remains. The cycle of hope and disillusionment has been engineered to go on forever, at a horrifying cost to both soldiers and to our collective psyche. War deserves little reverence, and it shouldn't take a century for us civilians to witness, in full color, what current warfare has wrought. We are still at war. We are always at war, and the longer we remain so, the more we render the sacrifices of the deceased meaningless.
Originally Appeared on GQ