“Woe to the statesman whose reasons for entering a war do not appear so plausible at its end as at its beginning.” Otto von Bismark
They Shall Not Die Old. Directed by Peter Jackson
In directing the documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame has produced a cinematic tour-de-force. Made at the request of the British Imperial War Museum, Jackson used some 100 hours of the Museum’s contemporaneous documentary footage shot on site along with 600 hours of interviews with British soldiers who lived, fought and died in the trenches of World War I.
The story is not told through an analysis of command decisions; nor does it romanticize war through stories of heroic feats and indomitable courage. It tells the story through the eyes of the British soldiers who lived, fought and died in the trenches.
It is a compelling way to tell a powerful story. It puts the viewer right in the trenches with the soldiers. You can see the fear mixed with boredom. You see the soldiers performing mundane tasks amid constant shelling. You watch them create coping mechanisms to deal with the stress, like making tea with the boiling water produced by the cooling systems of their machine guns, all the while knowing they could be killed at any instant.
When the call to war came in 1914, scores of young British men came from farms and factories to enlist to fight in the Great War. They didn’t question the war or its aims; they took up arms because they thought it was their duty. Their nation called; there was a job to be done and they were going to do it.
Many of the enlistees were just boys—16 to 18 years old—who were too young to enlist. But they lied (and were encouraged to lie) about their age so as to be eligible. They were the cannon fodder who, when ordered to do so, went over the top only to be slaughtered by murderous German machine gun fire. Before it was over, about 1 million soldiers from Britain and its empire would be killed.
And that was just Britain and its Empire. Russia suffered about 1.7 million military deaths. Estimates of military deaths of Allied powers range from 5 million to 6.5 million in total. Similarly, The Central Powers led by Germany lost between 3.5 and 4.5 million. Between them the combatants suffered military deaths somewhere between 8.5 and 11 million men. Estimates for the total number of civilian and military casualties that include disease and other factors run as high as 40 million people.
World War I was among the greatest of all catastrophes in human history and 100 years later there is still no definitive answer as to its cause. Moreover the slaughter didn’t end with the Armistice of November 11, 1918; it was merely put on hold until it was relaunched as World War II with Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Sixty million perished in World War II, most of them civilians, the overwhelming majority of whom were killed by the Germans and Russians.
World War I did more than usher in World War II. It was also the end of an era. Progressives recognized the power of the war model for reorganizing society around the aims of a central government. And so began the militarization of the West and the organization—or reorganization—of Western society with government at its center. Checks and balances were out; the imperial and ever growing U.S. Presidency was in, and governance by experts in the bureaucracy would become the norm.
The result has been profound—-and mostly unrecognized. In large part because the population of the United States is being transformed from a self-reliant one into a subservient one, dependent on government largesse.
And so now, 100 years after the end of World War I, after the creation of countless agencies, programs and commissions, public administration in the United States would be unrecognizable to the Founders. The government of the United States has become an unaccountable behemoth. It spends trillions of dollars a year, mostly on income transfers, while running trillion dollar deficits without a thought for how to pay it off.
Virtually every facet of American life is regulated, mostly indirectly, through agency generated rules and regulations, to a degree that is an affront to the U.S. Constitution. Traditional sources of authority are under government attack along with basic liberties that we used to take for granted. Civil Society is increasingly co-opted by the central government.
Live and let live has been tossed aside in favor of strict conformity and shaming that would make William White’s Organization Man of the 1950s recoil. The increasingly bitter polarization of American politics is clearly the result of the rejection of subsidiarity in favor of a relentless drive to centralization and social engineering that represent the beating heart of the progressive project.
Yet despite its obvious failure to make good on its promises, the Progressive onslaught continues. We now are faced with demands for a raft of pipe dreams including “free” college, Medicare for all—when we can’t pay for the one we have—and a Green New Deal fantasy that promises to achieve net-zero emissions in 10 years. The utopians as ever, are undeterred by past failure.
The Great War, both directly and indirectly, caused the suffering and death of hundreds of millions of people in the 20th century. It unleashed wave after wave of utopian dreams that ended, as always, in misery. The Western democracies succeeded in spite of, not because of, the utopians.
We are again confronted with militant utopians who know what is best for us and intend to show us whether we like it or not. At the same time the distribution of power around the globe seems to be drifting away from Western liberalism. Fraying western alliances and western cultural irresolution, combined with the challenges posed by the emergence of powerful authoritarian states makes the world a tinderbox not unlike 1914.
It is impossible to see the young innocent faces of the soldiers in “They Shall Not Die Old” without thinking about how we got here, and how we can avoid the traps that produced the catastrophes of the 20th century. They Shall Not Die Old is not a film meant to be about politics. But its relentless focus on the foot soldiers who bore the cost of their leaders’ folly should give us pause. Especially when considering radical proposals being tossed around with such striking insouciance by followers who have convinced themselves they are actually leaders.