Forgetting our history is like going into a state of collective dementia. The loss of collective memory is destabilizing to a society, just as the loss of one’s personal memory is destabilizing to an individual.
Today there is a startling dearth of knowledge about World War I and very few memorials to it. There’s not even a national WWI memorial in Washington D.C. Yet that war was, in the opinion of many historians, the most consequential event in the modern era. We marked the centennial of the end of that war just last autumn.
A great irony accompanied that hundredth anniversary. On the one hand, director Peter Jackson released a magnificent documentary about World War I to coincide with the anniversary in Britain. His film powerfully communicates the profound significance of that war and its human costs.
At the very same time, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear a case in which the plaintiffs hope to destroy a grand WWI memorial. It will be a landmark ruling. The Bladensburg “Peace Cross” Memorial was initiated by Gold Star mothers and the American Legion. In 1925 it was dedicated to the suffering and sacrifice of 49 local soldiers in World War I. Its existence is being challenged by a group of atheists who don’t like its shape and size. More on that later.
‘They Shall Not Grow Old’
We should all be grateful that someone like Jackson understands the importance of preserving our collective memory. His documentary on World War I is dedicated to the memory of his grandfather, a WWI veteran. At the end, Jackson expresses hope that people will be inspired by the film to explore any personal connection they may have with the war because, he says, the history of it “involves us all.”
This movie is a piercing tour de force. We experience the effects of incredible restoration of old grainy footage that pulls those soldiers directly into our hearts and minds. Jackson makes the footage personal.
No explanation does justice to this film. You have to see it. “They Shall Not Grow Old” brings to real life and sharp focus the common WWI soldier in all of his unique humanity and suffering. Since the film’s release in the United Kingdom last fall, the screenings have been scattered. Since December, some screenings (through Fathom Events) have been shown in the United States.
But the film was scheduled to start showing in theaters across America on February 1. Here’s a trailer:
Jackson intended the story of the war to be told exclusively by the soldiers themselves. Through their images and voices, culled from 100 hours of archival footage and 600 hours of old BBC recordings of WWI veterans, you can get a sense of how they experienced the unexpected magnitude of that war.
The results of the technological restoration of those visual and audio records are chilling and unimaginably stunning. Jackson’s team took 100-year-old, jumpy, black and white, silent archival footage and utterly transformed it. We see the same soldiers, but in high definition, in color, and even given voices as they speak to one another. (Lip readers were consulted. Dialects were studied. The colors of uniforms and tanks were researched.)
We also witness the utter desolation of life in the trenches. You see the fear on the faces of those boys about to go into battle, as well as their joys during respites from the front.
This Film Is A Must-See
This movie is a must-see for all Americans, particularly for teachers, students, parents, legislators, journalists, and judges. It brings to life our collective humanity and uniqueness as individuals. (And without a balance of both, how can we have either?)
The age of that original footage, once restored, has an unexpected side effect: it’s a powerful and much-needed reminder that our ancestors were all real people once, in the bloom of youth, who had the same capacity for fear and happiness as we do. I fear we easily forget such things in a politically correct time when too many people equate “progress” with spitting on history.
With that in mind, why is the Bladensburg Memorial even an issue at all? Can the plaintiffs not fathom the historical significance of the Great War and the value of memorializing those who sacrificed? The Bladensburg Memorial represents the fallen under what were then startling conditions of total war. People had never experienced total war on such a massive scale––it involved brutal new technologies of the industrial revolution: the machine gun, poison gas, trench warfare, tanks, and mines, and new communications technologies. (But there were no antibiotics yet.) A French soldier at Verdun, Albert Joubaire, said “Hell cannot be this dreadful.”
The overall toll for American military was 53,402 killed in action, 63,114 dead from related diseases and accidents, and 204,002 wounded. That all basically happened in the course of those last few months of the war that saw U.S. ground involvement. Worldwide, the war resulted in a military and civilian total of 38 million casualties.
In that context, the size and shape of the Bladensburg memorial shouldn’t surprise us one bit. Sadly, too few people are interested in context these days. Or history.
Young Men Who Went Through Hell
I don’t know when I’ve been so chilled watching a film as when I saw the dramatic transition from black and white to color in Jackson’s documentary. As the scene was introduced, probably 20 minutes in, it was accompanied by all of the sounds of the time and place. The previous segments of the film still gave you an idea of the soldier’s faces and personalities. (Pipe smoking while marching was quite a thing!) But the restorations gave it all a supremely human depth and a sense of real time.
The soldiers often looked directly at the cameraman because motion pictures and movie cameras were curious new technologies of the era. But in those first moments watching the fully restored footage, the effect felt supernatural. It was as though those soldiers were looking directly at me, at all of us, across a huge generational divide. It was haunting.
“They Shall Not Grow Old” probably offers the most viscerally complete understanding of what life in the trenches was like. The wretchedness is palpable, and many of the images grisly. You can feel the misery of living in polluted standing water and see gruesome cases of trench foot (gangrene) with foot and calf covered in necrotic tissue. In the audio, veterans talk about their incessant battles against the lice that covered everything and everyone.
The corpses of their comrades would be strewn all around, their wounds exposed until they could be moved. Veterans describe how they just had to step over them and get used to it. They tell how fat rats multiplied in the trenches because of the abundant food supply from the human corpses. You see the mines and shells exploding, and the effects of shell shock (known today as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD) and astonishing footage of tanks crossing over trenches.
All you can feel is pathos in a scene of maybe 20 or so men, eyes blindfolded and each guided by the soldier in front of him, and walking in a line, blinded by poison gas. You see soldiers’ expressions of terror just before going over the trenches as cannon fodder.
They also shaved in the trenches, read in the trenches, ate in the trenches, slept sitting up in the trenches, and survived or died in the trenches. One veteran explained how the experiences affected him internally: “I found myself thinking more deeply than I had ever thought before” and “I couldn’t think at all.”
Our Common Humanity
But you also see the inverse––the soldiers’ great joy when savoring time away from the front lines. They ran as a joyful crowd when beer arrived on the scene. They sang, rested, joked, and heartily ate. They enjoy being on camera. As the cameraman approaches, one guy smiles broadly and says to his fellow soldiers: “We’re in the pictures!”
You also see the soldiers talking to their German counterparts after they captured them. Audio of the British veterans describe how the Germans were “just boys as we were” who loved their families and worked for a living but then got drawn into the war––just like them. This recognition of common humanity is refreshing to hear as we struggle against today’s identity politics, which disputes our common humanity.
Those reflections reminded me of the stories of the Christmas truce early in the war––not mentioned in the film––when enemy soldiers would cross over to no man’s land on the battlefield to play soccer or even exchange gifts or sing carols together. And then go back to their positions when the truce was over.
As our appreciation for history diminishes, so do we. Ironically enough, we can identify that attitude of willful forgetfulness as itself one of the great ironies of human history.
WWI Memorial Under Attack
I kept thinking about 49 WWI soldiers in particular as I watched “They Shall Not Grow Old.” They are the 49 young men of Prince George’s County, Maryland who lost their lives in WWI and to whom the memorial of the “Peace Cross” was dedicated in 1925. The 49 names are listed on a bronze plaque at the base of the cross-shaped memorial in the town of Bladensburg, Maryland. Yet there are now court challenges to remove such memorials.
I’ve written in the Federalist about the lawsuit to remove the Bladensburg Peace Cross memorial here and here. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on February 27 on the case, which was brought by three atheists to force the state to remove the monument (or deface it by removing its arms).
The plaintiffs’ case is based on the tired and recently manufactured argument that any religious symbols and expressions in public places should be illegal, declared unconstitutional. Their reasoning, that such a memorial on public land violates the “wall of separation” between church and state, corrupts both the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment. It seems to me that the reasoning is actually designed to abolish the First Amendment.
Interestingly, according to a Washington Post article on the history of the Bladensburg Cross Memorial, the land on which the memorial stands was once owned and maintained by the American Legion, which today defends the memorial. But in 1956, a circuit court forced the land to be ceded to the state.
Our Collective Memory Must Be Preserved
If we erase our collective memory, what else is our collective future but a dementia-laden fog? Our educational institutions, at every level, have been in the process of killing the humanities for a long time, now, particularly the study of history. If we keep inflicting this blindness on our progeny, it won’t end well.
The Bladensburg Peace Cross was built as a memorial to young men who gave their lives in the most horrific war the world had ever seen. The cross has been a very common symbol of sacrifice and suffering throughout our history. It also reflects the spirit of the time in which it the memorial was planned and built. The cemeteries in Europe, in which many thousands of American dead are buried, are marked with rows and rows of crosses.
But what do most 21st-century Americans really know about sacrifice? Very little. And very little about history and how it comes back to bite you when you ignore it. To remove or deface the Bladensburg WWI memorial is to remove context from our history, an act of iconoclasm of the most perverse kind.
Professor of WWI history Vejas Liulevicius has explained how the war was so cataclysmic that it psychologically transformed whole societies. Those psychological upheavals led to World War II and are still manifested in Western society to this day.
“If we want to understand what happened, we should look into ourselves, the stamp it left on our collective psychology and society and civilization as a whole,” he says. I can’t help but wonder if one of the results of the psychic transformations put into motion by World War I is actually a growing refusal to look into ourselves. Is the American Humanist Association’s destructive urge to erase the Bladensburg Peace Cross––and therefore to erase history, memory, acknowledgement of sacrifice––a part of the sad legacy of WWI’s effects on our collective psyche today?
Freedom Shall Not Grow Old?
What are memorials for, other than to remember life, especially the lives of those who made the supreme sacrifice in the bloom of their youth? And to remember events like World War I that resulted in vast transformations socially and psychologically that continue to affect all of us today? We simply can’t fathom it.
But we must try to fathom it. So we use symbols, like a cross, because there are no words. We use the best symbols to help us come to terms with tragedy. This is something the framers of our Constitution understood.
A big difference between the framers and us moderns is that they placed great value on the study of history. For the most part, we don’t. And that gives us less capacity to look into ourselves. This has to change, otherwise humanity will simply go back to its default position, which is tyranny.
In the context of the millennia of human history, freedom is in its youth, just budding. And like a young soldier, freedom can be snuffed out before it has a chance to mature and develop.
The title of Jackson’s film was taken from Laurence Binyon’s poem “The Fallen”:
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.