Casualties of trench warfare, countless soldiers indeed didn’t grow old. Despite their sacrifices, memories of those whom Binyon called “young, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow” faded, too. “The Great War” was eclipsed by the Great Depression and the Greatest Generation fighting “The Good War,” as writer Studs Terkel termed World War II.
November’s armistice centenary centered renewed attention on the first world war, and that focus will endure due in part to the documentary, which was directed by Peter Jackson, most noted for helming the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. His newest film features no lords, only commoners who rallied around the Union Jack to fight in a foreign war that devolved into a deadly, yearslong slog.
Modern moviegoers may have seen these soldiers before, but mostly in silent, sped-up, black-and-white footage. Using transformative cinematic technologies, Jackson slowed down the film, colorized — and most profoundly humanized — the images. He also added voices of veterans, recorded by the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s, describing their wartime experience.
The process has provoked some historians to question if Jackson’s version is verisimilitude, especially because some sound effects of exploding shells were added, the narration wasn’t meant to directly reflect the images and other unique techniques differ from some documentaries.
But the impact is indisputable: Men, and memories, who did not grow old are newly unforgettable.
“The aesthetic of documentary realism used to represent reality in the past does not register as realism for viewers today,” Carol Donelan, professor of cinema and media studies at Carleton College, said in an e-mail exchange.
“In the post-World War II era, filmgoers were used to seeing war documentaries and newsreels in the movie theaters. Black-and-white film footage and an authoritative voice-over narration came to signify ‘reality.’ For viewers today, however, the documentary realism of the past can be distancing, estranging, ‘not real.’ ”
Jackson’s film, Donelan said, “makes World War I soldiers ‘come alive’ for us, based on our expectations of what looks present, alive and real. The soldiers are in color and speak for themselves. Jackson’s updated documentary realism makes it easier for us to identify with and feel for the soldiers and what they experienced, despite their historical distance from us.”
While film technology explains part of this historical distance, there are other media dynamics at play, as well as geopolitical and social factors. Especially the overall level of societal participation on the home front, which was widespread in World War II, said William T. Johnsen, a professor of military history and strategy at the U.S. Army War College.
The broader social context is key, as well, added Johnsen, who referenced “a large-scale upheaval in American society at the time,” including a transition from a largely agrarian society to a more industrialized world and then the Great Depression. Those seismic changes tested “how much bandwidth the human mind has to accommodate all these different issues.”
That bandwidth wasn’t wide enough for some in the United States, as well as the United Kingdom, where memories — and even veterans — were shunted aside, a fact painstakingly recalled by the reflective voices in “They Shall Not Grow Old.”
In America, Johnsen said, it was considered “an aberration” — the U.S. resisted fighting in foreign wars — and through the prism of President Woodrow Wilson’s “valiant but futile efforts to get the United States into the League of Nations; it was one of those, ‘well, we went over there and fought and won the war and sacrificed, but the politicians lost the war,’ and so the peace didn’t come about like we thought it was going to.”
Some similar sentiments were voiced about Vietnam. And increasingly Afghanistan, which is vying with Korea for the lamentable label of “the forgotten war.”
Afghanistan barely registers in polls ranking top public priorities, said Benjamin J. Toff, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communications. This leads to (or reflects?) news organizations downplaying the war despite Americans being in harm’s way and new ways to transmit information that were unimaginable in previous conflicts.
This nadir of news media and public prioritization of the war, as well as other factors, can result in “this kind of spiraling cycle of lack of attention to the issue,” Toff said.
Those on the front lines don’t have that luxury, said Johnsen: “For the infantrymen engaged, it’s a high-intensity conflict, but for the vast majority of the American people it does not affect their daily lives one iota.”
Unlike in some previous wars, the U.S. is fighting with a professional, all-volunteer force, Johnsen pointed out, and there’s “a certain amount of societal guilt” about leaving it to those forces. So even recently, with prospects of peace talks with Taliban forces in the news, Afghanistan seems distant — even at a time when a distant war seems newly relevant.
“Reality is complex, not always legible,” Donelan said. “It can be challenging to make sense of it, to understand the reasons for war. We rely on news reporters, documentarians and historians to discern the facts of war, to narrate accounts of ‘what happened.’ Scripted films and television shows serve a different cultural function, helping audiences understand ‘what it felt like.’
“We are willing to experience ‘what it felt like’ for the World War I British soldiers in ‘They Shall Not Grow Old,’ in part because ‘what happened’ occurred long ago. That war, and those soldiers, are temporally distant from us. This is not the case with the war in Afghanistan. We may be less motivated to consume these images and sounds because ‘what happened’ is still too recent, and what it felt like, too painful, stemming from 9/11 and [its] fallout.”
But it’s necessary to remember Afghanistan — or any other conflict. To learn from it, of course, and also to honor the intrepid troops who fought and are fighting for our country.
“It’s important that we do not forget the sacrifices that have been made over time to make this nation what it is,” Johnsen said. “Countries don’t come into being, or stay in being, without some level of sacrifice.”
Or, in Binyon’s poetic words:
“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.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.