Memorial Day, a national day of remembrance of those who died during military service, is a pretty heavy (I hesitate to say holiday) day. The hero image above is from a cemetery here in Seattle back in 2014. Many of the names on those gravestones are from those who died while they were serving in the armed services. Each person has a story, some of which we get to hear. For every one that we do hear, there are sadly scores more.
Yet each one is unique. The same two people that died next to each other have different paths that lead them there. Some had patriotic motives, others sought discipline and order, some a pathway out of poverty. It didn’t matter, each served next to each other the same. For a war meaningless to one yet meaningful to the other. Sometimes against other nations, sometimes against our own. Almost always alongside other nations.
Although war often has a declared victor (though not always, like in the case of the Korean War), there is always a terrible loss on all sides. Both sides have similar people to remember, our memorial day focuses on our people who served on our side. Not because those people are better than the other people, but because they are our people. Most nations have some sort of memorial day. In fact, I’ll be doing another post on Korea’s memorial day next month.
For this memorial day, I watched two movies: Paths of Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front. There are a lot of great movies that I could have chosen, but I guess I was feeling a bit nostalgic. Although these movies don’t technically even involve the USA, they are American and touch on some universal topics in the midst of World War 1. For the sake of time, I’m going to just go over All Quiet on the Western Front and leave the other for a different day.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Here’s a link to get the physical or streaming copy on Amazon:
If you haven’t seen this one, you really need to.Here’s my TLDR (too-long-didn’t-read) version:
A group of German schoolboys enlist early in World War 1 with dreams of glory and honor. They quickly encounter the reality and horror of war. As they starve, experience shell shock, lose limbs, die off, etc., they realise the sheer uselessness and blindness of it all at the individual level.
NOTE: If you don’t want to know what happens in the movie, you may want to watch it and then come back to this blog.
Now, some of the best parts of the movie are the dialogue, so I’m going to include a few that really stand out.
Their schoolteacher early on in the movie gives an impassioned speech, creating a very simplistic, heroic view of war:
You are the life of the Fatherland, you boys. You are the iron men of Germany. You are the gay heroes who will repulse the enemy when you are called upon to do so. It is not for me to suggest that any of you should stand up and offer to defend his country. But I wonder if such a thing is going through your heads? I know that in one of the schools, the boys have risen up in the classroom and enlisted in a mass. But, of course, if such a thing should happen here, you would not blame me for a feeling of pride. Perhaps, some will say that you should not be allowed to go yet, that you are too young, that you have homes, mothers, fathers, that you should not be torn away.
Are your fathers so forgetful of their Fatherland that they would let it perish rather than you? Are your mothers so weak that they cannot send a son to defend the land which gave them birth?! And after all, is a little experience such a bad thing for a boy? Is the honor of wearing a uniform something from which we should run? And if our young ladies glory in those who wear it, is that anything to be ashamed of? I know you have never desired the adulation of heroes. That has not been part of my teaching. We have sought to make ourselves worthy and let acclaim come when it would. But to be foremost in battle is a virtue not to be despised. I believe it will be a quick war, that there will be few losses. But if losses there must be, then let us remember the Latin phrase which must have come to the lips of many a Roman when he stood embattled in a foreign land: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’ (‘Sweet and fitting it is to die for the Fatherland.’)
Some of you may have ambitions. I know of one young man who has great promise as a writer, and he has written the first act of a tragedy which would be a credit to one of the masters. And he is dreaming, I suppose, of following in the footsteps of Goethe and Schiller, and I hope he will.
But now our country calls! The Fatherland needs leaders! Personal ambition must be thrown aside in the one great sacrifice for our country! Here is a glorious beginning to your lives! The fields of honor calls you.
The boys immediately throw their textbooks in the air and sing as they march out of the classroom to enlist. They’ve gone through an externally initiated choice that would change all of their lives forever.
They almost immediately and in quick succession see and experience:
- Death, both instant and slow
- Shell shock
You don’t experience those and come out the same person you were before. You see very quickly the men become accustomed to all these things.
Early on, when someone tried to save their friend’s body in a time where they would have put their life in danger, a seasoned soldier explained:
It’s a corpse, no matter who it is.
Pointing out the grim reality of war that in a firefight one has to disregard everything that doesn’t help improve the situation.
Later on, there’s a fantastic conversation about how a war gets started and how it could be handled:
Well, how do they start a war?
Well, one country offends another.
How could one country offend another? You mean there’s a mountain over in Germany gets mad at a field over in France?
Well, stupid. One people offends another.
Oh, that’s it. I shouldn’t be here at all. I don’t feel offended.
It don’t apply to tramps like you.
Good. Then I can be going home right away…The Kaiser and me…Me and the Kaiser felt just alike about this war. We didn’t neither of us want any war, so I’m going home. He’s there already.
Somebody must have wanted it. Maybe it was the English. No, I don’t want to shoot any Englishman. I never saw one ‘til I came up here. And I suppose most of them never saw a German ‘til they came up here. No, I’m sure they weren’t asked about it.
Well, it must be doing somebody some good.
Not me and the Kaiser.
I think maybe the Kaiser wanted a war.
You leave us out of this.
I don’t see that. The Kaiser’s got everything he needs.
Well, he never had a war before. Every full-grown Emperor needs one war to make him famous. Why, that’s history.
Yeah, Generals too. They need war.
And manufacturers. They get rich.
Nobody wants it in particular. And then all at once, here it is. We didn’t want it. The English didn’t want it. And here we are fighting.
I’ll tell ya how it should all be done. Whenever there’s a big war comin’ on, you should rope off a big field.
And sell tickets.
Yeah, and, and, on the big day, you should take all the kings and their cabinets and their generals, put them in the center dressed in their underpants and let ‘em fight it out with clubs. The best country wins.
What a jewel of a conversation. With all that they’ve experience so far, they really put into words the utter absurdity of war from the standpoint of a normal citizen. With all the horrible changes that they’ve gone through, they’ve come to realize just how meaningless the fighting is. Yet, they know the reality of the situation and so continue.
One of the inflection points that changed one of the main characters was when he saw his friend die:
I saw him die. I didn’t know what it was like to die before! And then, then I came outside and it felt so good to be alive, that I started in to walk fast. I began to think of the strangest things like bein’ out in the fields, things like that. You know — girls. Then it felt as if there were something electric running from the ground up through me. And I started. And I began to run hard and I passed soldiers, and I heard voices calling to me, and I ran and I ran, and I felt as if I couldn’t breathe enough air into me. And now I’m hungry.
To me, this captures an important part of memorial day: remembering those who died in service, and remembering to live life to the fullest to honor those whose lives ended too soon.
Another famous monologue is when a soldier stabs another soldier and is stuck in a hole together:
I want to help you. I want to help you… (the dying man screams) Stop that! Stop it! Stop it! I can bear the rest of it. I can’t listen to that! Why do you take so long dying? You’re going to die anyway. Oh, no. Oh, no. You won’t die. Oh, no. You won’t die. They’re only little wounds. You’ll get home. You’ll be all right. You’ll get home long before I will.
You know I can’t run away. That’s why you accuse me. I tell you, I didn’t want to kill you. I tried to keep you alive. If you jumped in here again, I wouldn’t do it. You see, when you jumped in here, you were my enemy - and I was afraid of you. But you’re just a man like me, and I killed you. Forgive me, comrade. Say that for me. Say you forgive me! Oh, no. You’re dead! Only you’re better off than I am. You’re through. They can’t do any more to you now. Oh, God, why did they do this to us? We only wanted to live, you and I. Why should they send us out to fight each other? If we threw away these rifles and these uniforms, you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. You’ll have to forgive me, comrade. I’ll do all I can. I’ll write to your parents. I’ll write to — I’ll write to your wife. I’ll write to her. I promise she’ll not want for anything. And I’ll help her and your parents, too. Only forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me! Forgive me!
Similar to the discussion about how a war gets started, this really gets at the humanity of war: at an individual level, soldiers from all sides could - removing the technicality of war - get along. They just so happen to be forced to fight by circumstance.
The soldier returns home for a bit, and upon hearing the same teacher giving a similarly passionate speech about joining the war walks into the classroom. The teacher asks him to talk to the class - expecting him to talk about how great it was joining the army:
I can’t say anything…I can’t tell you anything you don’t know. We live in the trenches out there. We fight. We try not to be killed; sometimes we are. That’s all..
I’ve been there! I know what it’s like… I heard you in here reciting that same old stuff, making more iron men, more young heroes. You still think it’s beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don’t you? We used to think you knew. The first bombardment taught us better. It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all. There are millions out there dying for their countries, and what good is it?…You asked me to tell them how much they’re needed out there. (to the boys) He tells you, ‘Go out and die.’ Oh, but if you’ll pardon me, it’s easier to say ‘go out and die’ than it is to do it….And it’s easier to say it than to watch it happen…
It’s no use talking like this. You won’t know what I mean. Only, it’s been a long while since we enlisted out of this classroom. So long, I thought maybe the whole world had learned by this time. Only now, they’re sending babies, and they won’t last a week! I shouldn’t have come on leave. Up at the front, you’re alive or you’re dead, and that’s all. You can’t fool anybody about that very long. Up there, we know we’re lost and done for, whether we’re dead or alive. Three years we’ve had of it – four years. And every day a year, and every night a century. And our bodies are earth. And our thoughts are clay. And we sleep and eat with death. And we’re done for, because you can’t live that way and keep anything inside you. I shouldn’t have come on leave. I’ll go back tomorrow. I’ve got four days more, but I can’t stand it here! I’ll go back tomorrow. Sorry.
The soldier did what he had to do given all the changes to himself - go back to war - except left those honest words of experience with the classroom in hopes that they wouldn’t need to go through the same changes that he did.
This part of the quote really hits home: When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all. My Father, who was in the Air Force, always drove that point home to me and said it was one of the most important leadership principles that any commanding officer should know. So on days like this, we need to remember those that paid the ultimate price in service (for without them, the world would potentially be a different place) when thinking backwards and think of the future and how to not suffer the loss of life when possible.