Shell hole made by a German 15-mm artillery shell known, Ypres, Belgium, April 1915. Image Credit: British Imperial War Museum / Wikimedia Commons
This week’s twentieth anniversary of the United States attacking Iraq has launched a torrent of punditry, which is remarkable only because those capable of reflecting on wars—particularly failed, destructive ones that came to no good—rarely fought in them. I remember the night before the United States began to bombard Baghdad and thinking not about weapons of mass destruction, but the destruction about to be wreaked on thousands of Iraqis and Americans alike.
I thought about the money that would be spent on armaments, not people. And I thought about the vast numbers of young people whose lives would be ruined. It’s a horrible irony that those who answer the call for patriotic sacrifice are, in a sense, the best among us, and how tragic it is that instead of sending them to serve peacefully, we send them to war. Instead of asking them to sacrifice for others, we ask for their lives. Or maybe we take a part of their lives: a body part, a brain short-circuited forever, the years during which they might have become doctors, parents, or excellent plumbers.
Time and time again, soldiers return from war and explain how terrible it was. They describe the needless destruction, the death of their illusions, and the grim, ugly realities that take over. They tell us in word and deed that they can never be made whole.
And then we do it all over again.
Perhaps it is no accident that this year—two decades since the United States attacked Iraq and as a brutal war rages in Ukraine—there are powerful, new renditions of the war that launched our violent twentieth century, World War I. Observers have drawn comparisons between the Russo-Ukrainian War and the so-called War to End All Wars: the fierce, indiscriminate bombardments that target civilians; the flattening of cities; the trenches structuring a front that, with the exception of the northeast, has mostly remained the same; and lately, the horrifying loss of life as Russian generals fling walls of human beings at the Ukrainian lines.
The first story I recommend is the latest film version of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), directed by Edward Berger and distributed by Netflix. Like the novel, the movie features a young German student, Paul Baumer, who becomes caught up in a patriotic furor fueled by old men. In Baumer’s case, a schoolmaster exhorts the students to volunteer en masse, sending them off to a conflict that has already developed into a horrific and hopeless standoff with no psychological preparation for the violence they will be asked to cope with.
There are two particularly searing messages the movie delivers. The first is at the very beginning before we meet Paul and his friends. We see dead soldiers being stripped of their uniforms and sent back to factories where working women launder out the blood and mud and repair the holes and tears. The movie then cuts to the induction center, where the students will enlist and be handed these recycled garments. Paul even notices that someone else’s name is sewn into his uniform and tells the official that there must be a mistake: no, the clerk assures him, it must be a uniform returned because it was too small.
Here, the audience is alerted to something that Paul can’t know yet: that in war, all officials lie, and human beings don’t wear uniforms—they fill them, empty them, and fill them again.
Perhaps the other most riveting moment in the film is that after every imaginable horror has befallen Paul and his comrades, they are used in a reckless offensive against the French lines. Paul and his starving comrades take a line of French trenches, gobbling down a lunch hastily abandoned by their retreating enemy when suddenly they feel the ground shaking uncontrollably. It’s a sound and a feeling they don’t know, and when they emerge from the dugout, they learn why. It is a counteroffensive propelled by something they have never seen before: tanks. As many of them are crushed under the treads, veteran soldiers who have endured unimaginable horrors shriek in terror, realizing there is a next level of fear they had never dreamed of.
Hence another lesson that the audience already knows: in every war, there is evidence of the war to come.
The other fiction I would recommend, although I remain critical of it for reasons I cite below, is Alice Winn’s new novel, In Memoriam (2023), which features gay public school boys who become officers in the British Army early in the war. The action toggles between the trenches and the school, based on Marlborough, which Winn attended. There, the boys left behind wait to hear news of the fate of friends and brothers—and prepare to join them.
The novel focuses on the romantically-involved Henry Gaunt and Sidney Ellwood: Gaunt volunteers first because a young woman hands him a white feather, and Ellwood eventually volunteers to be with Gaunt. Many adventures and misadventures ensue, and Winn punctuates the story with casualty lists and snippets in the school paper. This plays a dual role: it lets us know the fate of various characters—killed, died of wounds, wounded, and taken prisoner—but it also allows the impact of the war on a single institution to sink in for the reader.
Winn did a ton of research for the book and pushes the narrative forward with a grim, visceral sense of realism: mud, stench, rotting bodies, and soldiers sliding around in the entrails of comrades sliced open with artillery let you know it is really World War I. She also recreates an elite, male, homosocial world with admirable skill.
But here’s my criticism: she so commits herself to this latter task that she overlooks the importance of the story she has told; that in the name of raising a proud, patriotic upper class willing to sacrifice itself for God and Country, these public schools raised a generation of men so profoundly obedient that it never occurs to them to say no to the hair-brained generals and politicians who sent them to fight this war in the first place.
I was a little startled when I realized this because no one likes a good, homosocial World War I novel as much as I do: yet Winn appears to fall into the trap that her fictional subjects did. She appears not to realize that the glittering beauty of the English public school system also created a blind obedience—cloaked in empty language about honor, manliness, and duty—that made all kinds of horrors possible, beginning with colonialism and reaching a crescendo in the years between 1914 and 1918. She appears to have no critique of it. Thus, the paradox of the novel is that the tragedy of a dedicated generation operates in contradistinction to an uncomfortable, unspoken truth: elite British men died in droves, leading working-class conscripts—because they didn’t know how to do anything else.
Everything had changed—but they hadn’t. And although the war changes them in many ways, Winn never persuaded me that these damaged, devastated men developed any principles to replace the shoddy, nineteenth-century worldview that sent them to the slaughter in the first place.
But does that make them any different from us?
So this is our challenge moving forward from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: what would it really mean to learn from these wars? To look at the waves of poorly armed, poorly trained, and poorly fed Russian conscripts being tossed heedlessly at Ukrainian lines and truly take in the horror, not of this particular war, but of all wars?
What would it mean to say “Never again”—and mean it?
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
An earlier version of this article first appeared on Claire Potter’s Substack, Political Junkie, on March 21, 2023.