Passchendaele and glory in warfare

Before several recent films, I have seen the trailer for Passchendaele – a film that seems to provide a heroic and pro-Canada take on this WWI battle. If anything, this actual history of Passchendaele demonstrates that war is rarely heroic, and that many narratives of heroism are self-serving for those that generate them. Both sides were fighting in defence of imperialism. Furthermore, the battle served little strategic purpose. After being taken at huge cost of lives – nearly one million killed, wounded, or captured on both sides – the terrain was abandoned so the Allies could respond more effectively to the German Lys Offensive.

Of course, Passchendaele joins a large collection of films of dubious historical quality. While I have yet to see it, the trailer is guilty of mindless patriotism, historical revisionism, and perhaps the Aragorn Fallacy. It would behoove us to remember a few key things about WWI: that the war was hugely costly in lives and suffering, that none of the major powers participating got the outcome they wanted at the outset, and that it ultimately did nothing to address the imbalances in Europe caused by the unification of Germany. Of course, films that highlight such things are unlikely to be blockbuster smash hits.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

6 thoughts on “Passchendaele and glory in warfare”

  1. The trailer doesn’t seem very consistent. It says on the one hand, they fought for country. And then it says they fought for love, with the rule “Don’t Die”. These purposes contradict each other – fighting for country means accepting the possibility of death willingly.

    It seems to me that the trailer already brings out the tension between universality and particularity, and how exposure to war encourages people to withdraw towards the private sphere.

    I mean, it says on the screen “they fought for country”, but then the character says, “i’m not fighting for glory, I’m not fighting for medals”. But, glory and medals, that’s what it means to fight for country – the glory of war is not your personal glory, it’s your correspondance to the universal cause – the country’s cause. You can’t fight for your country without fighting for glory, for some participation in something bigger than yourself. It’s not as if glory is selfish – that’s the (an) opposite of glory (greed).

    I don’t think it’s by accident either, that the trailer fails to make a convincing case for glory, for universality, for “the old lie”. Possibly due to the powerful poetic representations of the “great” war, paradigmatized by Owen’s poem, it’s impossible to talk about ww1 without starting in the muck, and in the lack of meaning. And if you start in the lack of meaning, the recognition of the “old lie” – it’s going to be difficult to construct a new lie that will give it meaning.

    Although ww2 is often taught as the ‘good’ war because it opposed fascism, I do not think there is much naivity in Canada concerning the ugliness and unjustifiability of war. The war in Afghanastan has always been unpopular – and Rwanda too. It could be argued that Owen’s poem has had negative as well as positive effects, inasmuch as it made the Rwandan operation political difficult.

  2. The linked trailer is a arranged differently from the one I saw in theatres, but generally strikes upon the same themes.

  3. Tristan,

    Your comments are quite insightful. On the matter of Afghanistan and Rwanda, I think they epitomise the most sensible way of viewing war now: basically, that it is a last-ditch option to avert a greater harm.

    People do need to be aware of what war really involves – not least in terms of things like the inevitable civilian killings, rapes, and displacements. At the same time, it is important to remember that there are still-worse things that can occur.

    Sorting out how to make those judgments is an important political task, and one that is not well advanced by the kind of sentimental portrayal of war glory you find in films like Passchendaele or U-571.

  4. Is Humanitarian Intervention Dead?
    History offers some sobering lessons.
    By Samantha Power
    Posted Monday, Sept. 29, 2008, at 6:52 AM ET

    Remember “humanitarian intervention”? The phrase described military intervention in sovereign states to prevent civilians from being murdered en masse. Before reading Gary Bass’ vivid new exploration of the historical roots of modern-day humanitarian intervention, Freedom’s Battle, I had thought that the practice of humanitarian intervention might be marked with a tombstone “Born 1991, northern Iraq—Died 2003, Iraq.” But Bass, with whom I often discussed this issue in the 1990s, shows that debates over rescuing imperiled civilians date back to the 19th century. It was then that the British dispatched a fleet to Greece to prevent Turkish atrocities against Greek rebels and civilians, the French occupied Syria to rescue imperiled Christian minorities (a British fleet stood at the ready offshore), and the British nearly invaded the Ottoman Empire to halt the “Bulgarian Horrors” in 1876.

  5. “It says on the one hand, they fought for country. And then it says they fought for love, with the rule “Don’t Die” These purposes contradict each other”
    – not sure how they do contradict each other. I am sure some of them fought solely for love of one another;Going through basic training and then fighting in the trenches creates some strong bonds. And I am sure some fought for the love of their country and family. And I am sure some fought for both or neither…

    “fighting for country means accepting the possibility of death willingly”
    -Not necessarily. Could mean that you were drafted and sent over kicking and screaming. Not sure where “free will” enters the picture with the draft. I am also sure that some thought they would never die and that they would make it home to see their families…

    “You can’t fight for your country without fighting for glory, for some participation in something bigger than yourself.”
    -once again not all necessarily. Some I am sure fought with this mindset but I am just as sure that a good portion solely fought to survive and get back to their families with no recognition of the bigger picture.

    Some big generalizations there…

  6. Banksy,

    I agree with Tristan here.

    Firstly, fighting for your fellow soldiers is very different from fighting for your country. It is possible that you may feel negatively or indifferently towards your government, but still fight to help those in your military unit. This phenomenon has nothing explicitly to do with patriotism.

    Fighting for your country, in the patriotic sense, does require accepting the possibility of injury or death. This is the whole reason for which veterans are honoured in most cultures – because they were willing to endanger themselves personally in order to advance broader aims. Being drafted and forced to fight is definitely not an act of patriotism. If you choose to fight because you fear the consequences of not doing so, you are fighting to save your own skin, not for your country.

    Finally, it does seem likely that many people have fought to advance national projects they didn’t fully understand. This doesn’t diminish the fact that they are serving as willing tools of their state, willing to accept personal sacrifice in order to help advance its aims.

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