Old newsreels and propaganda films of World War One can be difficult to relate to. Camera vibrations and slower frame speeds produce herky-jerky images in black and white. But Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies) has completed a documentary that brings the Great War to life. It’s haunting.

The trailer for They Shall Not Grow Old shows how Jackson digitally restored footage from Britain’s Imperial War Museum, adjusting the frame rate, colorizing many clips and transforming some into 3-D. (Read a fascinating overview in The New York Times.)

The documentary also provides voiceovers taken from BBC interviews with British vets in the ’60s and ’70s. Additionally, lip readers determined what some troops were saying, and actors with accurate regional accents dubbed scenes.

Obviously, uniforms and equipment are dated. The number of missing teeth, given the British love of sweets and war’s ravages, is astounding. But these soldiers no longer seem caricatures from an almost mythological past but our contemporaries. Note: Britain and its colonies lost 750,000 troops. The U.S. lost 53,000 after entering the war in 1917. Altogether, World War One took nine to 15 million lives.

Most Americans don’t come close to knowing these figures or the causes of a war that never should have been fought. We long have become a nation—even more so over the last two years—proudly ignorant of history and its impact on our present and future. The vengeful Treaty of Versailles (1919) sowed the seeds of World War Two.

In 1954, the U.S. became the dominant Western power in Indochina following France’s humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The Eisenhower administration knew little about Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, but Cold Warriors feared Communist Ho Chi Minh becoming a puppet of China. In reality, Vietnam had been hostile to its northern neighbor for 1,000 years. Some historians believe that Jack Kennedy would have withdrawn American advisors. I wouldn’t have bet on it.

Lyndon Johnson feared drawing conservatives’ wrath and sent more advisors until we staged the Gulf of Tonkin incident as an excuse to land major combat forces in the South. Richard Nixon, who won the presidency in 1968 after LBJ chose not to run for re-election, boasted of a “secret plan” to end the war. He waited until ’72—after re-election—to unveil it. Slaughter continued there, riots and societal breakdown here. Nixon’s secret? “Peace with honor.” Translation: Leave. We lost the war and 58,000 troops. South Vietnam fell.

George W. Bush and his handlers knew nothing about the Greater Middle East. Post-9/11, we went into Afghanistan to find Osama Bin Laden. Fine. Then we blew it. He escaped. We stayed. We’re still there. In 2003, we invaded Iraq to destroy weapons of mass destruction and create an American-style democracy. We found Saddam Hussein but no weapons. No matter. Mass destruction followed.

Ultimately, that led us into Syria. Now, we’re reversing course and leaving. I believe this move is premature—and dangerous. Secretary of Defense James Mattis does, too. He resigned yesterday.

They Shall Not Grow Old reminds us of George Santayana’s advice: “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” It offers sound advice to each new generation. What truly grows old is our ignoring it.

To those who celebrate these holidays, Merry Christmas and Happy Kwanzaa! To all, Happy New Year!

The blog will take some time off and return on Friday, January 4.

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  1. Tracy on December 21, 2018 at 6:58 pm

    I think one could argue that it was Mutual Defense Agreements that pulled many countries into WW I, although many would argue it was the assassination of Duke Ferdinand.

    I suspect it had more to do with imperialism than anything else.

    I’m also glad we are pulling out of Syria and Afghanistan, although I understand why Mattis resigned.

    Happy Holidays,


    • David on December 21, 2018 at 8:24 pm

      Tracy, I think the “You break it, you own it” theory of Colin Powell applies to Syria. We don’t want to be there but the consequences of withdrawal may be damaging. World War One was a tragedy from the get-go. So every military approach has to be well thought out—entering and exiting. I do not believe we have a commander-in-chief with the knowledge, perspective or temperament to handle these issues.

  2. Carolyn Power Perlstein on December 22, 2018 at 10:12 pm

    WWI was a vicious, nasty experience. My maternal grandfather was gassed at The Argonne Forest. Family lore says he was never the same when he returned home. What a gift Peter Jackson has given the world to not only see and hear these men as living breathing human beings, but to give us the opportunity to reflect upon the present.

    • David on December 23, 2018 at 12:18 am

      Agreed, CP. It’s easier to dismiss the deaths of long ago than those that take place now. Yet we live in a complicated world. Acting with some perspective on history might help a bit.

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