The latest Netflix adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front has received a stir of attention and acclaim, not least of all for its bold sound design, purposeful cinematography, and stellar cast. But critics have also noted the poignant relevance of the movie’s anti-war message, especially during a time of rising tensions and political uncertainty. As Oliver Jones of the review site Observer put it, the film is “laden with both urgency and the entrenched sadness that comes from ignoring history” (Jones). But while our interest in works like All Quiet on the Western Front partially stems from a fear and aversion to the death and destruction war brings, it stems also from a warped fascination with war. It is that lack of any personal connection and our understanding of war only as a spectacle that has fueled our world’s recent rise in militarism.
War as Spectacle
For most living in the developed world, war is an alien concept. Indeed, we have a loose amalgamation of sights, sounds, and ideas that construct “war” in our minds. But for most, those associations are only drawn because of our media and depictions on television and the Internet. War is something of the distant past, or at most, something that only happens in ‘backwater’ or ‘undeveloped’ countries overseas. We imagine toy soldiers with plastic rifles; we imagine Hollywood actors with curled hair and whitened teeth fighting for honor and the American-way. If a character dies, at least they did it for a reason; for themselves, for their country, for their brother-in-arms. These idealized depictions have given many of us a sense of innoculation, as if we too have survived the beaches of Normandy or the trenches of Verdun. Even when our media attempts to show the grime and filth of war, we watch it from beyond a screen, our viewing interspaced by snack breaks and more than a few glances at our smartphones.
Granted, this perception of war is not wholly influenced by the bad. In many ways, it is indicative that we, as an international community, have opted for the pen over the sword. War is only so unknown to us because war has become increasingly uncommon since the mid-twentieth century. But that separation does come with a long-term price. That price being: the loss of personal knowledge of how horrifying war is and the ability to empathize with its sufferings. To some, this may appear paradoxical, considering the normalization of violence in martial societies might at first imply a more frequent tendency to look to violence for answers. But this is actually a rather well researched phenomenon in the field of political decision-making, and the conclusion has been that “it is the George W. Bushes of the world, rather than the Dwight Eisenhowers, who are statistically more likely to engage in militarized behavior in office” (Horowitz & Starn, 555).
Multiple historical instances have led scholars to correlate wartime experience with decreased hawkish policy and rhetoric. Important to note here is the difference between sheer military experience and combat experience. Neither Kaiser Wilhelm II nor Muammar Qaddafi ever actually saw combat, yet both of them rattled sabers and spoke at-length about the need for more boots on the ground (Horowitz & Starn, 528). Meanwhile, it was John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, both veterans of the Second World War, who desperately toiled to peacefully settle the Cuban Missile Crisis. As our world enters an age of armchair generals—with fewer leaders today having any familiarity with a foxhole or the front-line—the potential of total war grows greater by the day.
Recognizing the Unrecognizability of War
Samuel P. Huntington’s The Soldier and the State is one of the first works of modern political theory to assess the relationship between the military and civil society. What Huntington largely concluded was that the military is a subordinate arm of the civil class, and it is imperative to the health of democratic states that the two worlds understand one another. It is certain that if the soldier disregarded the opinions and orders of the civilian that anarchy and disorder would ensue. Likewise, if the civilian disregarded the experience and tactical expertise of the soldier, no wars would ever be won. But most relevant of Huntington’s assertions is reflected in his statement that “[The military man] is afraid of war. He wants to prepare for war. But he is never ready to fight a war” (Huntington, 69). There is an innate itch in any individual marred by combat to be on constant guard of external threats, but he is not so-inclined to fight without cause. This is in contrast to the civilian. He too is afraid of war, but he not only wants to prepare for war, his lack of experience makes him feel ready to fight a war.
This is where the problem lies with our current stock of world leaders, that too few have experienced war first-hand, and so they are more than willing to push the button. From the Russia-Ukraine Crisis to the PRC-ROC dispute, few geopolitical hotspots are being managed by actors with a clear grasp of war or its consequences. This might explain Xi Jinping’s willingness to threaten President Joe Biden not to “play with fire” over Taiwan, and similarly may explain Vladimir Putin’s willingness to threaten nuclear warfare over the Luhansk and Donbas regions (Holland, et. al.). If either of these leaders had any substantial combat experience, the evidence clearly shows that they would likely be acting much differently.
None of this is to say we should only be electing leaders with combat experience, as that obviously would lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of leaders seeking glory and respect through wartime feats, thus increasing militarism. I am also not looking to suggest that the lack of in-person accounts of warfare explains all political radicalism and warmongering. It is possible for a tyrant to have served in combat and still declare endless wars on the throne. Instead, our society should be more critical of the way in which it engages with conflicts, both domestic and overseas. While our leaders seek to reduce their reliance on iron-fist calls to action, we as voters must become cognizant of the simple—albeit privileged—fact that many of us simply do not understand war. Younger generations should be educated about the atrocity of historical conflicts, including revered wars like World War II and the American Revolutionary War. Regardless of the cause—just or not—we must stop to ponder whether rallying around the flag is such a noble feat, while pressuring our leaders to seek out diplomatic solutions and avoid putting any more lives at stake.
Brian Johnson is a senior at American University studying International Studies with minors in History and Economics.