The art of war

Ending just over a century ago, World War I, originally known as The Great War or the War to End All Wars, turned out to be none of the above, since it was eclipsed by its sequel, World War II — to date, the planet’s only nuclear war — which also outdid the first World War in terms of “greatness” if you take “great” to mean number of deaths. Also, obviously, the fact that there was a II to follow the I — and many other wars thereafter to the present day — means that World War I didn’t end any wars at all.

What’s often forgotten about the aftermath of that wr was the effect it had on the people who lived through it — sometimes barely — and especially the effect it had on the arts and culture, as well as the politics of the rest of the first half of the 20th century. It left a generation that was as stunned as the post-Vietnam generation. In fact, it gave us the original term for what we now call PTSD: shell-shock.

In the arts, it gave us things like Dada, which led to Surrealism, which were both efforts to deal with the absolute horror of what really was the first modern war. After all, WWI gave us the first aerial warfare with planes (after a brief prelude in Mexico), the first trench warfare and the first large-scale chemical warfare. It also led to the development of new techniques in plastic surgery. Hey, gotta figure out how to rebuild all those faces that got blown off, right?

But it was the art connection that really hit home, because I can think of three films that dealt with World War I that have really stuck with me — the first because of the way it manages to demonstrate the pure horror of that war and all wars, and the other two because they show, brilliantly, how that war went on to influence the arts and artists of that generation as they grew up after it.

The oldest film and oldest source is Johnny Got His Gun, based on a book written Dalton Trumbo in 1938 — or, in other words, right before the sequel to the Great War was released. Ironically, he was later blacklisted as a communist in the 1950s. The movie came out in 1971, at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement. Both it and the book tell a first-person story about a young veteran of World War I who comes home with all of his limbs and his face blown off. He basically has no way to communicate with the world, and keeps reliving the war while telling us what he can sense — which is mostly the sounds and touches from the nurses around him.

It’s a very dark and hopeless story. This man has basically been condemned to be trapped in his own practically useless body which is just being kept alive because, well, it’s what you do for the wounded, right? He is denied euthanasia and can’t even commit suicide. Even though he finally manages to try to communicate in Morse code by banging his head on his pillow, he’s ignored — just like so many veterans of that (and other) wars have been.

The second film, Savage Messiah, is one of Ken Russell’s earlier biopics. Released in 1972, it tells the story of artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Gaudier was his birth name, but he had a rather unconventional relationship with a much older woman and took her name as a hyphenate way before it was even a thing, even though they never married.

Eventually, he marches off voluntarily to fight in World War I, and one of the scenes near the end of the film is one that has stuck with me since I first saw it in an art-house revival years ago. One character is reading a letter from Henri on the front that is glorifying the war, talking about killing the enemy. Another character, pitched as somewhat of an antagonist, says, “Whoever wrote that should be shot,” and the man reading the letter replies, “He was. This morning.”

And that is how we find out that this artist and sculptor is dead. It’s one of those rug-yank moments that works so well.

The final film, Max, came out thirty years after Savage Messiah, but is perhaps the strongest synthesis of the “how this war affected the arts” with “how this war got a sequel.” In it, John Cusack plays the titular character, a would-be artist who lost his painting arm in the trenches and so who is now just an art dealer and agent. He meets a young Hitler, portrayed by the brilliant Noah Taylor, and tries to mentor him, but it does not go well because Hitler cannot understand the human side of art while Max cannot see Hitler’s nascent fascism in his works.

One of the highlights is a Dadaist performance piece by Max in which he is lowered, apparently nude and with lost arm in full view sans prosthetic, into a giant meat-grinder while he talks about the war, tons of ground beef pouring out the business end. While the character of Max Rothman in 1918 may have been fictional, the film is still a very effective take on the emotional scars that this war left on everyone who had to live through the battlefield. Only the dead were left with just physical scars, and not emotional ones, although that’s probably not better.

Of course, there are a bunch of top-rated World War I movies, some made before, a lot made after; some of which I’ve seen, a lot of which I’ve haven’t, along with the long list of all World War I movies. Also, I can’t forget Black Adder Goes Forth, which basically ended a beloved series with (SPOILER ALERT) all of the characters rushing out of the trench to their certain deaths. But, c’mon. It’s a Black Adder series. That shouldn’t be a surprise at all, considering how the first one ended.

Finally, to really bring it full circle, Rajiv Joseph wrote a play about the start of World War I called Archduke which was pretty amazing and that played in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 2017, exactly a century after the U.S. finally entered WWI.

Oh yeah. The other big effect of that war? It’s the one that solidified the U.S. as a world super-power after we fired the first shot in the Spanish-American War but before we stole the thunder from Britain and France by finally jumping in to end the First World War. That part is not necessarily good, though, either.

What films about war particularly move you? Tell us in the comments!

“War is not healthy for children and other living things.” Except…

The title of this article comes from an incredibly iconic poster that was created during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Specifically, it was created by printmaker Lorriane Schneider in 1967, and was inspired by her concern that her oldest son would be drafted and die in a war that many Americans considered unnecessary.

However, the Vietnam War is a strange exception and beginning point for a tidal change in American wars. Post-Vietnam, the only benefits wars seem to have given us are more efficient (although not cheaper) ways to kill people, and that sucks. (Incidentally, the Korean War is technically not a war. It also technically never ended.)

But… as weird as it may sound, a lot of the major wars prior to Vietnam actually gave American society weird and unexpected benefits. Yeah, all of that death and killing and violence were terrible, but like dandelions breaking through urban sidewalks to bloom and thrive, sometimes, good stuff does come in the aftermath of nasty wars. Here are five examples.

The American Revolution, 1775-1783

The Benefit: The First Amendment (and the rest of the Constitution)

By the beginning of the 18th century, Europe was having big problems because Monarchs and the Church were all tied up together, the state dictated religion, and so on. It came to an extreme with Britain’s Act of Settlement in 1714, which barred any Catholic from ever taking the throne. The end result of this was that the next in line turned out to be the future George I, son of Sophia. Sophia, however, was an Elector of Hanover or, in other words, German. Queen Victoria was a direct descendant of George I, and spoke both English and German. In fact her husband, Prince Albert, was German.

But the net result of all the tsuris over the whole Catholic vs. Protestant thing in Europe, on top of suppression of the press by governments, led to the Founders making sure to enshrine freedom of speech and the wall between church and state in the very first Amendment to the Constitution, before anything else. To be fair, though, England did start to push for freedom of the press and an end to censorship in the 17th century, so that’s probably where the Founders got that idea. But the British monarch was (and still is) the head of the Church of England, so the score is one up, one down.

The War of 1812, 1812-1815

The Benefit: Permanent allegiance between the U.S. and Britain

This was basically the sequel to the American Revolution, and came about because of continued tensions between the two nations. Britain had a habit of capturing American sailors and forcing them into military duty against the French, for example, via what were vernacularly called “press gangs.” They also supported Native Americans in their war against the fairly new country that had been created by invading their land. So again, one up, one down. And the second one, which is the down vote to America, is rather ironic, considering that the Brits were basically now helping out the people whose land had been stolen by… the first English settlers to get there.

And, honestly, if we’re really keeping score, the U.S. has two extra dings against it in this one: We started it by declaring war — even if there were legitimate provocations from Britain — and then we invaded Canada.

But then a funny thing happened. The U.S. won the war. By all rights it shouldn’t have. It was a new country. It really didn’t have the military to do it. It was going up against the dominant world power of the time, and one that would soon become an empire to boot.

The war technically ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, but there was still the Battle of New Orleans to come after that, and it happened because news of the end of the war hadn’t gotten there yet. In that one, the U.S. kicked Britain’s ass so hard that they then basically said, “Remember all the concessions we made in that treaty? Yeah, not. LOL.”

In a lot of ways, the war was really a draw, but it did get the British to remove any military presence from the parts of North America that were not Canada, and opened the door to American expansionism across the continent. It also helped to establish the boundary between the U.S. and Canada, which is to this day the world’s longest undefended border. Finally, it cemented the relationship of the U.S. and Britain as allies and BFFs, which definitely came in handy in the 20th century during a couple of little European dust-ups that I’ll be getting to shortly.

The American Civil War, 1861-1865

The Benefit: Mass-manufactured bar soap

Now in comparison to the first two, this one may seem trivial and silly, but it actually does have ramifications that go far beyond the original product itself. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan of bar soap now or go for the liquid kind (my preference), because both were really born out of the same need and process.

Once upon a time, soap-making was one of the many onerous tasks that the women of the house were expected to do, along with cleaning, cooking, sewing, canning, laundry, ironing, taking care of the menfolk (husbands and sons, or fathers and brothers), and generally being the literal embodiment of the term “drudge.” But soap-making was so arduous a task in terms of difficulty and general nastiness that it was something generally done only once or twice a year, basically making enough to last six or twelve months.

To make soap involved combining rendered fat and lye. (Remember Fight Club?) The fat came easy, since people at the time slaughtered their own animals for food, so they just ripped it off of the cow or pig or whatever meat they’d eaten. The lye came from leeching water through ashes from a fire made from hardwood, believe it or not, and since wood was pretty much all they had to make fires for cooking, ashes were abundant. Yes, I know, it’s really counter-intuitive that something so caustic could be made that way, but there you go. The secret is in the potassium content of the wood. Fun fact: the terms hard- and softwood have nothing to do with the actual wood itself, but rather with how the trees reproduce. (And I’ll let your brain make the joke so I don’t have to.)

So soap was a household necessity, but difficult to make. Now, while William Procter and James Gamble started to manufacture soap in 1838, it was still a luxury product at the time. It wasn’t until a lot of men went to war in 1861 that women had to run homesteads and farms on top of all of their other duties, and so suddenly manufactured soap started to come into demand. Especially helpful was Procter and Gamble providing soap to the Union Army, so that soldiers got used to it and wanted it once they came home.

Obviously, easier access to soap helped with hygiene but, more importantly, the industry advertised like hell, and from about the 1850s onward, selling soap was big business. There’s a reason that we call certain TV shows “soap operas,” after all, and that’s because those were the companies that sponsored the shows.

World War I, 1914-1918 (U.S. involvement, 1917-1918)

The Benefit: Woman’s suffrage and the right to vote

It’s probably common knowledge — or maybe not — that two big things that happened because of World War I were an abundance of prosthetic limbs and advances in reconstructive and plastic surgery. However, neither of these were really invented because of this conflict, which “only” led to improved surgical techniques or better replacement limbs.

The real advance is sort of an echo of the rise of soap via the Civil War, in the sense that the former conflict freed women from one nasty restriction: Having no say in government. And, as usually happens when the boys march off to do something stupid, the women have to take up the reins at home, and sometimes this gets noticed. It certainly did in the case of WW I, and suffragettes wisely exploited the connection between women and the homefront war effort. Less than two years after the conflict officially ended, women were given the right to vote on August 26, 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Hey! Only 144 years too late. Woohoo!

World War II, 1939-1945 (U.S. involvement, 1941-1945)

The Benefit: The rise of the American middle class

As World War II was starting to move to an end, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 was passed into law. It was designed to assist returning service members via things like creating the VA hospital system, providing subsidized mortgages, assisting with educational expenses, and providing unemployment. It was also a direct reaction to the less-than-fantastic reception returning veterans of World War I had received.

In fact, one of FDR’s goals in creating what is commonly known as the G.I. Bill was to expand the middle class, and it succeeded. Suddenly, home ownership was within reach of people who hadn’t been able to obtain it before and, as a result, new housing construction exploded and, with it, the emergence of suburbs all across the country. With education, these veterans found better jobs and higher incomes, and that money went right back into the economy to buy things like cars, TVs, and all the other accoutrements of suburban living. They also started having children — it’s not called the Baby Boom for nothing — and those children benefited with higher education themselves. The rates of people getting at least a Bachelor’s Degree began a steady climb in the 1960s, right when this generation was starting to graduate high school. At the same time, the percentage of people who hadn’t even graduated from high school plunged.

The top marginal tax rates of all time in the U.S. happened in 1944 and 1945, when they were at 94%. They remained high — at least 91% — throughout the 1950s. Oddly, despite the top rate in the 1940s being higher, the median and average top tax rates in the 1950s were higher — about 86% for both in the 40s and 91% for both in the 50s. The economy was booming, and in addition to paying for the war, those taxes provided a lot of things for U.S. Citizens.

Even as his own party wanted to dismantle a lot of FDR’s New Deal policies, President Eisenhower forged ahead with what he called “Modern Republicanism.” He signed legislation and started programs that did things like provide government assistance to people who were unemployed, whether simply for lack of work or due to age or illness. Other programs raised the minimum wage, increased the scope of Social Security, and founded the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In a lot of ways, it was like the G.I. Bill had been extended to everyone.