One hundred years ago, along came the long-predicted slide into the First World War. Though it is perhaps second to Vietnam in terms of wars now considered to be a mistake, and in spite of the idea of the horrors of trench warfare, there is still this notion of WWI being an ancient, and even sterile conflict. Photography is stiff and contrived. There is nothing as moving as, say, the evidence of the Nazis’ death camps.
Except that there is. But like other evidence of the horrors of WWII that didn’t fit the good guy narrative – say, footage of the effect of the atomic bombs on human beings, which were censored for decades – the truly modern slaughter of the First World War is known in theory, but rarely seen.
Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 polemic War Against War!, which was published in a new edition in March, defy that ease of categorization between the gentleman’s statemate and the following war during which civilians were the easiest target. Like Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, this is a German railing against the slaughter from the previous decade. But War Against War! is not a novel. It is the painfully direct work of a left radical who would not fight in any glorious war, and spent the rest of his life working to prevent the kind of militarism that took over his country, and the world, from ever returning.
Written in four different languages, after the introduction – which is mostly a vicious declaration that the warmongers suffer the same fate they subject the people do, with some additional, dubious left-economic bits – it’s mostly photographs with captions, many with earnest, exclamation-riddled, and withering text.
The photographs follow a logical progression. They begin with examples of war toys, and a plea to not let your boy play with them. The long middle includes the grimmest, most graphic examples of World War One photos you are likely to have ever seen. There are photos from the Armenian genocide that look like the Holocaust. There are pages upon pages of trenches, with close-ups of corpses, sometimes naked or suffering other indignities even in death. There are bits of human gristle that save for the fuzzier black and white quality could be from any Hellfire missile victim of today. Several pages are devoted to starved prisoners, or executed ones. This last gentleman’s war looks impossibly new and outside of its timeline in this book.
And then at the end is evidence of war’s other habit. There are pages of the wounded. Double amputees, men who have lost all their limbs is one thing. But the facial wounds and disfigurements are nauseatingly impossible to look at. These are the men who, if they survived, would be a chore to even look at. Look at them, and then think of the leaders who were convinced the war could end in a few months after a poetic cavalry charge.
This book is a distressing and powerful piece of work. And it relates to the question raised by a God-awful Breitbart.com piece recently – is it propaganda to show photos of the war dead? Writer James Delingpole believes it is. It’s "manipulative" as well. Recent photos of Gazan children blown to bits are meant to provoke a response, and that is offensive to Delingpole, because the larger context is not there. Certainly internet photographs in particular are not always correctly identified. But Delingpole is not really concerned about a dead Syrian child being mislabeled as a Gazan one. He is worried that a photo of an atrocity is problematic, because it doesn’t tell you if the Israelis killed the child without meaning to, or if Hamas made them kill it. These are our options, all of which excuse the people who actually fired the weapon that killed this child. This is war logic.
What, then, isn’t propaganda? Press releases? The same cast of characters on the same Sunday morning talk shows selling a war that – this time – is essential, and is in fact self defense, or a humanitarian necessity? Delingpole types don’t want to see photos of even their beloved American soldiers shot down in the mud. Perhaps it is okay if they are artfully and coldly turned away from the camera. No guts, no faces blown away, just soldiers as part of the grainy landscape of, say, Omaha Beach. That has the acceptable quiet dignity – at least if the war is safely over. War Against War! knows all these arguments, and its pages are a brutal juxtaposition of the pomp and circumstance of military hurrahs and ignoble, anonymous ends in a trench grave.
Arguably, the gruesome parts of war don’t tell you everything about a conflict. But the idea that they tell you nothing by themselves is patently absurd. The myth that the bloodshed means nothing helps perpetuate the larger victory of the warmonger. Namely, the pro-war crowd can always win. They can guarantee that intervention is superior to staying out of a mess. And any resulting problems from that war are due to not having fought hard, or bombed populations enough. If one can prove this the way economic or domestic interventionists can assure citizens that only more and more government can solve the current problem, nothing can be disproven. And then, if the casualties mean nothing, the greater cause’s worthiness can always be guaranteed. And so, war is perfect and endless, and sanitized both during the war, and in the history books afterwards.
The photo of the Gazan child in pieces which offends Delingpole was an individual. So was every single soldier in Friederich’s book. Their small deaths are part of the grand adventure, the noble cause that can either be justified now, or in retrospect. This is why the nasty, stomach-churning way they died, and the wrecked cities, and wrecked faces of survivors is the only truth about war that exists. War is the ultimate collectivist act. It says if my action cause your demise, it didn’t count, if the reasons were high-minded enough. It says you died for a noble cause, whether you’re a citizen or soldier, despite the fact that you didn’t get to decide whether the cause was worth dying for. Only the important men and women in suits can decide what cost is too high. And then they get to "die at home in bed."
War Against War! if nothing else, demonstrates through its hideous familiarity, that every excuse for brutality has been offered before, and they will be again. The only thing worse than having to look at pictures like these is to have them buried, censored, or forgotten to history. World War One was 100 years ago, and we still need books like Friederich’s. We still need, in his words, "a picture of War, objectively true and faithful to nature… photographically recorded for all time."
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.