We All Know How This Ends
Lance Corporal Schofield's message could save a thousand lives--but only if he can deliver it.
"All my stories are true--and some of them actually happened." --Nikki Johnson
"I've been to the movies, I've seen how it ends." --Brandi Carlile
When the credits finally began to roll at the end of 1917, I felt like I'd been in the theater for far more than the 117 minutes of the movie I'd just seen.
I mean that in the best way. 1917 is a thriller that never lets up. Its quietest moments were nail-biting scenes of soldiers picking their way through No Man's Land, scouting abandoned barracks, and exploring a recently-vacated farm, during which there was always a sense of death lying just over the next hill, around the next corner, just one step deeper into the unknown. The concept is a well-used one: to avert a disastrous advance into a deadly trap, two young soldiers must hand-deliver a letter across miles of craters and barbed wire, deep into enemy territory, and they must complete their mission by dawn. Their journey is an odyssey through an open-air charnel house of threats and horrors. The few pastoral moments are punctuated by violence, and the continuous shot editing gives viewers the sense that they are watching the entire ordeal in real time, and always from the perspective of the soldiers. Perhaps the greatest horror of all is the possibility that it is all for nothing, that the war-obsessed colonel will just ignore the orders and push ahead with his doomed advance, sacrificing 1600 young lives in the process.
1917 is fiction grounded in history. Inspired by stories his Great War veteran grandfather told him, director Sam Mendes created a harrowing depiction of the senseless horror of the first modern war. As compressed as the storytelling has to be, it still manages to capture the perverse truth that massacres can be motivated by boredom. After years of back-and-forth trench warfare, the rogue officer is eager to launch an offense into a seeming retreat by the enemy without pausing to think it could be a strategy to slaughter his entire division.
And there is the painful truth that makes this century-old fable so bitterly modern. Two weeks ago, the Trump regime, desperate to get the minds of the American people off the impeachment proceedings, assassinated an Iranian general, triggering a chain of events that included the accidental destruction of a passenger jet. The cruelest reality of war is not the cold-blooded earth-salting that leaves cattle rotting in the fields, town burning to the ground, trees felled across roads, the loss of young infantry lives, or even the slaughter of civilians, all of which can be justified by the officers strategizing to accomplish the greater (to them) good of victory. Worse still are the unintended consequences: innocents caught in the crossfire, blunders occasioned by an oversight or a missed phone call, massacres prompted by over-sensitized soldiers misinterpreting a random sound or misunderstanding a gesture that means something completely different to the young man making it. Once the demon of war has been released, there is no containing the destruction it wreaks on the innocent--or the lengths to which politicians and generals will go to rationalize it as inevitable, and an acceptable price for accomplishing strategic goals.
The truth of our current deadly moment is that, even if the missile that took down the jet was launched by Iran, those people would still be alive if Trump had not knee-jerked that drone strike in a venal attempt to salvage is deservedly weak poll numbers. 176 people just died for this man. What's worse, they won't be the last. American adventurism lifts presidential poll numbers with base voters, rallies party leaders to circle the wagons around the president, and makes opposition protests seem unpatriotic. This obscene dynamic is as inevitable as the collateral damage to innocent Iranians, Canadians, Ukrainians, and anyone else standing in the way of four more years of kakistocracy.
We know how this ends because it's always been a part of human history. No sooner had humans begun to band together into villages and towns than those towns were overrun by invaders. The dynamic has played out at the end of every civilization. It doesn't take much to turn a culturally and technically advanced city into a ruin: invade it enough times, put an incompetent narcissist in charge, lean too heavily on occupied colonies, and things unravel.
We can see this happening in older parts of the world, as many of the countries that came together as the European Union in an effort to put an end to the international rivalry that caused two world wars find their governments being taken over by bigoted populists. What's left of the British Empire--now just the United Kingdom--may soon reach its final stage of collapse, with Scotland and Northern Ireland, and possibly even Wales, seceding from England, ironically (and predictably) the exact opposite of what Brexit was supposed to accomplish. Whenever leaders give in to craven impulses, unintended consequences rush in to fill the void.
And, as Brandi Carlile's power ballad "The Joke" states so movingly, we can see it at work in the lives of our friends, our loved ones, and ourselves. How many times have you seen someone you care about self-destruct by giving into impulses, cravings, feelings that can't be reasoned with? Watching from the outside, you may know very well where this is headed. You may offer counsel, only to have it rejected. You may see the chaotic vortex grow, swallowing up your loved one's career, marriage, children. You may even be dragged into it. Before your eyes, you can see the damage spreading, see the lifelong scars the children will bear, have a sense how hard it will be to mitigate or reverse the destruction.
It's worse if you're in the heart of it from the beginning, seeing your partner or child plunging deeper and deeper into chaos. "Why are you doing this?" "Don't you see where this is headed?" "Please stop before you get hurt!" "You're tearing me apart!" I've said these things, and had them fall on unhearing ears. Over time, I've learned to let go of outcomes for the sake of my own survival. There's no escaping the grief and anxiety of watching someone I love make self-destructive choices, but I've learned over time how not to be dragged down with them.
Worst of all, of course, is when I'm the one at the center of the vortex. At several points in my life, I've made choices that, if I'd taken time to disengage and think clearly, I could have known would lead to consequences I would deeply regret. Some of those consequences fell mostly on me, but some affected others I cared about, including my children and my larger family.
That's how chaos works. At its best, narrative art captures this truth. Stories, novels, plays, movies, any storytelling art speaks most clearly when it contains an element of chaos. Stories with only happy endings become almost dissonant to our sense of truth. I've consumed copious quantities of science fiction and fantasy in my lifetime, and I can suspend disbelief for all kinds of laws-of-nature-bending, magical plot devices; but resolve a conflict too neatly, and I go straight to "That would never happen!"
Knowing how it ends, the true hero's quest becomes averting the inevitable. Turning back a disastrous advance, and thus keeping 1600 boys alive a few days longer is the worthwhile goal of the protagonists of 1917. Averting another world war has been the quixotic quest of all the internationalist efforts at interdependence that seem to be coming to a close in our chaotic present. Keeping our poll-obsessed Narcissist in Chief from blowing up the Middle East for his own benefit should be the goal of both houses of Congress now. Getting them to embrace this goal--whether or not it includes removing him from office--should be the goal of every sane voter.
At times, it's worked. Generals have been talked out of ill-advised strategies. Politicians have seen past the next election, and worked for a long-term greater good. Nations have chosen not to take up sword against nation, backing away from conflicts that could have been apocalyptically brutal.
More often, short-sighted selfishness has paved the way to horrific conclusions. Knowing this, it's tempting to begin looking once again at what it might take to become a Canadian.
But not yet. I'm not ready yet to abandon my own personal hero's quest right here in Portland, Oregon--or to accept the consequences to people I love of me giving up on America.
There's a bright side to this calculus of consequences, too: one of the things that makes it chaos is that, as many times as we've seen it end badly, we don't actually know who it ends. In fact, we can't know until it actually ends. Sometimes, chaos surprises. It's why we can't completely rule out happy endings.