Testament of Youth

W.J. Astore

Perhaps the most powerful antiwar film that I’ve seen is “Testament of Youth” (2014), based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of the same title. I watched it soon after it first came out, and I rewatched it this past week after Russia invaded Ukraine. The film rips your heart out with its depiction of the costs of war: battered and bloodied bodies, blasted and shattered nature. It’s set during World War I and recounts Brittain’s heartrending loss of her fiancé, her brother, and other close friends. Brittain is played brilliantly by Alicia Vikander, who pours her heart and soul into every scene.

Especially powerful is the scene near the end, where Brittain passionately denounces war and the way it demonizes and dehumanizes the enemy, even as “patriots” (including her younger self) send young men off to fight and die in the name of honor. Even if you haven’t seen all that leads up to this scene, it retains its power (you may need to click and watch on YouTube):

“No to killing. No to war.”

Near the end of Brittain’s memoir, she passionately asks us to find another way, a better way, than the murderous one of war. She seeks to “rescue mankind from that domination by the irrational which leads to war,” to lead an “exultant fight” against war that would enlarge the soul of humanity.

Earlier in her memoir, she quoted from the war diary she kept that “It is impossible to find any satisfaction in the thought of 25,000 slaughtered Germans, left to mutilation and decay; the destruction of men as though beasts, whether they be English, French, German or anything else, seems a crime to the whole march of civilization.” How right she was, and remains.

One aspect of this film I truly appreciate is that it shows the costs of war without glorifying battle. In fact, there are no spectacular battle scenes; no rousing music; nothing to distract us from war’s many horrors. The movie does not romanticize war in any way, which makes it that much more effective.

I’m astonished this movie isn’t better known. It is worth 100 “Avatars” and “Titanics” and Marvel/DC superhero movies. Then again, I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked; antiwar films are rarely that popular, no matter how powerful, no matter how well-crafted, no matter how true.

If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Think about its message. We need to ask ourselves, again and again, why we as humans simply can’t say no to war.

Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain in “Testament of Youth”

14 thoughts on “Testament of Youth

  1. Most of us lack individual definition-we are all institutionalized to some extent. Tribalism in politics, academics as absolute authority, one bureaucrat as science, my press is truer than yours, et cetera-it’s like consumerism, except the colorful bag calling out for a mugging is in our heads.

    The institutions built on ideals that have served the species for centuries (of liberalism) have been co-opted by subjectivity and acquiescence, fought over by competing factions, undermined and/or sold by/to private interests [collectives NEVER have principles-it’s impossible] and we the willing have followed along without a thought if we can have the distractions that are unaffordable in more ways than one.

    Last week I was talking to a radio host around here-an outdated blend of shock-jock conservatism always echoing the loudest voice in the big tent. I told him that when I say to people in the area that ‘a classical liberal has more in common with a paleoconservative than a paleo has in common with a neoconservative, and a neoconservative has more in common with a progressive than a progressive has with a classical liberal’. I then said (live on the local AM radio station) that ‘each of us may want to develop a personal definition of these ideas before whoever from whichever party leads us further into the abyss’.

    We have gradually been led into a state where the masses consider the world/reality/whatever by an emotionally evocative lens-we’re encouraged to be that way and it’s not without value to the economy, although those who only look at life this way never enjoy anything for long-they’re always deficient. Some of us perceive the experience with a focus on the nouns-the what, the who and often find success in that realization, it seems, afforded greater influence over the ‘less cerebral, more emotional’ group. Then there’s a few that follow the verbs; they focus on intent, rejecting nationalism, tribalism, even collectivism itself and in time, I believe, come to some appreciation of principle, which by definition includes a concept of restraint.

    Group 1) Cheerleaders
    Group 2) Managers
    Group 3) Leaders

    If the most of us lack individual definition, after living under the control of an institution for a long time, who’s qualified to lead?

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Vera Brittain cites the Headmaster at the school her brother and fiancé attended as saying: “If a man cannot be useful to his country, he is better dead.”

      The shame of it all is the narrowness of “useful,” which is often defined as “obedient” to the point of donning a military uniform and dying, as well as the idea that usefulness only has meaning when connected to a large coercive collective, in this case “his country.”

      In a democracy, those who speak their minds, and who are willing to act, irrespective of what “the country” says, should have great value. They should be esteemed. Far too often, they are not. They are rejected as contrary or even traitorous.

      Surely, there is something both smaller and larger than “country” that should call to us: individual humanity and societal humaneness, a respect for all forms of life. Compassion. Empathy. Charity.

      Brittain spoke of enlarging the soul of humanity — a noble and honorable goal indeed. She was right.

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      1. FWIW, this quai loh has had an interest in Daoism from the first read of the seminal text, primarily because I didn’t understand much but found value in some. That said, I’m of the opinion that this Ukraine thing has something for everyone EXCEPT the people, which has been a standard war game for too long, and your comment reminded me of this:

        Governing a large country is like cooking a small fish; it is spoiled by too much interference.
        When the ruler offers his country harmony, not even heaven is a threat.
        Not only can he avoid death, but his people will not be harmed by anything.
        Because nothing can harm the masses, neither will a wise man.
        Because they do not threaten each other, they can blend their virtue.

        If Putin succeeds in less than thirty days, I expect more from smurfClub and the cheerleaders on TV; there’s plenty of outposts that were never really part of the team, and there’s plenty of conflict down the street. Do you think we can get Swiss on this, or is the end for us further down? The powers-that-be, forces-that-are seem willing to take any risk and gamble every wreck to protect the post WWII neoliberal order and what’s left of a currency that was used to get it.

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  2. Speaking of “worthy” versus “unworthy” dead, and the obvious biases in the mainstream media, there is this excellent summary by Crystal Ball:

    All people, all humans, should be worthy of life. All.

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  3. Wow! Just Wow!

    I mentioned in the previous article I haven’t been commenting in the Washington Post as much lately, and posted the 1st comment just now,
    When Western governments declare publicly it’s goal and objective it to destroy the Russian Economy without using bombs, Armageddon/WWIII has already started.
    History proves it’s much easier to start Wars than to end them. It took 20 years and $2 TRILLION for the US to extricate itself from the humiliating defeat in Afghanistan.

    I expect Putin will use the ‘nuclear option’ in the Economic War, and will turn off Nord Stream I and all oil and gas pipelines passing through Ukraine to keep Western Europe’s Economy going.

    The question will be who can endure material privation and want longer? Russians who are accustomed to it, or Western Europeans who aren’t, when both the Russian and European Economies crash?

    HAVE WE ARRIVED AT ARMAGEDDON/WWIII?

    I made this comment after that one,
    “I read the Daily OSCE reports on truce violations between Ukraine held territory and rebel held territory that increased dramatically since Biden promised to kill Nord Stream II, the US was trying to stop under Trump.

    The Rebels were under no Legal or moral obligation to accept the 2014 US Coup/regime change of the Elected Russian friendly government the majority Russian speaking Ukrainians in the East and Crimea Voted for, installing the Neo-Nazi anti-Russian government headed by the Man US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland was caught on tape saying she wanted even before the Coup, starting the 8 year Ukrainian Civil War and now the World is at the precipice of Armageddon/WWIII because of that 2014 US Coup.”
    and got this from The Washington Post deleting both comments.
    Your account has been temporarily suspended from commenting
    In accordance with The Washington Post’s community guidelines your account has been temporarily suspended. While suspended you will not be able to comment, use reactions or report comments.
    Please rejoin the conversation on March 7, 2022, 1:42 PM

    So much for the US/NATO demonizing Putin shutting down free expression and contrary points of view within Russia!

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    1. A fine comment, Ray. And you should wear the ham-handed, censorious reply you received as a badge of honor. You spoke a bit of the simple, factual truth, one that most of the world outside of “Zone A” (the suffocating US/UK/EU-NATO bubble) understand, as well. Little hope remains, really, for the browbeaten multitudes who can stand to turn on their television without puking at the Marvel Comic / Orwellian dystopia they have to endure.

      For my part, I’ve given up entirely on the corporate stenographer media in “The West” (sun rapidly setting there). With RT.com under constant “denial of service” attacks, I’ve lost access to a few good programs, but I still have a few good Internet sources to rely on for real information on the current situation in the (soon “formerly”) coup-mismanaged mess trying to pass itself off as a “government” in “Ukraine.” As time allows, I will post links to these, including several transcripts that I have spent the last four days putting together. We can still find out the real nature of things if we just do a bit of research.

      Now, I have a personal interest in all this. My oldest son spent much of last year in Kiev, where he rented an apartment and worked remotely as a software developer. He made many friends there, none of whom waste much time hating on “Russians.” Lucky for him, he had to return to the U.S. for a new job just before this whole mess exploded. He wants to go back, though, as soon as things return to something like normal, and if his job allows him to work remotely. Fortunately, the “invading” Russians have not attacked and wrecked the civilian infrastructure — like the “shock and awe” Americans love to do — so he still talks to his friends over the phone or via Internet hook-ups like Skype.

      Anyway, the Russians will demilitarize and de-nazify most of the country and (hopefully) get Poland (not to mention Canada) to absorb the human refuse in the far west (around Lvov). Watching Germany (of all nations!) vowing to send “lethal” weapons to real nazis so they can kill Russians has to rank, in my opinion, as one of the stupidest things I have ever seen a “government” do. (More on Germany and economic suicide in a latter posting . . .)

      Again, well done with those comments you supplied to corporate propaganda-pushers in the U.S. As H. L. Mencken once wrote: “A free press belongs to the man who can afford one.” And if these weaklings can’t handle even such a small dose of reality, then why waste any more precious time on them?

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  4. Ah, the dream of a changed humanity. If only we could eliminate the quest for power, greed, selfishness, etc. etc. When I read that kind of hope, I’m always reminded of something fundamental:

    Wiki says that humans domesticated fire sometime between 500,000 and a million years ago. Let’s say that about 30,000 to 60,000 generations have come and gone since then.

    And yet, after tens of thousands of generations, no human has ever been born who understands that fire will burn you. And that’s a pretty simple lesson, and one rooted in survival and self-interest.

    If we haven’t been able to pass on a lesson that simple, how are we to “enlarge the soul of humanity”? If the same lessons have to be taught to every person, elemental progress is not realistic.

    What is realistic are the building blocks we already have: the writing down and teaching of ideas that further the goals of a more just and sustainable world. But since everyone else gets to write down and teach other sorts of ideas, conflict will arise. No one will ever get their dream world.

    But it’s better than nihilism. Keep on, professor!

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  5. Haven’t seen it, but I just added it to my list!

    The most powerful anti-war movie I’ve experienced is “Come and See” (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091251/) from 1985. I took a while, but it finally got by the Soviet censors. It’s all about a young, idealistic young man with fantasies about the glory of war, but he’s forever changed by the horrors he experiences as the Nazis destroy Russian villages during WWII. His transformation is epic. Well worth a view.

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  6. While the film “Johnny Got His Gun” was not on par with this one, from your description of it, I remember reading the book by Dalton Trumbo before viewing the film and feeling the absolute horror of the possibility of such a result of battle. Now, with medical advancements, it is an even more possible outcome. Medicine can save so many that would not have survived before but at a high cost sometimes.

    While looking for some feedback on that film, I found this site that links to Metallica’s music video “One,” a song inspired by the film, according to the site, and an explanation of how the film was made:

    “…Eventually, the blacklist lost its power, and Trumbo began writing under his own name again, ascending back to the top of the Hollywood ranks with screenplays for Exodus and Spartacus, among others. By 1971, in the dark closing days of the Vietnam War, he was able to bring Johnny Got His Gun to the screen….”

    Metallica made “One,” their first music video, because one of their members, James Hetfield, had an idea for a song about “just being a brain and nothing else.” Then, the band’s co-manager suggested Hetfield read Trumbo’s book, leading to the development of the video and this observation:

    “…The frenetic build and explosive final three minutes of “One” manage to drive home the simmering rage that lies behind the tale. There’s a very real fury at the horrors done to the bodies of soldiers, all in the name of abstract ideals trumpeted by the men at the top who never put themselves in real danger….”

    “…even as “patriots” (including her younger self) send young men off to fight and die in the name of honor….”

    Read More: How ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ Began Its Journey to Inspiring Metallica | https://ultimateclassicrock.com/metallica-johnny-got-his-gun/?utm_source=tsmclip&utm_medium=referral

    https://www.loudersound.com/features/the-real-story-behind-one-by-metallica

    Your question of why we, as humans, can’t say no to war leads to much thought. We (collective), through literature, news media, and video, know full well the cost in lives and other collateral damage. Yet, we often jump at the chance to take up arms against our “enemies,” or rather those we are assured are our enemies by our leaders. Money, power, or even (as proposed by psychologist Mark Van Vugt’s “Male Warrior Hypothesis”) the theory “…that men have evolved a predisposition to engage in collective cooperative aggression against outgroups, a tendency that has likely been strongly reinforced through culture traditions and socialization…” are all possibilities, I guess. Whatever the rationale, war doesn’t seem to be endangered.

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/out-the-ooze/201601/the-psychology-going-war

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  7. Many point out hypocrisy of media on nobility of Ukrainian resistance and illegitimacy of Palestinian resistance
    The European and American media now celebrating Ukrainian civilians building Molotov cocktails is the same that condemns Palestinians for even picking up a stone to resist military occupation.

    https://mondoweiss.net/2022/02/many-point-out-hypocrisy-of-media-on-nobility-of-ukrainian-resistance-and-illegitimacy-of-palestinian-resistance

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  8. Anti-War films will only become popular if we re-institute the DRAFT. As much as I dislike it; this is the ONLY way to get peoples attention and to quit celebrating the “GLORY” of WAR (puke).
    AND get people to pay attention to our own (NSA) many miss-deeds around the globe.

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