The Main Theme of ‘1917’? The Innocence That War Destroys

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After watching the new movie “1917” this month, I was reminded of a poem written by Siegfried Sassoon in the summer of 1918, or just over a year after Sam Mendes’s critically acclaimed World War I film takes place. It is titled “The Dug-out.”

Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,

And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,

Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,

Deep-shadowed from the candle’s guttering gold;

And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;

Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head…

You are too young to fall asleep for ever;

And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.

“1917,” a two-hour movie about two young British soldiers trying to stop one battalion’s morning attack on the Western Front, is undoubtedly an incredibly shot war film. But tucked into its cinematics is a portrayal of an innocence that was so readily destroyed in those four years. World War I quickly introduced the horrors of modern artillery barrages, unwavering machine gun fire and wholesale slaughter to a generation that never truly recovered.

Mendes starts his film with both characters asleep in a grassy field, only to be woken up by their sergeant to go report in to their division commander. In strange ways, the scene foreshadows the fate of both characters, Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield, respectively played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay. From that moment forward, the viewer follows the two soldiers on their journey into the war in what is intended to feel like a single camera shot.

Where “The Dug-out” and “1917” unquestionably intersect is on their subjects’ youth. Blake and Schofield are barely in their 20s. And their actions throughout the film portray them in many ways more as children than as soldiers. With such little dialogue, their ages are what ultimately adds to the movie’s heft. It’s through their perspectives that the audience experiences the war. Sasson’s poem accomplishes much the same thing.

And so I guess I couldn’t help thinking of Sassoon’s poem as I watched the movie and of my own memories — of how young we all were in my own war and of my friends who were spread out, quietly sleeping in an Afghan compound or on the outskirts of some poppy field. Separated from the violence of war until one kick or shake soon followed, waking them and reminding them of where they were and what lay ahead.

That’s the number of Soviet spies known to have infiltrated the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico, where the world’s first atom bomb was built. The identities of three of those spies were previously known to the public, but that of the fourth, Oscar Seborer, was revealed recently when the laboratory declassified a trove of internal documents. Seborer, whose code name was “Godsend,” was suspected to have had a granular understanding of the bomb’s inner workings, which most likely contributed to the Soviet Union’s ability to quickly detonate its own bomb in 1949, four years after the Americans. Seborer helped devise the bomb’s explosive trigger, an innovation that was part and parcel of the 20th-century trend toward weapon miniaturization. Even more, he was employed by the unit that worked on developing an “implosion” bomb, a more destructive and sophisticated iteration of the device that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Declassified Russian archives show, among other revelations, schematic diagrams of the implosion bomb, which the nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein described as “betraying their obvious roots in espionage.” Read the full Times report here.

— Jake Nevins, Times Magazine editorial fellow


Here are six articles from The Times you might have missed.

“The example we set has global ramifications.” The Pentagon confirmed on Thursday that it is preparing to change its current restrictions on the military’s use of anti-personnel land mines, and the new policy is expected to allow the use of these weapons in more areas of potential conflict. [Read the story.]

“All I have are these tears to pour over the past.” Organizers of a ceremony at Auschwitz sought to put a spotlight on the stories of survivors, as this may be the last time that such a large number will be able to gather in one place. [Read the story.]

“I heard they had headaches.” The Defense Department said on Thursday that 64 troops had sustained traumatic brain injuries after the Iranian ballistic missile strikes on Ayn Al Asad Air Base in Iraq this month, up 14 from an earlier announcement this week. [Read the story.]

“I will cut your son’s throat.” In a hearing at Guantánamo Bay, an architect of the C.I.A. interrogation program testified in a pretrial hearing focused on the torture of the defendants during their years of C.I.A. captivity. [Read the story.]

“Any drawdown of our troops would be shortsighted.” American officials, analyzing what they call great power competition, say they are alarmed by Russia’s growing influence in Africa, as well as China’s, as Washington struggles to exert its economic and security goals on the continent. [Read the story.]

“The ultimate expression of competence.” America’s special operations forces have developed a problematic culture that overemphasizes combat “to the detriment of leadership, discipline and accountability,” according to a sweeping review conducted by the military’s Special Operations Command. [Read the story.]


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