War is a popular subject matter across all forms of entertainment, and it’s small wonder. They say that prostitution is the oldest profession, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone said it was soldiering.
War and violence can be complicated subject matter. From a Catholic point of view, as I understand it, an act may be evil without being (gravely) sinful. A man may kill in defense of self or family or country and be judged righteous.
The catechism of the Church says this regarding war:
The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
– the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
– there must be serious prospects of success;
– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of mode[rn] means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
While there are certainly many tales of the evilness and ugliness of war (for it is Hell, after all) and stories of the gray middle ground, the ballads of glory, nobility, bravery, and heroic sacrifice – these are the stories of war that boys and men so enjoy. They are uplifting and inspiring and highlight the heights to which men may rise in their nobler moments.
And yet we also do well to remember that the stories of Charlemagne and of Arthur’s knights are heavily romanticized.
Among war movie buffs it’s a common lament that there aren’t enough flicks about World War I. This is because it was a terrible, tragic, hellish mess. Surely there is some redemption to be found in every war, but at least WWII is easy to romanticize. Villains like Hitler and the Nazis and the fanatical kamikaze bombers allow for stark portrayals of evil and the heroes who stood against them.
WWI, meanwhile, saw the dawn of modern warfare. Terrible leaders, often aristocrats, clinging to the Old Ways sent countless peasants to fight and die in the mud; to choke on frightening, deadly new gases; to be shaken to the edge of madness by the incessant pounding of devastatingly powerful artillery.
What brings this long ramble to my tongue (or fingers, as the case may be)?
I recently watched King and Country (available for streaming on Kanopy, which many libraries offer for free with membership). The film, released in 1964, is based upon the play Hamp. It tells the story of a British army private, one Arthur Hamp, during WWI.
Hamp is the last surviving member of his company. The others were all killed in previous battles, sometimes right beside him. Eventually he reaches a breaking point. He is blown into an artillery hole filled with water and mud, and he nearly drowns. He then decides to “go for a walk.” A simple, yet honest-to-a-fault young man, Hamp tells his legal counsel that he didn’t intent to desert, but neither did he intend to return. He simply didn’t think about it.
His defender, Captain Hargreaves, starts off as a cold and unsympathetic advocate. As the film progresses, however, he begins to feel for Hamp. The boy, only 23, joined the army voluntarily at a dare from his wife and mother-in-law (who both sound like dreadful wildebeests). Hamp’s lieutenant calls him a good solider, and even offers to perjure himself as a witness to try and get the boy off.
The most senior officers, however, the ones running the war, are much less circumspect about Hamp’s life. They are arrogant, detached, and self-assured about the proper way to conduct a war. The Captain Court Martial, when the court is convened, makes offhanded remarks about saving time. The medical officer refuses to consider the possibility of shell shock, calling Hamp a coward and admitting to examining him for 5 minutes and proscribing him laxatives to address the private’s complaints of sleeplessness and extreme anxiety.
Meanwhile, several of Hamp’s fellow privates catch a rat and hold a mock court martial of their own. They eventually convict the rodent and pummel it to death with stones until it dies in the mud. This parallel serves to show the tragic attitude of the senior officers concerning the lives of their men.
Back in court, Hargreaves gives a stirring defense of Hamp, finally imploring the court to remember what they are fighting for and not to come down on the side of killing the boy who had voluntarily joined to defend his country. Let justice be done, or else the deaths of all the British soldiers will have been for nothing, he says.
The Captain sits down after this stirring and eloquent defense, and for a moment everyone is silent. The members of the Court Martial appear contemplative and almost ashamed. Then the convening officer remarks: “matter of opinion.”
It is all wasted.
The court finds Hamp guilty, but recommends mercy in light of his commendable service prior to the infraction. They send this verdict up the chain of command. Back comes a reply – the company is to advance up the front on the morrow. Mercy is denied. Hamp will be executed to “improve morale” in light of the advance.
Hargreaves is present when the sentence is read to the prisoner. He stumbles back to the command post and falls in the mud, a strongly symbolic moment. One of the elite has finally recognized the plight of the common soldier. Alas, there’s little he can do.
He confronts the Captain Court Martial, who defends the decision but then admits there is no way to know if these executions for desertion really do anything to improve morale. They share a bitter drink.
The next morning the firing squad is convened. The shaky lieutenant and Hamp’s fellow grunts obviously do not relish the task, but they must do their duty. One member of the detail intentionally aims his gun away.
Hamp survives the volley. His lieutenant pulls out his revolver to finish the job, but hesitates in obvious distress. Hargreaves gently takes the gun and approaches Hamp. The private apologizes for prolonging the event.
Again gently, Hargreaves puts him down.
Not a happy story. But a tale need not be uplifting to teach a worthwhile lesson. King and Country is definitely a worthy watch. The acting and cinematography are top notch. Especially for those who don’t know much about the first World War, it’s worth watching a film about the nightmare that inspired Tolkien’s creation of Mordor.