New Content – How War Horse Skips over the Greatest Moral Drama of WWI

Added today to the page: 1920-1916 Responses and Reflections to the GCR


  • “How War Horse Skips Over the Greatest Moral Drama of WWI: The film had a disappointing night at the Oscars. It also leaves out the anti-war history of World War I” by Adam Hochschild in Mother Jones (Feb. 27, 2012)

    Yet curiously, for all the spectacle of boy and horse, thundering cavalry charges, muddy trenches, and wartime love and loss, the makers of War Horse, Downton Abbey, and—I have no doubt—the similar productions we’ll soon be watching largely skip over the greatest moral drama of those years of conflict, one that continues to echo in our own time of costly and needless wars. They do so by leaving out part of the cast of characters of that moment. The First World War was not just a battle between rival armies, but also a powerful, if one-sided, battle between those who assumed the war was a noble crusade and those who thought it absolute madness.

    The war’s opponents went to jail in many countries. There were more than 500 conscientious objectors imprisoned in the United States in those years, for example, plus others jailed for speaking out against joining the conflict. Eugene V. Debs had known prison from his time as a railway union leader, but he spent far longer behind bars—more than two years—for urging American men to resist the draft. Convicted of sedition, he was still in his cell at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta in November 1920 when, long after the war ended, he received nearly a million votes as the Socialist candidate for President.

    One American protest against the war turned to tragedy when, in 1917, Oklahoma police arrested nearly 500 draft resisters—white, black, and Native American—taking part in what they called the Green Corn Rebellion against “a rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” Three were killed and many injured.

    War resisters were also thrown in jail in Germany and Russia. But the country with the largest and best organized anti-war movement—and here’s where the creators of those film and TV costume dramas so beloved by Anglophile American audiences miss a crucial opportunity—was Britain.

    The main reason opposition to the war proved relatively strong there was simple enough: In 1914, the island nation had not been attacked. German invaders marched into France and Belgium, but Germany hoped Britain would stay out of the war. And so did some Britons. When their country joined the fighting on the grounds that Germany had violated Belgian neutrality, a vocal minority continued to insist that jumping into a quarrel among other countries was a disastrous mistake.