By Casey Kitchens
“It is sweet and proper to die for one’s homeland.”
I was reminded of Wilfred Owen’s poem last weekend after watching Netflix’s new adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel “All Quiet on the Western Front,” by German Director Edward Berger.
The film follows a group of freshly enlisted, young German soldiers who are sent to the frontlines in occupied France during WWI. They’ve been sold a lie of prestige and glory and soon find themselves suffocated by the unrelenting, waking nightmare that is trench warfare.
The message is a timeless one: war is hell. The Europe of 1914 had forgotten this unpleasant truth and blundered clumsily into a conflict that cost hundreds of billions of dollars and killed upwards of 20 million people.
Today, great power competition has reemerged as a potential guiding model for U.S. foreign policy, much to the dismay of advocates from around the world calling for global cooperation on issues like nuclear weapons use. But, as Daniel Nexon and others have argued, great power competition is a means to an end, rather than a prescriptive strategy – the contours of which aren’t readily defined.
Thus, the tendency of policymakers is to reframe strategic competition in military terms, abandoning other forms of influence. Putin’s thus-far failed invasion of Ukraine illustrates why this is a grave mistake. The United States is not immune to these reactionary tendencies and is equally vulnerable to their consequences. Our competitions with Russia and China are, or should be, primarily about the primacy of individual rights over state control and free markets over government ownership, rather than numbers of tanks or nuclear weapons.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” is a reminder for all of us that when war is floated as an acceptable substitution for other forms of strategic competition, the results can be catastrophic. This is not the same world of 1914. Now, we have nukes.