The Perennial Challenge

A couple of nights ago, I watched Peter Jackson’s film They Shall Not Grow Old, which features exquisitely restored and colorized archival footage of World War I.

WWI is a totemic problem of modern international relations: we still don’t have a single accepted explanation for it, and the death and destruction it caused continue to haunt our imaginations.

The film, like the war, alternates between the utter inhumanity of anonymous killing, the savagery of close-quarters combat, and the gentler moments in which former enemies interact playfully with each other as fellow soldiers.

Watching the war unfold through artillery barrages, huge explosions, charges across no-man’s land, and bodies left to decompose in the open, it’s impossible not to grimace at the senseless waste of it all.

Watching German prisoners carrying wounded British soldiers and British captors cheerfully swapping caps with Germans, it’s impossible not to marvel at man’s capacity for humanity toward his fellow man — even under the most inhumane conditions.

Both conflict and cooperation are possible in human nature. The perennial challenge of politics is to find the right balance between them.