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I don’t usually watch war films given the choice. Nevertheless I have watched several on account of I have a husband. Who is male. Say no more, say no more.

Last night I watched field punishment no. 1. Like any decent war film, if it doesn’t at least squeeze one tear out of you, you are not human. I am human, ergo, at least one tear was squeezed.

War films are often well made; they drag you through the trenches, shove your face in death and mud, and remind us why war is a Bad Thing. I don’t need convincing. War is a Bad Thing. Still, we humans need reminding, don’t we, because we don’t necessarily start on a course of action with the outcome in mind. Or at least, the innocent among us don’t.

I hate war. I’m a mother and a lover and a human, and I’m fundamentally opposed to old men in far away offices sending sons and husbands to the slaughter. However despite that I’ve always thought that some wars need to be fought. (Don’t ask me to rationalise my opposing philosophies; I will only ask you to rationalise your own, which I’m fairly confident that as a human you have 😉 ) Not these dirty wars driven by profit-mongerers, but because sometimes you have to draw a line, and defend it. Which was what made field punishment no. 1 especially thought-provoking for me.

It’s the story of a group of conscientious objectors in World War I shipped to the frontlines in Europe against their will. Now I know what conscientious objectors are, and I respect their varied philosophical stands against killing, but I had also thought that the two world wars were necessary wars, so I wasn’t sure where the film would be taking me emotionally. Not because I don’t have personal sympathy for not wanting to be killed, because from the first scene it was clear that fear was not one of their objections, but because I couldn’t understand the stand they were taking at that time and place.

Which made their story powerful. Perhaps I really just hadn’t properly understood the concept of conscientious objection, but that was the point – they were not against dying, they were against killing.

Maybe sometimes you have to see a story played out to truly comprehend a point. And that is what makes film powerful – humans are storytellers from way back, and our stories have never just been entertainment.

These men were convinced that if every soldier laid down arms, there would be no war. Which of course is true. How you can live by that axiom if not everyone lives by the same rule is far less clear to me. They believed in the dignity of every human, not excluding their enemies. They were not religious men. As the protagonist, Archibald Baxter, said, “I believe in Men. I believe we are better than this.” But the courage with which they held their convictions was the depth of their belief in the sanctity of life. Not just the living and dying of life, but the living of life; and what war makes of people – not just between antagonists, but amongst allies.

It shook me that while we’ve kept alive the stories of war – lest we forget – the noise the conscientious objectors made for the sake of life and sanity has been all but silenced. I didn’t finish the film converted to passivism or even fully comprehending many of their decisions, but that wasn’t the point for me.

Without disrespecting those who died for us and for peace, we can’t forget that on both sides of every conflict, human blood is shed, mothers lose their sons, wives lose their husbands. They don’t even get to bury them, they just lose them bit by bit between the time they leave home with that gun on their back and the time they get that visit, the one where they tell you to sit down. Who are we at war with – and why?

 

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