No war will end all wars

Soldiers march in old North Hibbing during the World War I era. (PHOTO: Aubin Collection via Hibbing Historical Society)
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

One of the strongest contenders for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards is Sam Mendes’s “1917.”

The movie combines a traditional war story with a remarkable filmmaking trick. The viewer follows two British soldiers on an important mission during the darkest depths of World War I. Editing makes it seem as though the film was shot in a single long take, creating the sense that we’re right there with them. This alone makes it unlike any war movie you’ve seen before.

But the story at the heart of “1917” remains breathtakingly simple. So much so that some critics cite this as a flaw. A general selects two men for a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. They must cross hostile territory to warn another division that their planned attack was doomed; they were heading into a trap. One man is chosen because his brother is in the other division. This ensures that he’ll actually complete the mission. The other man was simply lying in the grass next to him when the call came. Such is the nature of fate.

By the end of the film we are asked to consider the limits of our sense of duty, our loyalty to country, and whether war can really solve anything at all. We are given fleeting glimpses of what has motivated soldiers for millennia: the desire to protect each other, survive, and come home, even though many won’t.

The producers and director Mendes clearly crafted a stunning replica of a WWI battlefield, right down to the differences in design between British and German trenches. Every kind of affliction — physical, mental and emotional — besets the people we meet along the way. War, as William T. Sherman once said, really is hell.

Contemporary memory overshadows “The Great War” as it was once called. Everyone alive now either emerged from the World War II generation or grew up in its shadows. Thousands of movies and television shows shaped the American notion that we had saved the world.

This other war, however, the first one, was the real start of the 20th Century, the true impetus for shifting political dynamics the world over. Its fearsome new weapons cut wounds that WWII, Vietnam, the Cold War and Mideastern conflict merely reopened. One of the most pressing feelings from “1917” is the sense that this could be any war, fought by any soldiers. We also learn that any victory in any war is only temporary. Peace is the real battle.

Watching “1917” again connected me to the research I’ve been doing on early Hibbing history. I couldn’t help but think of what was happening here on the Mesabi Iron Range while the fictionalized events in the movie were taking place. April 6, 1917 — the date in which the movie’s action takes place — was the day the United States entered the war.

In 1917 Hibbing perched on the precipice of extraordinary change. A young mining village, half the town’s residents were born in foreign lands, most of which were already torn asunder by a war that few understood.

As early as 1915 men described as “Austrians” drilled on Pine Street in anticipation of going back home to fight the war. Most likely they were Croatian, Slovenian or Montenegrin. Other locals fled to Canada to join the British side. Because of huge demand for international news, the Hibbing Tribune became a member of the Associated Press for the first time. Almost immediately the pages spilled over with war dispatches. Because of limits on press freedom back in Europe people here wrote their relatives about the actions of the war. “The Old Country” and “The New World” merged into one shrinking, screaming globe.

This war forever changed Hibbing for many reasons. In fact, it consumed the town itself. For it was during the rise of U.S. war fever that the Oliver Mining Company announced its deal with the village to move the town. A prosperous young city hoisted and hauled itself two miles south, pushing everything that couldn’t be moved into the gaping, all-consuming pit that surrounded the village.

Here on the Iron Range we speak glowingly of iron ore’s role in winning WWI and WWII. It’s true, America sustained itself on this iron and the labor of our men and women during the wars. But that iron, and millions of people, now lie under the rolling hills of Europe’s battlefields.

It never does to speak glibly of war. It is our true enemy, to be respected and feared above all others. “The War to End All Wars” did nothing of the sort.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Alan Muller says

    OK if I post this review on my facebook page?

  2. Joe musich says

    After studying about WWI at Hibbing Jr College and other institutions of higher learning this “undertaking” was nothing more than a battle between distant family members that resulted in millions being killed because of their internecine “arguing.” I will boycott this film. I fear it does not show the rich and powerful moving the souls of people both civilian and military around the board of life for their own gratification and benefit. Until a film is made that chastises this evil I will sit it out. The two in the movie may have preformed heroically but I would rather they were shown doing that just going to work and raising their kids. In a time where one of these current day power mongers mocks real military heroes and is “absolved” while it is publicly revealed he his manipulating people’s lives on distant battlefield for his own ends is not good time for this movie to appear as a film choice. It seems it is nothing more than militaristic propaganda from a more distant look.

  3. David/Gray says

    I hope that nobody is teaching that the Great War was simply a family squabble about nothing in particular. And that doesn’t really work for France and not really for Britain either. Or Austria-Hungary in any practical way. But Germany and Russia? More so. Ironically the Tsar didn’t want to mobilize and was brow-beaten by his generals into signing the order, which was what really set the dominoes tumbling. And how do you understand the origins of the war without considering the influence of Pan-Slavism and other factors?

    • Indeed. There was a point there when Dostoevsky himself praised the Serbs march against the Ottoman Empire as a means to “Eternal Peace.” Pan – Slavism. Great point.

      This is fascinating.

      I believe there are many teachers/historians/academics that now attempt to communicate a more connected long war period rather than two separately identifiable wars.

      My own obsessions never cease. As such I arrived at a point where I am fully convinced the tension felt within works from T.S. Eliot to Akutagawa are the same tensions. There is a sort of supernatural reality tangible there. Something palpable that not everyone appears to notice or feel.

      Once you start going down the supernatural rabbit hole there is really no coming back. How ARE Finland and Japan so similar? What is happening in Eastern Europe?

      I guess the point is that something else is lurking there, but it requires a completely different perception of reality to even begin seeing it.

      • Upon further reflection, I am actually worried we are on the cusp of another global hellish terror. Sometimes there are these awful vibes permeating everything, and it is becoming quite disconcerting. That is kind of the source of my preoccupation with that time period both leading up to the First World War and especially the time between the spasms. You can’t tell me other people are not feeling the air thicken with another impending spasm? Doom?

        Maybe I am too into Hellboy (the books, maybe the first two movies, not so much the latest Hollywood iteration)? Or, maybe the sensation is real?

        This goes from fascinating to scary fast. Good people far outnumber bad people in reality. Bad peple often have more resources, as they are bad people, and see nothing inherently wrong in their evil pursuit of resources. You keep thinking we could overcome the divisive drive of ideology and quests for evermore greater access to limited resources. And that is where I see the presence of something deeper. People conjure all sorts of evil in order to satiate their desires.

        Something just feels off. The path out appears narrower each day as both sides can’t see past their own short term. I can’t help but notice that the time period leading up to the full scale onslaught of WWII must have felt eerily similar to how some people feel today?

        That’s why the other conversation from a couple weeks was so poignant to me. Like, I really would rather focus on the toilet toilets and not the government/political toilets. All of it is impossible to navigate now. Everything is disarray. One group just measures everyone else on their perceived scale of temporal awareness. All of it is maddening. Yet the spiral continues. Touching the zeitgeist, or however you want to term that, becomes a scourge on mental landscape. But to truly find Peace one needs to first control his mind. No one is controlling his own mind now, and I am concerned technology is playing an ever increasingly disturbing part in that.

        See? I don’t even like talking. So I am out. Back to being a humble reader. Nothing to see here. Trevor clean floor. Trevor carry trash. Trevor eat burrito etc. Peace Be with you all . . .

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