At dinner in Baltimore’s Little Italy, where Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi grew up, someone expressed shock and disgust at the attack on Pelosi’s husband at the couple’s home in San Francisco. I shared the disgust, but not so much the shock.
Everyone at the table had been alive at the time of the assassination of John F. Kennedy (Nov. 22, 1963); we remember the murders of Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy and John Lennon, the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.
The shocks of history should have made us a less violent country. Instead, we’ve become more so. We’ve had thousands of mass shootings by now and, in Baltimore, almost daily homicides over the last seven years.
Supporters of Donald Trump turned into a violent mob that invaded the Capitol to stop the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s election. Why is anyone shocked that someone came looking for Nancy Pelosi in the middle of the night?
The Institute for Economics and Peace, an international think tank that tracks violence around the world, publishes an annual list of the most peaceful countries and territories. Last year the United States ranked 122nd out of 163.
And if it’s not real violence that infests our culture, we get a steady offering of cinematic violence.
I watched the new adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet On The Western Front” on Netflix and realized, during a hand-to-hand combat scene when un soldat français takes a shovel to the face, that I can no longer stomach visions of the “war to end all wars.” I no longer wish to contemplate the muddy, bloody patch of western history between 1914 and 1918, an international killing spree that left 13 million dead “in tow’ring waves, in walls of flesh,” as Jacques Brel put it.
Starting with Barbara Tuchman’s book, “The Guns of August,” I was for many years fascinated by the hideous, attritional facts of World War I. I was awed that kings, dukes and generals, well after the invention of the Maxim gun, still sent men into battle the Old World Way — an infantry charge across the cratered meadows of France into the flesh-ripping teeth of industrial killing machines.
And for what reason? Alliances. Ancient hatreds. Egos. Profits.
The most nightmarish fact from the Great War: All sides on the Western Front suffered 10,944 casualties in the hours between the time the armistice was signed (5:10 a.m.) and 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, the agreed-upon moment of cease-fire. Of that number, 2,738 were killed.
One minute before the cease fire, bullets from a German machine gun hit Henry Gunther of Baltimore, a sergeant who had been busted to private. Gunther was the last man to die in the war, a fact established by James M. Cain, then an Army private, correspondent for The Sun and future novelist.
The Netflix adaptation of “All Quiet” deals with the fact that so many were killed or wounded after Germany had already surrendered. That gives this German-produced film an additional layer of irony, except that it’s hardly needed. By that late stage of the movie, you’re covered in the gaseous fumes of irony about World War I. If you’ve read as much as I have about it — if you’ve seen as many documentaries and feature films, including two earlier versions of “All Quiet” — then you would be exhausted from irony, too.
As an admirer of certain war movies — “1917,” directed by Sam Mendes, was a tour de force as was Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film, “Saving Private Ryan” — I’ve become less convinced I need to see them. I felt that way from the opening moments of the new “All Quiet.”
Producers of movies sell violence in several genres — true crime, fictional crime, war, horror, Westerns — because they profit from it. American audiences, in particular, eat it up.
What I have always found simultaneously interesting and disturbing is that, with real violence all around us all the time — 400 million guns, hate crimes, mass shootings, school shootings, political violence — we seek to be entertained by violence. We’ll watch a show about homicidal drug gangs and praise it endlessly as a work of art when, just miles away, people are being gunned down in the streets. That speaks to a real disconnect, even a lack of empathy for real suffering and loss.
So I have parted ways from most violent movies and streamed series. I started to feel guilty about it some years ago and the separation is just about complete.
The suggestion that violent cinema or video games have a desensitizing effect gets quickly dismissed, usually by the producers of those enterprises and those who subscribe to them.
But, while watching a muddy German soldier shoot the brains out of a French soldier in the new “All Quiet,” I had to ask myself: Why are you watching this? Why did someone remake this movie, and remake it on such a grand and ghoulish scale? To declare that war is hell? Don’t we know that from watching Russians murdering Ukrainians? Don’t we know that from a century of war, from graveyards of white stone?
History should have made us a less violent country by now. Instead, we seem to be constantly surrendering to it, as if inevitable. A test of a good country is its ability to be shocked, recover and act. I fear we’ve lost that.