There’s a remarkable French film, almost a century old, by Abel Gance called “J’accuse” (“I Accuse”). Millions saw it in its day, not only in France and Britain but also the United States. It’s a war movie, propaganda, a love story, a tragedy.
The movie, however, is most remembered for a scene near the end in which the hero, Jean Diaz, a shell-shocked soldier, relates a fevered dream to the people of his village. He dreamt of the valiant dead, soldiers innumerable, rising out of the battlefields to march en masse into the villages of France.
The dead marched into their villages, so the dreamer relates, simply to see whether their sacrifices were worth it. Did they die in vain?
Filmed before the war ended, the film has an eerie realness because the French lent Gance enlisted soldiers for the scene, many of them killed in action before the war and the film were finished. It’s a haunting, frightening vision of the dead accusing the living.
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I think it’s a movie worth making again, especially at a time when the sacrifices of our soldiers are so invisible and our wars so distant, seen by most of us only upon screens – screens we can turn off whenever our distractions or entertainments are interrupted by brutal truth.
I often wonder what our fallen soldiers would say were they to come back to us. What would they ask us? What would they prophesy? Would we with straight faces be able to tell them their sacrifices were worth it?
Would the soldiers of the Great War warn us of the unpredictability of human conflict, or would they remind us of our capacity for total destruction? Would they convict us of complacency, of the foolishness of tempting fate and of trusting too much in our own power?
Would the soldiers of World War II warn us of the rhetoric of nationalism, of patriotism-turned-jingoism, and of the poisonous effects of racism and fascism? Would they remind us of the true cost of democracy and its true purpose?
And would the soldiers of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan remind us of the utter shame of our forgetfulness and ingratitude? Would they, with angry tears, exhort us to respect, honor and serve those many veterans in our midst whom we so often overlook? Would they call out our sometimes shallow praise?
A worthwhile meditation, I think. What would they say were they to come back to us from the dead? And what would we say? What good would we have to show them for their sacrifice?
I think each of us should visit these places of memory and mourning. I think we’d do better if we allowed these cemeteries a more prominent place in our collective conscience and maybe even in our politics.
Rev. Joshua J. Whitfield is the parochial vicar and director of faith formation and education at St. Rita Catholic Church in Dallas.