Czech Republic, 70 mins. 2016
Teaching War opens with a simple, but deep quotation from two American sociologists whose ‘Thomas theorem’ became a standard concept in 20th century sociology: «If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.»
When the film opens in a school gym – the kids clustered on benches as a couple of large, uniformed men fuss around a toy cannon to demonstrate an “eight pound shot” – it is clear where this definition of reality is going.
To anyone who grew up in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union before the Wall came down, military training at school will be a familiar memory. A Russian friend once boasted of how she could, blindfolded, «strip an AK47 down and reassemble it in less than a minute». I never put her to the test, but had no reason to doubt her dexterity.
Display of force. Adela Komrzy’s film is a welcome and timely warning of the creeping remilitarization of education and society in Europe, as the post-Cold War optimism of a brave new world united by capitalist consumption crumbles beneath refreshed super-power friction (and alleged collusion) and fears of a renewed Russian threat rise again.
If the opening shot – pun intended – seems like, well, child’s play, the sequence that follows the titles leaves viewers in no doubt about how the Czech Republic’s Civil Defence Programme (CDP) for schools views reality. A group of heavily armed men enter the gym and aim their automatic weapons at the kids as the teacher asks what they know about NATO. It is uncomfortable viewing, particularly for those of us who grew up in the post-war years with parents and relatives who had served in World War II. As a child I remember my father refused to buy my brother and I toy guns, and when we made our own, forbade us to ever point them at anyone.
It was a wise warning, and, as many youngsters in America, for example, will have learned to their cost in fatal encounters with the police, one worth observing.
Teaching War is filmed in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the outbreak of civil war in Ukraine’s eastern Russophone provinces, when NATO put on a display of force by sending armoured brigades across central Europe to the Baltic states. Jingoistic political and media statements – from both NATO states and Russia – are peppered throughout the film.
«Young people have forgotten how to act in an armed conflict. They aren’t able to assess danger, that’s the problem.»
Love thy gun. Russian defence ministry films talk up the strength of their forces and glorify the sacrifice of the generation that fought what it still calls the Great Patriotic War. Children in Red Army uniforms talk of «Germans» and «fascists» in the same breath. And from seeing Trump rallies replete with girls in stars and stripes skirts singing his virtues as a defender of all American values, we understand this is a global problem.
At a time when centennial observations of war and revolution (and post-war declarations of independence, such as that which the Czechs will mark next year) are in the headlines, Komrzy’s film carries a resonance once so eloquently spelled out by British First World War poet Wilfred Owen: «Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.»
Hinged around the school, its CDP classes and other manifestations of militarization (such as newly reintroduced cadet training camps, a legally-questionable anti-NATO private civil defence unit and a border guards veterans association) Teaching War is polemical with a small «p»: the director lets her subjects talk for themselves.
«When students see a soldier in uniform with a gun and a mask, for them that’s something… It’s enough for him to stand there and he’s got the kids’ attention. He knows exactly how to use a gun, and what’s more, soldiers are heart people,» as one official puts it.
We see what he means by soldiers as «heart people» when one uniformed serviceman, who bats away definitions of a weapon as “something that kills”, tells the kids: «I want you to stop being afraid of guns, or hating them. In itself a gun is just a piece of metal.»
«Komrzy’s film is a timely antidote to simplistic and dangerous thinking.»
It is all part of the desensitization programme that in America is championed by the gun lobby under the slogan «Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.»
Officials justify CDP as a patriotic programme and insist that it comes under “safety education” and therefore does not require parental permission.
In a country that has not forgotten how it was abandoned to its fate in 1938 by the western powers (the film even includes footage of a military re-enactment of the Nazi border incursion of 1938) – and the humiliation of the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968 when Moscow decided to put a stop to the liberalisation of the «Prague Spring» – it all sounds very reasonable.
The Grim Reaper. Some viewers, however, may tend to agree more with Samuel Johnson, that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.
«Children in Red Army uniforms talk of «Germans» and «fascists» in the same breath.»
And scoundrels abound in this film: at a meeting of a government commission on reinstating military («safety») training in schools and a national defence league, one expert remarks: «Do you know why so many lives have been lost in Syria? Why so many have died in Ukraine? Because over the last twenty years, young people have forgotten how to act in an armed conflict. They aren’t able to assess danger, that’s the problem.»
Oh, that’s all right then. Nothing to do with Bashar al-Asaad’s murderous regime, Vladimir Putin’s support or NATO’s complicity. Tell that to the victims of poison gas attacks or massive bombs dropped on Syrian cities.
Komrzy’s film is a timely antidote to such simplistic and dangerous thinking, perhaps best summed up by one young boy in a military training outfit who says he would like to go to war himself one day, adding casually without a trace of irony: «My mum’s brother was a soldier. Until he died in Afghanistan.»
It is just that sort of sentiment that a protestor at an arms fair in Brno (the «Br» in Bren gun; the En comes from Enfield in England), dressed as the Grim Reaper, echoes when she says: «Thanks for making our job easier.»