A Presidential duty to honor and respect

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St.  Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. Contact him at [email protected]

BY ERIC MINK

Two years ago, a team of filmmakers, artisans and technical wizards led by multi-Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Hobbit” trilogy, King Kong” and much more) completed work on an astonishing documentary titled “They Shall Not Grow Old.” 

Released in October 2018, the film was one of many projects funded by 14-18 NOW, a United Kingdom arts commission created to underwrite projects marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, which ravaged and reconfigured the European continent and beyond.

The raw material for “They Shall Not Grow Old” came from stark film and audio archives at England’s Imperial War Museum of British troops recorded on the front lines and battlefields of WWI. Jackson and his team selected six to seven hours of moving images and 30 to 40 hours of audio from the museum’s WWI collection of 100 or so hours of film and 600 hours of sound. Those clips became the building blocks of their documentary, which runs an  hour and 39 minutes.

The passage of 100 years damaged the archived recordings, and the filmmakers had to restore them with existing state-of-the-art techniques or with new methods they devised themselves. Jackson and his collaborators also added color to the restored black-and-white films, after extensive research to determine the actual colors used at the time in uniforms and clothing accessories, war equipment and even dirt and vegetation in the countryside.

The only “narration” on the soundtrack is the voices of men who fought in the war, survived and over the years were interviewed about their experiences. They are not seen on camera, but their accounts are vivid, often heart-rending  and suffused with the characteristic modesty of combat veterans. The closing credits list 114 names of people whose recollections we hear.

All of these elements, combined through artful editing, make “They Shall Not Grow Old” a masterpiece of human and historical storytelling. The rescued and restored footage reveals with startling intimacy the foul realities of daily life for soldiers in the deep trenches that came to define WWI. It highlights the forging of wartime bonds of brotherhood. And it captures the sense of dreary routine that filled the fleeting gaps among artillery attacks, poison gas, bombs from the air, unpredictable enemy sniper fire and charges on foot across open ground into machine gun fire that delivered death in horrific proportions to those on the war’s  western front in Europe, including Americans.

On Nov. 11, 2018, a month after the premiere of “They Shall Not Grow Old,” the leaders of more than 60 countries – including the United States, France, Germany, Israel, Canada and Russia gathered in Paris to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the war.

The day before that formal observance, President Donald Trump was scheduled to visit the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery about 60 miles northeast of Paris. Nearly 2,300 American service members are buried there, many of them Marines who died in three weeks of fierce fighting in nearby Belleau Wood. Memorials acknowledge an additional 1,000 Americans who went missing in action and were never found.

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American presidents often pay solemn visits to U.S. military cemeteries overseas, fulfilling their duty to respect and honor the sacrifices of Americans in uniform sent into deadly combat on the orders of one U.S. president or another. 

Trump never went to Aisne-Marne. His Nov. 10, 2018, visit was cancelled at the last minute, with the White House implausibly claiming that rain and cloud cover made it impossible for the president’s Marine One helicopter to fly him there and that arranging a motorcade was impractical.

Then-White House chief of staff John Kelly, a retired Marine general, and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to the Aisne-Marne cemetery instead, with no transportation problems reported.

Fast-forward two years to the publication just a few weeks ago of a piece in The Atlantic magazine written by Editorin-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg. He reported instances of Trump privately mocking and insulting American service members, including some who lost their lives while serving their country.

One of the examples cited was Trump’s cancelled visit to Aisne-Marne.

The Atlantic article credited as sources the separate accounts of four unnamed people “with firsthand knowledge” of a conversation that morning between the president and members of his senior staff. At one point, the sources recalled, “Trump said, ‘Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.   

In a different conversation, Trump called the Marines killed in Belleau Wood “suckers. 

The White House said The Atlantic report was false and later trotted out a variety of individuals who issued statements in vague language that seemed to support Trump’s denial.

But reporting teams for The Associated Press, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Fox News independently confirmed Goldberg’s accounts in The Atlantic.

This should come as no surprise. Between the presidential campaign of 2016 and his presidency to date, Trump has been at the center of the national stage for nearly 5½ years. We learned early on that factual accuracy and faithfulness to the truth were not among his concerns, and his documented record does not qualify him for any benefit of a doubt, should one exist.

Indeed, the Post’s ongoing database of false and/or misleading statements made by Trump since he became president has the numbers. As of July 9, the database’s most recent update, Trump had racked up a total of 20,055 false or misleading statements in 1,267 days, an average of 15.8 per day.

Trump’s unconscionable insulting of American war dead in the French cemetery was far from the first time, let alone the only time, he has used similar words to insult and demean members of the U.S. military and veterans and then lied about it.

On July 18, 2015, Trump was featured at an event in Ames, Iowa, called the Family Leadership Summit. At one point, moderator Frank Luntz brought up the name of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who died three years later. Trump claimed to have raised a million dollars for McCain’s failed presidential bid in 2008.

According to video of the conversation, Trump then said to Luntz, “He lost, and he let us down. … He lost. I don’t like losers.”

When asked about the comment since, Trump has insisted that he has never called McCain a loser.

Luntz also pointed out that McCain was a war hero, but Trump challenged the characterization. 

Hes a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “I like people that weren’t captured. OK?” 

McCain was a Navy combat pilot who was seriously injured when his plane was shot down in 1967 during the Vietnam War. He was captured and tortured by the North Vietnamese and spent more than five years as a prisoner of war. When his captors offered to release him earlier than other American service members who’d been imprisoned longer, McCain rejected the offer.

The soldiers shown on film in “They Shall Not Grow Old,”  many of them heartbreakingly young, came from the countries of what was then the British Empire, but it’s hard to sense any functional differences between their WWI experiences and those of their allies, which included military service members of the United States.

To Trump, they’re all suckers and losers.

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