Gundam 0080 starts off happily enough. The main character, Al, just wants to see some Mobile Suits and other souvenirs of the war. And who can blame him? Giant robots are cool, and the surviving popularity of Gundam and the mecha genre as a whole show this as plainly true. For a young kid on a neutral colony, there’s no reason not to be interested in the far-off One Year War. War is spectacle.
Of course, the war doesn’t stay far away for long, but that doesn’t bother Al much. Once Zeon shows up he quickly befriends a Zeon pilot named Bernie, and seeing his Zaku just makes him more obsessed with the idea of the war. He goes as far as to help the Zeon team sneak in to find info on what the Federation is developing. After all, if he does this he wins in two ways. He gets to see the cool, new Federation Mobile Suit, and he gets to work alongside the cool Zeon soldiers. And they are cool, possessing numerous powerful firearms, combat experience, and their own prototype Mobile Suit. Al is just a kid after all, and he doesn’t feel like he’s in much danger by helping the Zeon forces help out, so he has no reason not to do so. War is cool.
This childish interest in war is omnipresent throughout this OVA. The idea that war is a good thing is ridiculed through framing children as the only ones who like it. Most Gundam series show few people who like war. The shows make it clear that war is shit, but they do little beyond that, merely showing the despair war causes. They lack the perspective that 0080 has, because in those series, no one except the power hungry wanted war in the first place. War is unpopular.
By showing children as the only lovers of war, they portray a fondness for war as childish, immature, and naive. The series makes it clear that this is a perspective that those actually involved in the war don’t hold. The soldiers aren’t particularly opposed, but they hardly have the fondness for it that the children do. Only by being truly naive, truly childish, and truly unaware of what war really means can you idolize it the way Al and his friends do. War is immature.
In contrast to Al’s ideas of a flashy war, the war in this series isn’t sexy at all. In many ways 0080 is one of the most brutal Gundam series, with the Mobile Suit fights swapping the heroic feats of strength for savage beatings. Mobile suits die from a shot or two, but instead of improbably perfectly placed beam rifle shots, they die from hundreds of shells pumping into their armor. Melee is equally violent, with axes and beam sabers swiping through armor easily, and actually damaging the machines and their pilots seriously. One swing of a beam saber is enough to kill a pilot, and the series makes this clear. We don’t see any wondrous displays of the Gundam taking down ten or twenty Mobile Suits in this series, we only see Mobile Suits go down easily, much as humans would. War is brutal.
What’s more, the war is pointless. The entire goal of Zeon in this series is to destroy the Gundam Alex, a new Gundam designed so that Amuro Ray’s Newtype abilities will be better put to use. However this series is set in December, which is so late into the war that it doesn’t matter. Even if the Alex made it to Amuro in time, he’d have maybe a week of using it before the war ends. And this isn’t something of which Zeon is unaware. Multiple Zeon characters know they’ll lose, and they know that that loss is coming soon. Zeon’s doomed at this point to anyone looking, and this mission was never even necessary, let alone useful. War is stupid.
Eventually, Al sees the true face of the war. After the Alex destroys the Kampfer, he realizes that war isn’t just a game. People die. His school is destroyed. War leads to death and destruction, and it isn’t far off anymore. His friends still look around the colony for cool trinkets like old shell casings, but he’s hardly capable of that at this point. He wants the war to end, he wants it to go away, because the truth is that while Mobile Suits may look cool, they don’t bring a better life for anyone. Nuclear bombs look cool, but they bring nothing but death. War isn’t spectacle.
But the war can’t end yet. The Zeon forces are so resolute in their desire to take or destroy the Alex that they’ll blow up the entire colony in order to do so. Bernie eventually decides that what he needs to do is destroy the Gundam himself in order to save the colony, and he decides to do so after urging from Al. Al used to have total faith in Bernie. He saw Bernie as a magnificent pilot who could take on anyone, even a Gundam. But after seeing the true powers of the Alex, and the true brutality of Mobile Suit combat, he can’t have total faith anymore. He doesn’t want Bernie to die, and he tries to believe in him, but he knows that this is hardly a mission which is a guaranteed success. Bernie has a very real chance of dying. War is unpredictable.
And Bernie does go out to fight, but as soon as he does so Al learns that the nuclear bomb being sent towards the colony was stopped in transit. This whole battle was pointless, and as soon as Al learns this he lets his fears be made clear. Deep down, he knew this was a suicide mission. Al doesn’t want Bernie to die for no reason. But it’s too late, and he does. A clean beam saber through the cockpit blows his Zaku up, leaving him as nothing but unseen chunks of human meat. And out of the Gundam comes the girl Bernie liked, and Al’s friend, Chris MacKenzie. War is tragic.
In the end, even Al’s parents see him as more mature. He’s shed his immature love of war, and now realizes what a terrifying toll it can take. Nothing good comes of it, and nothing ever will, and it took being right up next to the battles for him to realize that. When he starts spontaneously crying at the principal’s dedication to the war his friends attempt to console him. They tell him that there’ll be another war soon, a flashier one, and they aren’t wrong. There will, because their childish love of war doesn’t end. The forces which truly desire war, which need war to sustain their interests, use the immature fools who live for war’s spectacle as fuel. And until everyone grows up and realizes the true horrors of war, there won’t be anyone to oppose those who truly want it. But Al’s friends don’t, and can’t realize this. They weren’t there and they didn’t lose Bernie. But Al understands, and he always will. This is something of which he is, for unfortunate reasons, now well aware of. War is hell.