The story of Dunkirk is an amazing one. In May 1940, about 250,000 British troops (as well as about 120,000 French troops) found themselves stranded there, victims of the spectacularly successful German Blitzkrieg. They had virtually no weapons, no organization and nowhere to go: the seemingly unstoppable Nazis were to the East, the impassable British Channel to the West. Their choices seemed to be death or imprisonment. Churchill had ordered the Navy to rescue these men, but that order carried with it its own problems. The soldiers weren’t waiting at nice, neat docks with well-organized boarding passes. Instead, they were waiting on flat beaches to which Naval carriers had no access. The prospects for their survival seemed grim.
Britain dealt with this problem by putting the call out to her amateur boaters (she was, after all, an island). And so the miracle occurred: from all over England, private boat owners, some in boats that were little more than rowboats, set sail for Dunkirk to help with the evacuation. For nine days and nights, these citizens, working with the Navy, successfully evacuated 330,000 men, enabling Britain to have a core military troop that would allow her to fight another day. That’s the story, and it’s a wonderful one, with high notes of patriotism, and faith, and individual risks, and brave sacrifices.
Interestingly, though, it may not be the actual story. I’m reading a lovely little book by Robert Lacey called Great Tales from English History (Volume III). In it, I learned for the first time that this inspiring story wasn’t quite true. As Lacey says (pp. 247-248):
In certain respects, the story of the little boats was exaggerated: many had sailed for money, a good number were commanded by active naval officers, and it was the ‘big ships’ of the Royal Navy that transported the vast majority of the soldiers home.
Nevertheless, Lacey believes that the myth itself — namely, that it was a citizen navy that saved the British army — was a significant factor in Britain’s ability to withstand the Nazi juggernaut (p. 248):
But if it was a myth, it was a necessary and inspiring myth, symbolising how ordinary people could make a difference. In the weeks that followed, over a million men enrolled in the Local Defence Volunteers; roadblocks and concrete pillboxes sprang up all over the countryside; signposts were removed or craftily rearranged to fool invaders; and the coast was wreathed with barbed wire. ‘We shall fight on the beaches,’ proclaimed Churchill, ‘we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.’
Britain had drifted rather vaguely through the opening months of what had been known as the ‘phoney war.’ Now she started to believe in herself — and helped others to believe in her too. Previously detached, America removed the restrictions on getting involved in the European conflict: half a million rifles were dispatched to Britain in the first weeks of June 1940, for, as the New York Times explained to its readers, the issues at stake had been made clear at Dunkirk:
In that harbour, such a hell on earth as never blazed before, at the end of a lost battle, the rags and blemishes that had hidden the soul of democracy fell away. There, beaten but unconquered, she faced the enemy, this shining thing in the souls of free men, which Hitler cannot command. It is in the great tradition of democracy. It is a future. It is victory.
In modern American wartime culture, as played out in the mainstream media (which is the loudest and furthest reaching voice in the world) our myths and our resolve are somewhat different. Our soldiers aren’t plucky warriors, they’re mercenaries, sucking wealth and luxury out of our society:
Sure, it is the junior enlisted men who go to jail. But even at anti-war protests, the focus is firmly on the White House and the policy. We don’t see very many “baby killer” epithets being thrown around these days, no one in uniform is being spit upon.
So, we pay the soldiers a decent wage, take care of their families, provide them with housing and medical care and vast social support systems and ship obscene amenities into the war zone for them, we support them in every possible way, and their attitude is that we should in addition roll over and play dead, defer to the military and the generals and let them fight their war, and give up our rights and responsibilities to speak up because they are above society?
I can imagine some post-9/11 moment, when the American people say enough already with the wars against terrorism and those in the national security establishment feel these same frustrations. In my little parable, those in leadership positions shake their heads that the people don’t get it, that they don’t understand that the threat from terrorism, while difficult to defeat, demands commitment and sacrifice and is very real because it is so shadowy, that the very survival of the United States is at stake. Those Hoovers and Nixons will use these kids in uniform as their soldiers. If it weren’t about the United States, I’d say the story would end with a military coup where those in the know, and those with fire in their bellies, would save the nation from the people.
But it is the United States, and the recent NBC report is just an ugly reminder of the price we pay for a mercenary – oops sorry, volunteer – force that thinks it is doing the dirty work.
The September 11 assault on American soil that, in two hours, left almost 3,000 dead and that aimed to wipe out our government (something that would have succeeded but for the brave passengers on Flight 93), was a mere nothing, and we’re overreacting, quite badly:
But it is no disrespect to the victims of 9/11, or to the men and women of our armed forces, to say that, by the standards of past wars, the war against terrorism has so far inflicted a very small human cost on the United States. As an instance of mass murder, the attacks were unspeakable, but they still pale in comparison with any number of military assaults on civilian targets of the recent past, from Hiroshima on down.
Even if one counts our dead in Iraq and Afghanistan as casualties of the war against terrorism, which brings us to about 6,500, we should remember that roughly the same number of Americans die every two months in automobile accidents.
Of course, the 9/11 attacks also conjured up the possibility of far deadlier attacks to come. But then, we were hardly ignorant of these threats before, as a glance at just about any thriller from the 1990s will testify. And despite the even more nightmarish fantasies of the post-9/11 era (e.g. the TV show “24’s” nuclear attack on Los Angeles), Islamist terrorists have not come close to deploying weapons other than knives, guns and conventional explosives. A war it may be, but does it really deserve comparison to World War II and its 50 million dead? Not every adversary is an apocalyptic threat.
(It’s worth pointing out here that, if America grossly overreacted when a mere 3,000 civilians were killed in two hours on American soil, then liberals/progressives are really, really overreacting when they get their knickers in a twist over the fact that just 3,097 troops have died during almost four years of aggressive warfare in Iraq.)
This overreaction means that our cause isn’t really the cause of freedom and democracy, but is, instead, a manufactured war relying on fear to abuse third world victims so as to benefit American imperialism:
Like the great imperialists of bygone days, America