The fresh-faced young man of high school age who waited on us at dinner overheard us planning to see the hit movie “Dunkirk,” a fictionalized but telling drama of one of the pivotal episodes of World War II: In late May and early June 1940, the British expeditionary force sent to aid France against Hitler’s hordes found itself trapped and forced to evacuate. Not the least remarkable aspect of this urgent withdrawal was the willingness of hundreds of of civilian boatmen to endure bombing and strafing to ferry tens of thousands of English and French troops to waiting ships and across some 30 miles of the Strait of Dover. Fortunately, the English are a seafaring people.
Our young waiter had seen “Dunkirk” and liked it. What, we asked, did he know about Dunkirk before seeing the movie? Nothing, he freely confessed.
The obvious follow-up question wasn’t asked – whether this introduction to a fascinating event early in the war but now 77 years in the past inspired him to learn more: how the war started and why and what the memory may imply about the present; and, not least, what it said of British character.
I can imagine the answer. To have expected a youth of some 17 years to feel the spur of curiosity about the past defies the odds. For the iPhone generation and the “millennials” in general, history (other than as a cliche meaning something dead and gone) is often a closed book – to them a dull mixture of dates, names, wars and treaties of limited “relevance.” Even the old legends of George Washington, once as familiar to my generation as the Stuart portrait that looked down on every school classroom – the stuff about cherry trees and never telling lies – has vanished among children who visit Mt. Vernon, so I am told on good authority.
We did see “Dunkirk” later that evening. For the historically-minded it is a mixed bag with plenty of noise, violence and bloodshed, probably true enough to fact. But in its dramatic economy, there is slight room for historical context – just how Britain, then among the two or three world powers, got into such a humiliating scrape. Or more importantly, how this humiliation came to be remembered as a triumph. As Prime Minister Winston Churchill said at the time, “wars are not won by evacuations.”
There are hints. As the Tommies, now brought back to Dover across some 30 miles of Channel waters and entrained for home, scan newspaper headlines about the “miracle” of Dunkirk, a Churchillian voice-over intones his immortal words of defiance: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be ... on the beaches [and] the landing grounds ... in the fields and in the streets. ... We shall never surrender.” Words worth remembering and consonant with the accompanying musical chords from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.”
The generation who fought through this crisis are mostly gone, and those of us old enough to be aware of the “miracle” are aging out.
Who, then, will teach our young waiter and his contemporaries why England suffered this catastrophe and why it still matters? Chance figured in it. Churchill, the great leader of the time, had nearly been killed in New York City in the mid-1920s when he looked the wrong way crossing a street and was run down by a speeding taxicab. One wonders how western “Christendom,” as Churchill liked to call it, would have fared against Hitler and his neo-pagan hordes without him. And how he in turn would have fared without the partnership of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The polio that felled FDR at almost the same time might have killed or disheartened him. And he not lived to cable Churchill at England’s critical hour Longfellow’s lines, “Sail on! Sail on! O ship of state; sail on O union strong and great” – lines from an American crisis but appropriate for export.
In fancy academic circles these days, the “Great Man Theory of History” is often scorned. But here it lives on. The resilience of Churchill and FDR became the mainstay of civilization. That is the inner story of Dunkirk. Miracles in history, of which this was not the first nor the last, are usually man-made.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.