Thursday, July 27, 2017

Dunkirk - column

Lawrence Hall


Attorney, actor, and historian Joshua Levine has written a scholarly, accessible movie tie-in book about Dunkirk (French: Dunkerque) called, well, Dunkirk. Mr. Levine is a true historian, not some internet keyboard commando recycling such drivel as “stuttering machine guns” or “the rattle of small-arms fire.” These engines of destruction neither stutter nor rattle; they are really LOUD and scary. As a scholar he avoids the incessant hyperbole (OMG!) of our time, and makes his writing more effective through understatement: “A(n)…anti-tank shell removed the gunner’s head” (P. 162).

In the tradition of popular but solid historians such as Cornelius Ryan and Walter Lord, Mr. Levine makes brilliant use of primary sources, including original documents and interviews with veterans who were there: his list of sources runs to five pages. Like journalist Ernie Pyle he includes in his narrative many personal stories that give the reader a sense, as far as this is possible, of what the situation was like for individuals who were given the vaguest of orders, were not permitted to know what was going on outside their immediate areas of operation, and did not know if they would find anything to eat today or be alive tomorrow:

Bugler Edward Watson…remember watching a sergeant-major yelling at a man with a large hole in his back. The man was flat on the found crying as the sergeant-major yelled at him to get up. And then, to Watson’s amazement, the man did as he was told: “I thought this sergeant-major was a rotten sod – but he really made the fellow move.” (170)

Mr. Levine avoids sentimentality and its equally erroneous opposite, back-filling the past with contemporary fashions. He faults the Totenkopf units for their mass-murder of prisoners, not for sexism, and the topics of pollution, marijuana, and unisex restrooms appear nowhere in his narrative.

Some reviews of the film fault the young for not knowing anything about Dunkirk, but I can’t remember not knowing; I learned about it – and so much more about history – from my parents, for they, not a glowing screen the size of Connecticut, were my first teachers

When I was a lad the veterans of The Great War were in their fifties and sixties, the veterans of The Second World War were young men, and the veterans of Korea were hardly out of their teens. I didn’t know many men who had not been in the wars as servicemen or merchant seamen, or in shipbuilding, oil refining, manufacturing, or other war-related activities. My father was a sergeant in a tank destroyer battalion, in Zwickau on the Czech border when the war ended, and my mother’s first husband, second officer on the SS Muskogee, died when that ship was torpedoed in 1942. Even to a child who wasn’t paying much attention to anything except The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid on the radio, history was all around and unavoidable, a part of daily conversation at home, in the street, in the stores, in the movies. 20th century wars weren’t taught in school then because everyone knew about them. After Sputnik, American schools were required to focus on the fashionable S.T.E.M., and history, literature, music, and art were pushed to the rear of that metaphorical bus, leading to great careers for late-night comics and their ambush-questioning of people who ought to know that when a camera and microphone appear, shut up and get away.

You will observe that Mr. Watters never ask his victims questions about science, technology, engineering, or mechanics.

Mr. Watters – and we – might do better to ask why a government with very few veterans in elected office is so enthusiastic about sending the young to kill and be killed far away wars without a declaration war as required by Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution (which is taught in school, and violated by our democratically-elected government) and without any apparent purpose.

There is no point in parents giving young people money to attend a concert in which thousands of young people in submissive unity obediently dry their armpits in adoration of some middle-aged man in funny clothes (Hitler, eh?) who appears to be attempting sexual relations with an electric guitar, and then complain that the young people know nothing of Dunkirk, Chancellorsville, The Somme, the Soviet gulags, or the average daily caloric intake of an American worker in 1938.

To the ancient Greeks and Romans, physical labor and technical training were for slaves, an attitude echoed in The Great Escape in a probably fictional exchange when the German commander criticizes the British prisoners for their ungentlemanly work in gardening.

The artificial division between S.T.E.M and everything else is an innovation dating only from 1957. Saint Benedict, in his Rule (still a steady seller after 1,500 years), advises us that for the Christian life should be a balance of work, study, and prayer, and so the gardening rake, the shelf of worthy books, and participation in divine services should be part of every day. A child needs to know history, music, literature, and the other arts, he needs to know how to build a fence, and he needs to be in the pew on Sunday mornings.

My review is inadequate; the book is brilliant:

Levine, Joseph. Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture. New York: HarperCollins. 2017.

And are there ever any minor motion pictures?


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