Dunkirk: tell your children and your children's children

The movie Dunkirk has generated a lively debate about whether it’s a moving depiction of the horrors of war or an ahistorical spectacle that misses the point of fighting the Nazis.

My own opinion is that… I’ll wait until I see it. But I would like to remark that an audience that can’t put it in historical context might have trouble understanding the context even if it were provided.

I say this because of Chris McGovern’s piece in MercatorNet in which he quoted columnist David Aaronovitch, of the London Times. Aaronovitch experienced “shock” at discovering that neither of his adult daughters, “both graduates and historically literate” knew what Dunkirk was.

What they are teaching them in schools, McGovern asked. And his depressing answer was: so close to nothing that it makes no difference.

I don’t doubt it.

From what I know, it seems bad. Apparently Britain’s new National Curriculum for History relegates Dunkirk and that Churchill dude (who never appears in the film) to the “Examples (non-statutory)” that teachers could include in their lessons. In fact, the whole ruckus known as World War II is “non-statutory”. Why should budding social justice warriors bother themselves with such details when they already know that history is a giant patriarchal plot nobody discovered until they wandered into class?

Incidentally, this curriculum was published by the UK’s Tory government under David Cameron. This disquieting fact shows that just because you managed to elect a “conservative” as Prime Minister there is no reason to believe that anything conservative or even sane will happen within the state apparatus.

Like “new and improved” on a product label, political slogans do not always describe the contents. (Plus as my father was wont to say, if they’re telling you to buy it because it’s new and improved today, why didn’t they mention last year that it wasn’t very good.)

No, wait. It’s not incidental.

It’s central to what I want to say about people who do not know whether “Dunkirk” is a man or a horse. How did Aaronovitch not already know that his daughters didn’t know what Dunkirk was?

Why, indeed, did he not tell them? I don’t want to be too hard on the man. Maybe he did. But if so, it didn’t stick and he didn’t know it.

And that matters.

When people ask me about various desirable public policy reforms I usually say the most important one is education.

If the schools aren’t teaching your kids mathematics or English or history or anything else, do it yourself. And even if they are, do it yourself.

As my friend John Patrick is wont to observe, there are no Assyrians in the streets of New York celebrating the glory days of Tiglath-Pileser III. When their nation went under in 605BC, nothing held them together as a people.

But there are Jews in the streets of New York 1800 years after the destruction of the Second Temple. Israel itself was recreated after the Holocaust and World War II. The Jews survived because they obeyed the Old Testament injunction to tell their children and their children’s children the story of their people at the dinner table.

To be sure, my own children do not remember everything I tell them about history at the dinner table, in the car or wherever I start droning on.

I tell them a lot, and inevitably some of it interests me more than them. For instance, I have actually been to the Dunkirk museum and shed a tear at the spectacle of the “little ships” and the magnificent Britons who sailed those flimsy vessels across the English Channel again and again under enemy fire. I even knew someone evacuated from Dunkirk.

My efforts to get them to listen to an audio version of Ludovic Kennedy’s Pursuit: The Sinking of the Bismarck, a magnificent WWII saga, were not a huge success. But they are young; I’m not giving up (one of them did seem keen). I also made them watch Sink the Bismarck, so I’m coming at it from a lot of different angles.

(Kennedy wrote that the first edition was for people who had lived through the war or heard of it from their parents; later editions were for those who knew almost nothing about it 25 years later. So maintaining historical awareness is a perennial struggle.)

Which brings me back to Aaronovitch’s children.

If they knew nothing about Dunkirk, British schools stand indicted. But he and the rest of us parents stand indicted if we just mumble, “Oh well, what can you do?”

What you can do is tell them yourself and tell your grandchildren as well. And not just once.

Watch historical movies with them and provide the context. Discuss the films with them again and again as they grow up. Share our past -- the past of Canada, of Australia, of the United States, of Britain, of the entire Anglosphere -- including those astounding stories of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat because of our extraordinary inventiveness and pluck as free people.

Make it their story. Make them proud to be the heirs, political and spiritual if not biological, of those who stood against long odds in Alfred’s battles against the Danes, in the Napoleonic Wars, and in the World Wars.

As Churchill reminded the British about Dunkirk, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” But it became a triumph of the spirit of liberty and it made all the subsequent victories possible, from the Battle of Britain to El Alamein to D-Day.

So, does the movie Dunkirk take us a small distance in the right direction or is it one more step into the swamp of ignorance and relativism? I won’t know until I see it. Some writers I respected have condemned it. Others have praised it, some for getting the mood right but the details wrong, which to me is not promising. I have little use for “truthiness”.

I should buy a ticket. And I will. But I won’t wait until then to tell my children what happened on the beaches of Dunkirk in May 1940 and why it matters.

And I certainly won’t leave it to the schools. Teachers are only going to fill their heads with the sublimity of recycling and the ignominy of white privilege. They won’t waste precious time on those poor British and French soldiers shivering on the beaches, waiting for fishing boats to rescue them from Hitler’s onslaught, and then clambering onto a destroyer still afloat amid the wreckage and bodies.

The soldiers, sailors and airmen who struggled at Dunkirk deserve better. And so do all our children.

John Robson is a crowdfunded documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist in Ottawa, Canada. See his work and support him at www.johnrobson.ca.   


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