The new war movie, Dunkirk, showcases what Hollywood does best: vivid battle scenes, large casts dressed in historically accurate uniforms, high quality cinematography, and a lush musical score (albeit one that slavishly imitates the British composer Edward Elgar). The film is typical Hollywood in another way: it presents the past through a lens that reflects the present day as much as it seeks to recreate an historical event.
Dunkirk the event is, at first glance, a strange episode for a heroic war movie. It was a defeat for the British and French. The only British achievement was that they successfully retreated back to Britain, saving their own lives while leaving the French under German occupation. Yet Dunkirk the movie celebrates this rescue. The movie presents the soldiers as heroes because they sought to protect one another. Scenes show soldiers pulling other soldiers out of the water after their ships were hit by German bombs. One pilot, who is a central character in the movie, is lionized because he shoots down a German plane that was about to bomb a ship carrying retreating soldiers back to Britain. Much of the movie focuses on ordinary Britons who sailed their small pleasure boats to Dunkirk to evacuate troops.
While the incidents in the movie accurately reflect some of the events at Dunkirk the heroic interpretation is at odds with how the retreat from France was understood at the time. Dunkirk was not regarded as a British victory but instead was seen as the massive loss it was and a harbinger of what many Britons (and Americans who advocated appeasing the Nazis) believed would be a German invasion of Britain that would finish the war with Nazi victory.
One way in which Dunkirk is ideologically if not substantively accurate is in the absence of non-white soldiers. Critics of the film have pointed out that there were a hundred thousand soldiers from India and Africa who served in the British army at Dunkirk. The film presents only white soldiers. While that is a factual omission, the film faithfully presents the ways in which Britons thought about their army. The contributions and casualties of nonwhite soldiers were almost totally ignored by the British newspapers and in radio broadcasts and films of the time. The same was true of the French army. When DeGaulle proclaimed that the French empire would fight on, French people and their allies in Europe imagined that would be the struggle of white soldiers stationed in Asia and Africa. In fact, local men enlisted in French colonial garrisons did most of the fighting, while many white French in Indochina ran from the Japanese like scared puppies. When the white French returned at the end of the war and reasserted authority, after Japan had been defeated by the US, Indochinese anger and willingness to fight the French was fueled by the local populations’ accurate perception that the French would crumble again when faced with real resistance.
Why the cinematic celebration of retreat and defeat? It reflects a larger transformation in the ways that the US military conceives heroism since its defeat in Vietnam. The last years of the Vietnam War were a crisis for the American army. The armed forces’ prowess and power were called into doubt by their inability to defeat a weaker and smaller opponent. Soldiers became increasingly mutinous, refusing orders to go into battle and killing their own officers. The American military needed to reassert control and to find a way to present itself and its soldiers as brave and honorable. The key first step was the abolition of conscription. Then-president Nixon advocated and led a transformation away from a mass army to a smaller corps of highly trained career soldiers. In such an army, each soldier was more expensive and less expendable so the US military invested vast sums in building planes and tanks that better protected fighters and in developing ways to rapidly evacuate and treat wounded soldiers.
Soldiers themselves were given the message that their highest duty was to protect one another. The Medal of Honor, the highest decoration given by the US increasingly was awarded for actions that protected other American soldiers rather than for actions that killed the enemy. As the war went on, Nixon and the military itself worked to shift attention away from ordinary soldiers who were shown in photos and on television committing atrocities against Vietnamese civilians toward the prisoners of war held and tortured by the North Vietnamese. As George McGovern, the antiwar presidential candidate put it, “It seemed like America fought the Vietnam War to get its prisoners back.” When the war finally ended with an agreement designed to postpone the ultimate communist victory until Nixon finished his presidency, the return of the prisoners of war were celebrated as an American triumph, ignoring the fact that prisoners always are returned at the end of a war. Former prisoners became heroes and some, most notably John McCain, launched successful political careers built entirely on the fact of their captivity in North Vietnam.
This post-Vietnam image of the American hero is what the movie Dunkirk anachronistically reflects back on British soldiers in 1940. Soldiers are to be honored not for winning a war, a task that today is seemingly as impossible for Americans as it was for the British in 1940, but instead for bringing each other home alive. This legacy of the Vietnam War is morally ambiguous. On the one hand, the exaltation of American soldiers’ lives makes it harder for the US to fight long and bloody wars. On the other, the focus is on American lives, not the lives of civilians and soldiers in the countries the US attacks. This mentality provides the justification for ‘risk-transfer warfare,’ wars fought with drones and high altitude bombing that increase the death toll among civilians while safe guarding American troops. This is not pacifism. Rather it is a twenty-first century version of the extreme nationalism and racism that allowed Britons to pretend that Africans and Asians were not part of their armies in the world wars.