Dunkirk

930At the last minute I decided to go see the movie Dunkirk. The movie is based on the mass evacuation (26 May to 4 June 1940) of British and French troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, during the opening stages of WWII.

Before the Russians and the yanks got involved, the German army was pretty much taking whatever they wanted and crushing all resistance. They were steam rolling the continent. The French and British armies, woefully unprepared to face Hitler’s military juggernaut, had been pummeled and forced to retreat to the beaches of Dunkirk and wait to be evacuated to England before the encircling German army killed or captured them.

This is a war story, so one should expect the typical motifs of war and warriors: sacrifice, endurance, honor, courage, fear. They’re all here in abundance and they give to the film, as such emotions do, a raw energy, mostly dark, but with the occasional piercings of light.

The tempo of the movie is fast—rightfully so when soldiers are cornered, beaten, tired, afraid and being constantly strafed by German airplanes. The movie is told through 4 perspectives.

There’s a British army private and his attempts to get off the beach anyway he can, even if it means using deceptiveness to cut in line to board a transport ship—from which he barely escapes after the ship is sunk by a German bomb just after departing. There’s the British Navy admiral, played perfectly by Kenneth Branagh, standing stoically at the end of a long pier, directing the orderly loading of troops onto transport ships, and refusing to leave until all the troops, British and French, are evacuated. There’s the British father and son, who join the thousands of other British civilians, using their personal boats and braving the bombs and machine guns of German planes, in order to help evacuate the British army stranded on the French beach just across the English Channel.

And then, lastly, there’s the British Spitfire pilot. He was my favorite character. Alone and running out of fuel, after having his two wing men shot down, instead of turning around and returning to base, he continues to engage the enemy, fighting until the last drop of fuel is gone. Leading up to this, there’s a defining scene in the movie where this British Spitfire pilot is staring at his gas gauge. He knows if he doesn’t turn around now, he can’t make it back to England. His face is covered by a flight helmet and mask so all you see is his eyes. And that’s all you need. In those eyes you see the brief moment of struggle, the thousand yard stare as his mind hovers between two loves and two duties, and then the decision, his eyes relax, and we see a man embracing his fate. He pushes the throttle forward to chase a German bomber in the distance. He’s not turning back. No. His countrymen are on that beach getting shot at and every man must do his duty.

If you’re looking for complex character development this isn’t your movie. At the opening of the movie you’re dropped into a quickly evolving situation and you’re carried along on a fast ride. The movie is more about action and scene than dialogue and personal connection. The emotional connection you get is from the pathetic spectacle of watching men fight for their lives against the odds. To survive is to win! A terrible sense of doom lingers over those beaches, and the only thing those soldiers have is their fighting spirit and the faith in their fellow countrymen to rescue them.

About 338 thousand allied troops were evacuated from Dunkirk. Over a hundred thousand by citizens coming to the rescue with their own boats. The battle was a big defeat for the allies, and yet, for the British nation it was a defeat that served the needs of the moment. The French, beaten and battered, would ultimately surrender. But the British, led by Winston Churchill, would take from this defeat the spirited determination, the fearless resolve, to fight on regardless of the odds. (Ahhh, and unlike the French, it helped—a lot—that Britain is an island nation with a channel holding back the German invasion force.)

On a scale of 1 to 5, five being the best, I’d give Dunkirk a 3.5. It lacked in a few areas in my view but overall it was a good movie and I recommend it.

If you go see it, please come back and let me know what you think.

War, Coffee Breaks, & a Sense of Humor

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T.E. Lawrence with Emir Feisal and his bodyguard troops at Aqaba

One of the books I’m currently reading is Hero, the Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda. I’m in chapter two of the book, where T.E. Lawrence is sizing up Emir Feisal’s army of Arab irregulars (tribesmen) and their fighting abilities against the Turkish army.

While slowly reading and sipping coffee this morning, I read these lines on page 58:

…The Juheina tribe, on Feisal’s left, lost heart quickly and fled the battlefield. The Juheina would later claim that they had merely been tired and thirsty and had needed a coffee break…their flight led to the rapid collapse of the rest of Feisal’s line and a disorderly rout…

One hopes they were going for expresso, because the regular coffee wasn’t doing it!

Anyway, in a Western army—this was 1916, the middle of WWI—a commander would have most likely faced a firing squad for this.

Later on, when Lawrence met up with Feisal, the Emir wasn’t upset at all about his army’s collapse in the face of a Turkish force half the size of his, in fact Feisal was in a rather “jolly mood.” He was trading good natured taunts and insults with another Arab commander over “the speed” in which his forces had also “run away” in the face of a Turkish force.

One of the early lessons Lawrence took from Emir Fiesal, the man Lawrence felt had the heroic qualities to lead the Arab revolt, was a sense of humor, “that invariable magnet of Arab good will” Lawrence wrote, that was one of the key qualities that allowed Fiesal to maintain the cohesion and loyalty of the various tribal leaders. “The tribesmen,” Korda wrote, “responded poorly to criticism or reproof but enjoyed a good story even when it was at their own expense.”

Fiesal’s army wasn’t a disciplined professional army but a collection of Bedouin tribes, any of which, if they’d had enough, could walk away at any time. To keep this army together would take a leader adept in emotional intelligence, which Fiesal seemed naturally endowed with.

The Ghosts of Gettysburg

This post is mostly about my love for history, but it’s also partly about being a memento for my youngest son to remember our trip by. 

“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream.” — Joshua Chamberlain at the Dedication of Maine Monuments, Gettysburg, PA, October 3, 1888

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Looking out across the Fields of Pickett’s Charge from the Federal Army position on Cemetery Ridge

This past October 29th my friend Rich, my youngest son and I, visited the Gettysburg, PA, battlefield. It was a beautiful fall day for being outside. The temperature was perfect and the skies were clear. The autumn colors were near peak. It was a lovely day “to ponder and dream.”

Like with any meaningful place, there’s a unique spirit-of-place to Gettysburg that stills the soul and leaves a lingering presence, haunting the corners of your mind long after you’re gone.

The impetus for this particular trip had three things behind it:

First, my love for history and biography. I’ve read and learned a lot about the Civil War and the leading characters of this epic historical drama. The battle of Gettysburg was the biggest, mostly costliest battle ever fought in this hemisphere. At the end of 3 days of savagely intense fighting, there were upwards of 51,000 casualties between the two armies. Consider that for a moment. Over an approximately 72 hour period, there were almost as many casualties incurred at the Battle of Gettysburg as there were U.S. troops killed (59,000) in the entire 10 years of the Vietnam War. For any student of American history, you can’t learn enough about the Civil War or what happened at Gettysburg and how it changed the direction of American history. Authors like Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote have produced some of the finest literary histories ever written on the Civil War. Stephen Sears wrote one of the best, most comprehensive histories of the Gettysburg campaign. And who can forget the absolutely absorbing, pulitzer prize winning, historical novel by Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels, and the movie based on it. There’s a lot of great literature about the Civil War. Any aspiring writer can learn his or her craft just by reading Catton and Foote alone.

The study of war is so much more than a study of strategy, maneuvering, and the calculated application of violence. The history of warfare (as all history does) teaches us many things, but it’s an especially good tool for teaching leadership, whether it’s for the personal or professional domains of our lives. Violence, to be sure, is the shroud of war. But within this covering fabric is the vast interweaving of human qualities, both base and noble. To study and learn from this collision of circumstance and character is one the best educations about human nature, human excellence, and human folly you’ll ever get. “History is,” Lord Bolingbroke once said, “philosophy teaching by example.” Hopefully this type of liberal education, as it was intended, inspires each of us to emulate the virtuous and the noble. An education in any of the Liberal Arts is ultimately about improving the heart and mind, but historical study in particular provides the best laboratory for examining what human beings have actually done, said, and suffered. Literature, historical or otherwise, has the potential to greatly expand our empathetic and intellectual horizons. It’s a never ending journey of discovery. It has the potential to positively transform your life.

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Don Fuller, 1981, Kempsville Junior High School

This brings me to a brief aside. I think it’s important to remember the great teachers of our life, those who helped make us who we are today. I date the beginning of my lifelong fascination and love for history to my time in Don Fuller’s history class at Kempsville Junior High School (now Kempsville Middle School) in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Don Fuller was a retired Naval Officer and teaching was his second career. He had a real passion for teaching and he really knew how to make history interesting and relevant to my understanding of the world. I can still remember how I’d approach him after class to get more details about a famous person, battle, or event he’d discussed during class. He would take his time with me and often draw on the chalkboard to illustrate his point. I can still remember him drawing the details of Hannibal’s “bending bow” strategy at Cannae. He knew so many interesting things about the battle and the characters involved. I remember being fascinated by the depth and breath of his knowledge, and thinking to myself how I’d like to be that knowledgeable about history one day. I can still recall the sound of his unique voice. About a decade or so after attending his class, I visited him at Kempsville Junior HS, where he was still teaching. He remembered me at first sight and was glad to see me. We had a good long talk standing in the hallway. He was still the teacher, and I was still the admiring student. He was a big influence in my early life and certainly a big reason history has been one of the passions of my life. In its original Latin derivation, the word inspire means “to breath into.” Don Fuller inspired me. I really admired him, and I will never forget him.

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At the Penn Memorial

I also wanted to visit Gettysburg because my good friend Rich had never been there, and he wanted to take some pictures (I didn’t know at the time, that another motive for Rich wanting to go was his secret mission to help get me out of the house so my lovely wife could prepare for my surprise birthday party, that afternoon, when we got home!). And lastly, but most importantly, I wanted to go to Gettysburg so I could spend some quality time with my youngest son, Seth. This would be his first trip to Gettysburg and hopefully one among many to historically significant places over his life.

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Pennslyvannia Memorial

Our first stop that morning, after touring the visitor center (where I bought my son a toy musket and canteen), was the federal army’s position along Cemetery Ridge. Union or federal army troops had retreated to this position (the high ground) and formed defensive lines during the 1st day of battle (It was a 3 day battle, July 1-3, 1863).

The battlefield, especially the federal army side, is replete with monuments and memorials. The largest and most impressive is the Pennsylvania memorial. All around the outer edge of this massive stone structure are large bronze tablets with the memorialized names of approximately 34,000 officers and soldiers from the Pennsylvania regiments that fought in the battle.

While walking around the Penn memorial, Seth and I discovered that it had an upper level for viewing the battlefield, so we headed up. My son was nervous about being up so high. He leaned against me protectively and held my hand tightly, as we climbed the narrow spiraling stairwell. As we continued up I heard his shaky voice, slightly strained with fear, say “I’m afraid of heights dad.” I’d never heard him say this before, so I pulled him closer and we continue up. We emerged onto a circular viewing platform and a magnificent view. From this position we were near the center of the federal army line. To our south the line runs to Little Round Top—the far left end of the federal army line— and then turning our gaze northeasterly, we saw Culp’s Hill, which is the far right end of the federal army line. Directly to our West was the confederate army position in a tree line along Seminary Ridge.

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Atop the Penn Memorial

We lingered a little while and I took some pictures. We waved to Rich who was still in the parking lot below getting his camera equipment together. He took a picture of us waving from the top of the memorial. My son didn’t want to linger, so we walked around the memorial dome, taking in the view from all sides, and then headed back down.

We moved from the Penn memorial to another part of Cemetery Ridge known as the “bloody” Angle. This is the point confederate General Robert E. Lee focused his main attack (known as Pickett’s Charge) on the afternoon of July 3rd. Pickett’s Charge, comprised of about 12,500 men, was ultimately repulsed (with over 50% casualties), but not before a brigade of Virginians led by Brigadier General Lewis Armistead breached the federal line at the Angle. Armstead’s men fought bravely, but there simply wasn’t enough of them to exploit the breakthrough. There’s a plain stone marker at the spot where Armistead was hit and fell during the close quarter fighting. That spot is known as the High Watermark of the Confederacy.

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The “Bloody” Angle

I stood there staring at Armistead’s memorial stone, my glance moving from the stone to the vast distance beyond it, where Armistead’s men would have started out from, and imagined what Armistead must have been thinking and feeling that warm afternoon. Certainly Armistead had talked to his commander, Lieutenant General Pete Longstreet, who’d told General Lee during the planning of the assault, “It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.”* Longstreet thought the attack was doomed from the start. Those feelings would have been hard to hide. Continue reading “The Ghosts of Gettysburg”

Making George Orwell Great Again

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George Orwell

The new Trump Administration has been a boon for sales of George Orwell’s book 1984. The novel is a literary masterpiece. Originally published in 1949, it’s a dystopian novel about authoritarianism. The most famous quote, which you’ve probably heard at one time or another, is “Big brother is watching you.” The novel introduces us to concepts like Newspeakdoublethink, and thoughtcrime. The decades old novel is suddenly back on the bestseller list (an Amazon #1 recently) because some of the book’s ideas are speaking to us at this unique time in American history. What this book does, or I should say what all good literature does, is provide us with a vocabulary for articulating our feelings and thoughts. Being able to speak about something allows us to better understand it. Freedom of thought, as the novel tells us, is partly brought about by an expansion of expression via language. Thought and language are tied together.

This brings me to a general theme in Orwell’s work. Like every good writer Orwell was concerned with the truth. For example, Orwell had fought in the Spanish civil war on the side of the Republic against the fascist. He had personally witnessed some of the key events in the war. After the war, he’d read a lot of reports about the war and found a lot of what he’d read contained blatant falsehoods. He knew what was happening. The fascist had ultimately won the Spanish civil war and they were now attempting to shape it’s history through propaganda…or as Orwell might say, they were purposely trying to create its fascist history. Authoritarian leaders, i.e. Franco, Hitler, and Stalin, where not just trying to control the present and the future, but also the past. Propaganda and lies were replacing history and fact and what actually happened. This terrified Orwell:

This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. . . . Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘Science’. There is only ‘German Science’, ‘Jewish Science’, etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement. (Underlining added)

I’ve read the entire, approximately 3 inch thick, volume of the Everyman’s Library edition of George Orwell’s essays. It’s one of my top 10 all time favorite books. Orwell’s novels are excellent, 1984 is one of the finest literary achievements in the English language, but it’s in Orwell’s essays and non-fiction books that we get the George Orwell that’s so admired and respected as a social critic and writer. His essays are a first class education in the humanities and writing all by itself. Take my word on that. We could have a college level course just on Orwell’s essays and it would be a fascinating intellectual and moral adventure.

Being Orwellian, I think, should also mean having a scrupulous concern for precision, integrity, and facts in the way you think, write, and speak. The truth is usually complex and sometimes very difficult to get at, but it can only be genuinely approached along this Orwellian path.

We Must Keep Our Presence of Mind

“…though embattled…we are [called] to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle.” — John F. Kennedy

The 130 people killed in Paris on November 13th and the 14 Americans killed in San Bernardino on December 2nd, are a malevolent reminder that we’re at war with Islamic militants. And while the attacks and senseless murder of these people was terrible, it wasn’t something any of us can honestly say we never thought would happen. We’ve been hearing from experts in the media for years that it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” attacks like this will take place inside Western nations. Of course this is not something experts had to tell us, we’ve always known this as a fact of life.

It’s not surprising that militants operating covertly in our open societies, on a mission to kill Westerners and willing to die in the process, will eventually succeed in pulling off high causality attacks. The critical question now is about how we respond. We can do many things, but what we cannot do is overreact. This is exactly what the forces of reaction across the West, especially in the U.S., will cause us to do if we’re not collectively determine to combat it. This leads to costly mistakes and it’s exactly what our enemy wants us to do. Like a good fighter, our foe prods his bigger and stronger opponent, hoping we will lash out and overextend ourselves–tactically, morally and financially–and make the foolish and costly mistakes that we’ve proved so willing to make. They’re playing the long game, and so must we.

For responsible, and I dare say sensible people, we cannot let fear and anger dictate our response. There is a lot of fear stoking going on, especially by certain cable news channels and politicians who spread mindless outrage and fear for shameless political gain. Just as we resist our enemy, we should resist these sirens luring us toward the rocks.

Out best weapon is our ability to keep our presence of mind.

In the aftermath of these tragedies, America and her Western allies will examine security policies and make some reasonable adjustments. European nations, specifically within NATO, need to come together and formulate a more comprehensive, active, and long term strategy for thwarting and defeating these militants. For the Europeans it will require, and America should demand, a much greater commitment in manpower, money, and materials abroad. The U.S. needs equal partners in this long war. This is a generational conflict and all Western nations should be actively committed–beyond mere rhetoric–to waging this long war.

With that said, President Obama is absolutely correct: “There is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.” A crisis, again, I remind you, that we Americans are partly to blame for creating by invading Iraq in 2003. Our invasion of Iraq destabilized the region. Let’s not add more fuel to the fire. Winning this long war will ultimately be about diplomacy, alliances, politics, and economics…not blood and iron. In the short term we must fight and defeat our enemy, but we must realize that the war of today is fought to win the peace of tomorrow.

Going forward our war against these terrorists should be a steady and ruthless counterterrorism campaign waged by air power, special forces, and intelligence operatives across the middle east. Along with that, we must have sensible policies at home that allow us to deal with enemies amongst us, plotting to kill innocent people. This is critical. This will include supporting laws like the Patriot Act, which are in-fact important in keeping us safe.

It’s my hope that Americans will be actively resistant to any large scale boots-on-the-ground action in the middle east. Another ground invasion will only create more terrorists, while needlessly killing and maiming more American soldiers and costing the American tax payer hundreds of billions of dollars we don’t have on another large scale misguided military venture we can’t afford. We need to focus our fiscal resources on rebuilding a stable American middle-class, not on invading and rebuilding Iraq or any other part of the middle east.

We need to fight a smart war, not one that exhausts us morally and fiscally.