Don’t men­tion the war

National Post (National Edition) - - ISSUES & IDEAS - CON­RAD BLACK Na­tional Post cblet­ters@gmail.com

In the newly re­leased film, Dunkirk, des­per­ately coura­geous ac­tions in mor­tal com­bat are vividly por­trayed, but the en­emy is not iden­ti­fied. The swastika ap­pears from time to time as an em­blem, but given the pre­vail­ing gen­eral state of his­tor­i­cal ig­no­rance, it should not be as­sumed that the av­er­age mil­len­nial would be suc­cess­ful in con­nect­ing that em­blem to the right na­tion­al­ity and ide­ol­ogy.

Un­for­tu­nately, there are now huge num­bers of peo­ple be­low the age of 40 in the Western world who would not know at least the out­line of what oc­curred at Dunkirk in the last days of May, 1940: 238,000 Bri­tish sol­diers and 100,000 French sol­diers were suc­cess­fully evac­u­ated across the English Chan­nel from the port of Dunkirk where they had been cor­nered by the Ger­man Army in­vad­ing the Nether­lands, Bel­gium and France. The Royal Navy and mer­chant marine, as well as hun­dreds of coastal and plea­sure craft, took the men off un­der heavy air pro­tec­tion from the Royal Air Force. Great valour was re­quired from the de­fend­ers of Dunkirk, on the sea and in the air, as well as prov­i­den­tially calm wa­ters, to take off 20 di­vi­sions, un­der con­stant at­tack for five days.

There is no con­text in the movie, no de­pic­tion of Win­ston Churchill, who had been prime min­is­ter at this point for three weeks, although a res­cued ser­vice­man does read aloud from a news­pa­per an ex­cerpt from Churchill’s epochal ad­dress re­peat­ing the for­mula “We shall fight” in the fields, hills, the air, towns and cities, and end­ing “We shall never sur­ren­der.” Only a his­tor­i­cally learned per­son would know that France was about to sur­ren­der to Nazi Ger­many, that Bri­tain would then be un­der mor­tal threat of in­va­sion, that Win­ston Churchill would lead a his­toric re­sis­tance, Charles de Gaulle would found the Free French, and that U.S. Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt would or­der the im­me­di­ate dis­patch to Bri­tain of the ri­fles, ar­tillery and mu­ni­tions to re-equip the evac­u­ated forces, de­spite of­fi­cial Amer­i­can neu­tral­ity, and although much of what was sent was taken out of the hands of the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary.

There was no hint that demo­cratic civ­i­liza­tion hung in the bal­ance and that the great­est drama of mod­ern times was about to un­fold, di­rected by ex­tremely dif­fer­ent pro­tag­o­nists of im­mense his­toric im­por­tance: Churchill, Roo­sevelt, Stalin and Hitler. The di­rec­tor of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan, who brought us Bat­man Be­gins, thought men­tion of Churchill or the threat of Nazism, or the fact that Bri­tain was at war with Ger­many (in­ex­pli­ca­bly fight­ing in France), were “not rel­e­vant to to­day’s au­di­ences,” and did not wish to en­mesh the au­di­ence in “pol­i­tics.” Nolan thought Dunkirk “a uni­ver­sal story about com­mu­nal hero­ism.”

The war be­tween the Third Re­ich and the Bri­tish Com­mon­wealth, ma­te­ri­ally as­sisted by the United States, was not “pol­i­tics,” or at least was much more than pol­i­tics. Those fight­ing gal­lantly at Dunkirk on both sides, all three coun­tries, were fight­ing for and against the poles of a world Manichaean con­flict. All fought hero­ically, but it was not a com­mu­nal dis­pute.

Here lies a wider con­tem­po­rary prob­lem: all em­pha­sis in cul­ture and pol­i­tics seems to be of con­flict avoid­ance, ho­mog­e­niza­tion, wash­ing out dif­fer­ences, avoid­ing judg­ments, and be­ing at­trac­tive, in­of­fen­sive, trendily pleas­ing and com­pletely in­sub­stan­tial. It is hazardous to leap be­tween great gen­er­al­iza­tions in ap­par­ently un­re­lated less pub­lic sec­tor pres­ence in French life, and all would be bet­ter. Only 35 per cent of the French voted in the leg­isla­tive elec­tions and in the first round of pres­i­den­tial vot­ing, Macron ran only one to three points ahead of the three ri­val can­di­dates, a slightly xeno­pho­bic pe­tite bour­geoise, a tra­di­tional Gaullist, and a far-left Marx­ist with ec­cen­tric views on a range of other sub­jects, in­clud­ing of­fi­cial veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and quo­tas ac­cord­ing to sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion (not gen­der, an ob­so­les­cent clas­si­fi­ca­tion).

For 40 per cent of the Bri­tish to vote for a party led by Marx­ist Jeremy Cor­byn, a man who ad­mires ter­ror­ists and deeply ven­er­ates failed com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor­ships like those of Cas­tro and Chavez, mo­ti­va­tion is ad­mirable, but some is wor­ri­some.

This non­sense about trans­gen­der rights in the U.S. armed forces is re­lated to the quest for uni­ver­sal­ity and elim­i­na­tion of the recog­ni­tion of dif­fer­ences. There is no civil right to be a mem­ber of the armed forces of the United States or any coun­try. Some peo­ple are in­el­i­gi­ble be­cause of age or phys­i­cal dis­abil­ity, and in the case of the very small num­ber of trans­gen­der peo­ple (and rights ex­ist for every­one, not just the nu­mer­ous), there are very costly and po­ten­tially dis­rup­tive com­plex­i­ties in ad­mit­ting trans­gen­der peo­ple to the mil­i­tary. The goal is ef­fi­cient na­tional de­fence, not the ap­pli­ca­tion of af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion in the mil­i­tary to ev­ery sub-sec­tion of U.S. so­ci­ety.

It would re­quire me to mind-read to spec­u­late on the mo­tives for the out­ra­geous Cana­dian govern­ment pay­ment of $10.5 mil­lion to for­mer Cana­dian al-Qaida ter­ror­ist and mur­derer Omar Khadr. Khadr, al­most 16, killed one Amer­i­can sol­dier and se­ri­ously wounded an­other with a gre­nade in 2002. This was in Afghanistan where Canada was an ally of the United States. In 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Cana­dian in­ter­ro­ga­tion of Khadr at the Amer­i­can fa­cil­ity at Guan­tanamo failed Cana­dian stan­dards for the ju­di­cial ques­tion­ing of young de­tainees. Khadr pled guilty to war crimes, and was repa­tri­ated to Canada in 2012 to serve the bal­ance of his eight-year prison sen­tence. He was paroled af­ter five years, but was in cus­tody for a to­tal of 13 years.

Khadr sued Canada for $20 mil­lion, while the widow of the Amer­i­can sol­dier he killed won an award against Khadr in Utah of $134 mil­lion. The Trudeau govern­ment is­sued a for­mal apol­ogy to Khadr, tried to hide the quan­tum of the pay­ment to him, and paid it hur­riedly to evade in­junc­tive ac­tion from the be­reaved Utah fam­ily seek­ing to in­ter­cept pay­ment in Canada and then to freeze Khadr’s as­sets. The Cana­dian govern­ment had no rea­son to ut­ter more than a pro forma apol­ogy and let the courts work out ques­tions of dam­ages. The pay­off to Khadr will largely go to his own lawyers, but will make him a mil­lion­aire in his early 30s. Given his age at the time of his crimes, and con­sid­er­ing time served, I have no griev­ance with Khadr, but the Cana­dian govern­ment seems to be en­gag­ing in hel­ter-skel­ter con­flict avoid­ance at tax­pay­ers’ ex­pense.

On the other hand, I must con­grat­u­late Justin Trudeau for his nom­i­na­tion of Julie Payette to the anachro­nis­tic of­fice of Gover­nor Gen­eral. I know her slightly, but well enough to say that Payette is a very thought­ful, gra­cious, in­tel­li­gent and in­ter­est­ing per­son. The fuss­ing about her hav­ing had a scuf­fle with an ex-hus­band and about some­one dy­ing in a traf­fic ac­ci­dent where she was not at fault are non­sense. Hav­ing known the out­go­ing holder of that po­si­tion in­ter­mit­tently for many years, I can­not join in the or­ches­trated clap­trap about how well­liked he is, but con­grat­u­late the prime min­is­ter on an in­spired choice as the new Gover­nor Gen­eral.

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