Dunkirk Envy is a thing, apparently. James K. A. Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin College, tweeted “I can’t be the only man for whom films like Dunkirk engender a deep existential embarrassment about the comfort & softness of my generation.” Tim Miller, a DC Republican activist, similarly tweeted “it was hard to watch Dunkirk without being overwhelmed by shame about our current cowardly and small time.”
Some viewers—I gather mostly men—have responded to Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece of suspense with a feeling of inadequacy. Perhaps they envy the chance the British soldiers had, stranded on a beach surrounded by eight German divisions, to heroically stand there and wait for rescue. Perhaps they wonder if they, too, might frantically scramble for their lives, stepping on their fellow soldiers in the mad race to secure a spot aboard a boat.
I jest, of course. I don’t mean to demean the survivors of Dunkirk: they are not what truly bother me. What bother me are the implied premises behind the sentiment of Dunkirk Envy that are, frankly, infuriating. It is of a piece with the broader trend of Greatest Generation hagiography.
To watch “Dunkirk” and come away feeling envious, insecure, and wistful, you have to believe one of three things: that war is fun; that we lack great causes today; or that we lack the grit to meet great challenges.
‘War Is Glorious’
I get it: most war movies let the viewer feel the frisson of getting close to the action, identifying with the hero, staring into the maw of hell on earth and walking away a stronger man. When you see war from the safety of an air-conditioned movie theater, safely ensconced in your suburban development 10,000 miles removed from actual political violence, war is entertaining. Who wouldn’t want to live inside a superhero film?
There is a reason I was unable to watch war movies or action movies for almost five years after getting back from Afghanistan. War-as-entertainment feels profoundly disrespectful—even disgusting—after having seen the thing itself. When barbaric thugs murder your friend, you don’t exactly look forward to seeing it reenacted on the silver screen by pretty-boy Hollywood actors, set to a John Williams score. Some things are cheapened when they are chopped up into commercially digestible bits for a mass audience.
War is not fun. Most of the time, war is boring. It involved a ton of sitting around in brutally hot tents, followed by inane make-work or guard-duty under the brutally hot sun, followed by failed attempts to sleep in other tents. Then war is suddenly sickening, when you see the aftermath of some battle, suicide attack, or IED: strewn body parts, detached faces, charred lumps of smeared offal casually tossed on the road alongside the leavings of somebody’s table, a broken refrigerator, a rusty car.
As U.S. General William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, “I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell.”
War is not glamorous. If you have the luxury of living in peace, do not feel envious of those who fight. It is true that sometimes—very rarely— war ennobles the warrior by testing our courage, fortitude, and perseverance, and it does foster a unique and irreplaceable camaraderie among soldiers. But that is the silver lining of a very dark cloud. The essence of war is to kill other human beings before they kill you.
‘We Have No Great Cause’
Perhaps Dunkirk Envy is not about wanting the excitement of war, but wanting some great cause to unify the nation. We want to feel a part of something larger than ourselves, and we want to believe in the justice and goodness of what we’re doing. Dunkirk was a good thing—World War II was the “good war.” Isn’t it a shame, the envious ones apparently believe, that we don’t have great and good causes to which to devote ourselves anymore?
I’d like to introduce you to a country called “Afghanistan” and a cause called “killing jihadists.” I understand that by now some of today’s readers were not alive, or were still in diapers, on September 11, 2001. If that is you, please take a moment to watch this compilation of clips of the second plane hitting the South Tower. Watch the full thing with the volume turned up so you can hear the screams of shock, sorrow, and anger captured on raw footage, as the reality of mass murder on live TV sinks home. Then be sure to watch a similar compilation of clips of the towers collapsing. If you still need more, try the 2002 documentary “9/11” and the 2006 film “United 93.”
You have no idea what it is like to be a veteran of the war in Afghanistan in a country that was once united in support of it but has now changed the channel. In its first year, the war in Afghanistan was the most popular war in American history: it enjoyed stronger support than any other war in its first year since the age of polling began.
Today, according to the same Gallup poll, a majority of Americans have concluded that the war was a mistake. My sense is that most Americans believe—without serious reflection—the war is pointless and unwinnable. I get it: the war has lasted way longer than anyone expected. We’ve never missed an opportunity to make a mistake. It’s expensive and hard. I’ve written reams about the war, but of course the real problem isn’t that people have carefully studied the problem and come to the wrong conclusion. For that to happen, they would actually have to be paying attention.
The real problem is that no one cares. Dunkirk Envy is only possible in a world in which people have willfully forgotten that there is a war in Afghanistan—or consciously decided that, for whatever baffling reason, it does not count as worthy of their attention. It is inexplicable to me how Americans could simply loose interest in a war that, in its beginning, was indisputably just and necessary and commanded universal support. America’s inattentiveness to the war is insulting to those who served and, much more so, those who sacrificed and died. If you have Dunkirk Envy, try giving a d-mn about Afghanistan.
If Afghanistan isn’t your thing—because not everyone can join the military or have a career in national security—then try volunteering to help resettle refugees. Or feed the homeless in your local soup kitchen. Or volunteer in a big brother program through the YMCA. Or visit the elderly in a nursing home. Or plant a garden, read to your children, and love your spouse. Really, do anything to help make the world a more just and peaceful place. Just stop pretending that our time lacks great causes.
‘We Don’t Have Grit Anymore’
Finally, Dunkirk Envy is about masculine insecurity. Most traditional models of manhood are routinely attacked as sexist, chauvinist, backwards, knuckle-dragging, and Neanderthalic. War movies are cathartic for many men because they show men doing archetypally male things, undertaking herculean physical effort in the service of some great and noble cause. Men escape into war fantasies, like “Call of Duty,” because such fantasies allow them a vicarious experience of traditional masculinity without the risk of living it in real life.
Except vicarious experience is never the same as the real thing. Confronted with the real thing, men who have done less feel like lesser men. This is a common experience. As Shakespeare’s King Henry V told his comrades before the battle of Agincourt:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
It is a good sign that men still have the ability to recognize superior examples of noble masculinity; that suggests not all hope is lost. But if watching soldiers do their thing makes you feel unmanly, take that up with your own conscience and your local recruiter. Please stop projecting your insecurities onto the rest of us.
The most maddening part of Dunkirk Envy is the tendency of those who have it to assume it conveys a truth about the world as a whole. They wring their hands about the softness of “our times” or “our generation,” when there are 21.8 million veterans in America, including 2.5 million who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. It takes some chutzpah to ignore the war in which I fought and then tell me I’m part of a generation too soft to care about a great cause. Some of us did our part.