This has really taken some time hasn’t it?
Thanks to the wonders of a masters degree both my time and desire to write (after many assignments and essays) were worn down to a nub, a far cry from the proud obelisk of creativity and outrage that previously thrust proudly into the sky.
Even now I sit and write this instead of my thesis, which granted is fairly important, but it feels like I need to get a good ramble out of the way before I can talk all academically about blockchains and commercial law.
So, introductions done, explanations for absence noted, let’s press on.
I saw Dunkirk the other day, the new film from one of my all time favourite (yet weirdly divisive) directors Christopher Nolan, and I loved it.
I loved every minute of it from the almost silent movie-esque opening title cards to the beautiful final shot like something out of a Tarkovsky film and the whole 100 minutes or so of beautifully shot and edited carnage in the middle.
I loved the interlocking narratives, the almost complete (by blockbuster standards) absence of dialogue, the haunting score driven forwards by an endlessly ticking clock, the wonderfully practical effects in an age of CGI, the fact that Nolan has stuck Tom Hardy in a mask again (because we all know the best Tom Hardy films have him in a mask), the all star British cast, the gorgeous visuals, the ear-splitting cracks and bangs of gunfire and bombs placing you in the dizzying centre of the action.
Most of all I loved that it is a true story. A wholly true, relatively recent by human standards, inspiring, cautionary, harrowing, almost stranger than fiction story. It isn’t the story of a great victory, nor one of a great defeat, it isn’t about aristocrat generals behind the lines bumbling about like Melchett in Blackadder, nor is it a single boots on the ground soldier’s tale like Saving Private Ryan.
The scope Nolan goes for is both intimate and large scale, a close up face of an anguished soldier speaking more about the global conflict that was unfolding than the story of a single squad behind enemy lines. Dunkirk is a film about a tumultuous period in human history, six years that changed the course of the planet, that shaped innumerable advances in everything from rocket technology to the Geneva Conventions. And that is why it is such a vital story and such a vital film for today.
The side of the second World War that Dunkirk sheds light on, especially for those of us who dropped History at the earliest possible opportunity (like me), is one that is often ignored in popular discourse.
We all know something about D-Day, we know about Churchill’s speech and the Blitz spirit and Rosie the Riveter, and we all know to some extent that the Spitfire is one bad ass piece of machinery.
We also know a fair bit about the other side, countless books and films have been devoted to Hitler and the other Nazis, the ruthless industrialism they espoused, the terrifying, world conquering ambitions, and of course the genocidal horrors of the Holocaust.
But about Dunkirk? I must confess I didn’t know very much at all, even after watching the film, and sat down for a post-movie drink and discussion with B that involved reading up on wikipedia about how the whole situation started. I still don’t know the whole story, and I’m sure there are many many books and documentaries out there to shed light on the matter, and I’ll get round to those. Someday. The list is long.
But what did come up in conversation, what resonated with both of us, and what inspired this blog, is the message that the evacuation of Dunkirk has for the world today. Simply by virtue of what happened Dunkirk takes the gloss off war, it takes away the tendency (by the Yanks especially) to glorify victories and ignore defeats, to reduce a conflict to an “us v them” binary, good v evil, right v wrong.
It reinforces the actuality of war, that it is fought by real men and (in more recent history) real women, with families and homes. It reminds us that WWI and WWII weren’t some dazzling triumphs to be looked back on as wins, but rather horrific conflicts that scarred individuals (like Cillian Murphy’s character in the film) and the world alike.
The street battle that opens the film, reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan, and considerably less slo-mo and badass than the storming of the village in Wonder Woman, takes place down a quiet Belgian street that B mentioned could quite easily be a street in Maastricht, or any other Dutch/Belgian/French city. We tried to imagine what it would have been like, sandbag barricades on Markt, Nazi flags hanging from the town hall building, Vrijthof as a parking ground for tanks. This isn’t pure fantasy either, Maastricht was occupied by German forces from 1940-1944, that’s just over 70 years ago.
What would such a scene look like today? And more pressingly, could it happen again? The question that naturally followed is one that actually took some thinking about, what would we do if it happened in our lifetime?
In the world we have today a third world war no longer seems like an impossibility to many, and though we may not term it as such there has been conflict around the globe that is either localised or run as proxy conflicts in the pissing contest between the US, UK, China, and Russia for pretty much the whole of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Today we have an eerily powerful Vlad in the Kremlin, a manchild with no limits on his power in North Korea, an increasingly isolated and beaten down UK led by a cabinet of Spitting Image puppets, and the less said about the hare brained bad hair mouth breathing infantile pile of human excrement cleverly disguised as a barely-billionaire in a bad suit in the White House the better.
This cavalcade of clowns with barely a moral to scrape together between them and fingers on the H-bomb button of doom is, quite frankly, a terrifying prospect. Not one that we deem pressing enough to really impact our day to day, but a hovering spectre that seems to be growing larger behind us like a creepy shadow in a crappy horror film. Boo.
So what happens if it happens? Doesn’t have to be nuclear, not by any means, that is the “last resort” after all. Suppose a ground invasion, like the sort that has happened in Philip K Dick’s alt-history landmark The Man In the High Castle, pitch battles on the street, civilians in the crossfire, cities turned battlefields. One need only look to the images from the Middle East to see the consequences, devastated cities, soldiers fighting in streets that would have been buzzing with life and people, a seemingly endless stream of refugees fleeing for their lives to a safe haven. Well, what should be a safe haven.
What would happen if the tables were turned? What if Europe was the war zone as it was not so long ago, where would we run to? If it is truly a World War, with everywhere and everything at stake, the answer is nowhere. As it was back in 1940, home would no longer be safe, our neighbouring countries may fall to the enemy, we may have to evacuate and retreat, knowing that no matter where we are in the world an ICBM could find us.
What country would want to give those from Europe and the US a haven? Based on the way we’ve treated refugees so far, I would hazard there wouldn’t be too many friendly faces to look to across the globe. So what then, escape isn’t an option, do we fight or surrender?
This lead to the next question that arose during our post-film debrief: if the time came again today, would we fight?
It may just have been the post-cinema buzz in effect, but I said yes. Yes I would. If, as then, everything and everyone I knew and loved was in danger then I would take up arms or whatever else and pitch in. But do we really want it to come to that? Fuck no.
Nobody should want the world to end up back in that position, with war in our streets, young men being sent off to fight, nations occupied or on shutdown in horrendous circumstances. But there is, and it’s kind of undeniable today, a growing shadow of war on the horizon.
It might not be in our lifetime, and hopefully it won’t be in the lifetime of any future generation either, but if things stay the way they are, if systems don’t change and the public remains largely apathetic and content with their lot, it might not be very far away at all.
Furthmore, and contrary to what the scaremongering press in the UK and US would want us to believe, the main threat isn’t from ISIS or terrorism, those fringe groups don’t have the capacity nor the numbers to escalate a conflict to a global level. The real threats are from the states we call home, states which at present argue for strengthening militaries and police while defunding healthcare, states that use the argument of “national security” as a catch all to excuse everything from sweeping surveillance laws to human rights violations.
I’m not sure about you, but I have such little faith in our elected leaders right now to do the right thing, the moral thing, to take the decisions that would really protect “national security.”
That route would of course be to de-escalate, to wind it back, to not end up in the situation so wonderfully parodied by the great Stanley Kubrick in Dr.Strangelove all those years ago. National security shouldn’t mean more guns for policemen, or in America the use of ex-military hardware (watch Do Not Resist for a fascinating/scary insight into this), to try and convince the public they’re safe. How can we feel safe with armed policemen in the street? In the UK this was almost unheard of outside of London until a few years ago, and it seems to be a reaction to a threat that is not as pervasive as we are lead to believe. You’re more likely to die in a car crash, in a fire, being hit by lightning, or attacked by a shark, than you are to be killed by some bearded loony with an AK.
I realise that this, as with all things I seem to write, got a bit rambly and unwieldy, so let me try and bring it all back together.
Dunkirk is not only a fantastic film, but it also lead to a chain of thoughts that haven’t quite culminated yet, but make me just a wee bit worried for the world we live in. We shouldn’t kowtow to fear, to politicians telling us what’s good for us while they strip away our liberties, to men in suits with bunkers at the ready engaging in some good ol’ fashioned brinksmanship in pursuit of some pathetically small gain. What use is a £138 billion nuclear defence system for a poky little island like the UK? Why not spend that money on education, healthcare, infrastructure, actually help the people to prosper instead of telling them they’re safe with nukes floating around.
It’s mind bogglingly contradictory, idiotic, and objectively insane. Great thinkers and authors and artists have been telling us for generations now that war is not the answer, that co-operation and peace are the only way forward for humanity, and Christopher Nolan is just another name on that vast and illustrious list. Humans have enough self awareness to see their own tendencies for what they are, self-destructive, and to portray them as such in a variety of guises as art, literature, music, and cinema.
It’s just a shame our leaders don’t seem to have paid much attention.
xoxo, The “I know it may not seem like it but I’m still totally” Angry Indian