With the rampant popularity of the movie Dunkirk, I want to express why I number among the small minority which did not care for the film. The reasons are no where near as silly as one reviewer’s complaint about the absence of blacks in the film. As a huge fan of WWII films (I was practically raised on Guadalcanal Diary, Hell to Eternity, The Enemy Below, and The Longest Day), I am actually happy that people like the movie. More and better WWII films will result from its popularity.
Most of my complaints derive from having read Churchill’s account of the Dunkirk evacuation and being such a WWII movie buff. I hope to highlight these problems below and then provide a list of some better WWII movies, all of which I have seen, which modern audiences might want to watch.
1) Lack of Characters
In watching the movie, it seems as though Nolan did not want any particular characters to stand out. The only persons names I remember learning were the civilians on their yacht who sailed to Dunkirk: George, Peter, and Mr. Dawson. But, even these do not seem so much individuals as types.
Many of our dear readers may have noticed that this year marks the hundredth anniversary of the plague of communism being released upon the world. As we look back the the October Revolution of 1917 and how the Red Menace afflicted the 20th century, we ought to recall the significant factors which led to the fall of the Russian Tsar Nicolas II. In doing so, the American reader will be surprised about how the political landscape of turn of the 20th century Russia recalls present day America.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky on the left. Maxim Gorky on the right.
Yours truly first became interested in the similarities between Russia and America while reading Leftism: From De Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse by Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddhin. (If you want a deep understanding of the roots of Leftist politics in the French Revolution and its history up to the mid-twentieth century, there is no better book.) He recalls a series of meetings between MacArthur and a Russian leader. They were quite cordial, and MacArthur one day remarked about how friendly the Russian was towards him:
I recently finished reading Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror, by Walter R. Newell, and I highly recommend it to the student of history. Newell takes the reader on a curated journey through the history of Western tyranny (with the occasional detour to the East), treating in turn the ancient world, the birth of the modern state, and the revolutionary terror that that has reared its ugly head ever since the French Revolution. Along the way, Newell identifies three primary types of tyrants: the garden variety, the reformer, and (most salient of all) the millenarian.
The garden-variety tyrant is what perhaps springs immediately to mind when most people think of a tyrant: a ruler who wields absolute (or near-absolute) power for his own benefit, caring only about the good of the nation insofar as it contributes to his personal schemes. Examples include tyrants of early Greece (though some of these were perhaps constrained by the knowledge that ambitious fellow chieftains might try to dethrone them should they rule too immoderately), and some of the Roman emperors.
Stuka Pilot by Hans-Ulrich Rudel counts as one of the most famous memoirs from WWII. Rudel can rightly be called the greatest combat pilot of all time. During his 2,530 missions, he destroyed 800 vehicles, 519 tanks, two cruisers, the battleship Marat, and many other targets. His victories cost the Soviet war machine billions of dollars. He accomplished most of this work in the slow Stuka dive bomber. Though he also flew the faster FW-190, one senses a clear favoritism for the Stuka. As a side note, his memoirs and personal presentations on close air support inspired the developers of the A-10 “Warthog.” Also, he personally instructed Argentina’s air force, which proved highly effective during the Falklands War. Rudel’s influence spanned far beyond his time in World War II!
Rudel favored the motto: “Only he is lost who gives himself up for lost.” His combat record of flying as many as seventeen missions a day and flying through serious injuries like a gunshot wound in the shoulder, badly torn up feet after escaping Russian patrols following an unsuccessful rescue attempt of a downed Stuka crew, two 13mm bullets putting his left leg in a cast (Yes, he flew with a cast on his leg), and having his right leg amputated due to machine gun rounds. Part of Rudel’s secret lies in him engaging in sports of all kinds, hiking, and mountain climbing, which built up a strong body. The only sport he did not excel in is hunting: the one outing he describes in his memoirs almost ended with him shooting his friend Fridolin! Rudel’s favorite drink was milk, and he avoided alcohol assiduously.
Ian Fleming’s master espionage agent with a license to kill has proven an enduring character, as the dozens of James Bond movies with their rotating cast of leading men would attest. However, Fleming did not simply craft Bond out of thin air; rather, he was, by most accounts, heavily inspired by the WWII British double agent Dusko Popov, a Serbian playboy who narrowly escaped being executed by the Nazis in 1937 and went on to join the Abwehr and British intelligence. Larry Loftis chronicles Popov’s wartime career and explores the influence on Fleming, who shadowed Popov at least once during the war, in Into the Lion’s Mouth.
Loftis’ book is meticulously researched, and includes a lengthy bibliography, an expansive set of end notes, and reproductions of the some of the key source documents he uncovered in the course of his research. He also includes a table comparing the characteristics of Popov, Bond, and others who have been cited as inspirations for Bond. In addition, one of the appendices to the book includes a rather lengthy list of sources supporting the proposition that Popov was the primary inspiration for Bond. Loftis is forthright about the primary source material that chronicles Popov’s activities during the war. Where there are inconsistencies, Loftis explores them and offers his own explanation for both the source of the inconsistency and the probable truth.
Much has been written about U-Boat warfare in the Atlantic during WWII and the convoys of ships that kept Britain supplied, but The Mathews Men is the first book I’ve encountered that tells the story of the U.S. Merchant Mariners who sailed the ships that carried the supplies that kept the Allied war effort in Europe going and weathered the wrath of the German U-Boat force assigned to stop them.
The book focuses not on a seafaring family named Mathews, as the subtitle might be read to imply, but on the residents of Mathews County, Virginia, a small county with a long history of supplying sailors, mates, and captains to U.S. merchant ships. It sets the stage in Mathews County by introducing the reader to the Hodges family, the source of the seven brothers featured in the book’s subtitle, then goes on to tell the tales of the Mathews men who sailed during WWII and the women they left behind.
Recently, my reading has revolved somewhat around the topic of Word War II. All the Gallant Men is one of those books, and I’d recommend it to anybody interested in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Much has been written about Pearl Harbor, but All the Gallant Men stands out as an first-hand account from Donald Stratton, a sailor from the U.S.S. Arizona who survived the attack even though his ship did not.
Stratton seeks to provide some context to Pearl Harbor, to go beyond the statistics and give the reader a glimpse of the lives lost and the men who weathered the storm of Japanese bullets and bombs. He tells of his childhood growing up in small-town Nebraska during the Great Depression. He explains why he joined the Navy, reminisces about boot camp, and describes life aboard the Arizona, both at sea and at anchor. He talks about the ship’s band, well on its way to earning the distinction of being one of the best of all the bands from the ships moored in Pearl Harbor. He describes the night of December 6, 1941. And of course, December 7, 1941. He chronicles the chaos of the attack and memorializes the actions of a sailor on another ship, who disobeyed orders in order to save Stratton and a group of survivors from the Arizona.
One wonders whether there exists a more succinct and lucid summary of Winston Churchill’s political thought than Larry P. Arnn’s Churchill’s Trial. Significant time has passed between my reading this book and writing my thoughts here. One simply cannot do justice to all the ideas contained therein in the space of a short essay. Only Arnn’s long study of Churchill has allowed him to compress so much of his thought into a single volume. It might be compared to Douglass Southall Freeman cutting back Lee’s biography from seven volumes to two or James Thomas Flexner condensing four volumes of Washington into one. Indeed, cutting down Churchill’s thought into a single volume might be an even greater feat, because few modern statesmen have written so much (over forty books, thousands of articles and speeches, and two film scripts) or had so much written about them.
The primary thrust of the book concerns Churchill’s defense of constitutional government and liberty against the forces which tried to undermine it. Socialists, communists, and fascists count as his primary opponents. The last two were the overt foes Churchill fought in World War II and during the Cold War. The first foe Churchill constantly combated within his own country. Socialism stood as the most pernicious, slowly stripping away liberty from the British people in exchange for government aid as appointed bureaucrats gained more power to rule over the British people. The citizens held no control over these bureaucrats, and such officials could reinterpret laws or create regulations free from the check of the ballot box.
The most popular arguments about the Civil War concern who started it and for what cause. Americans generally accept that the North held the right causes: union and the abolition of slavery. On the other hand, they claim that important Southerners wished to expand slavery and duped their compatriots into believing the conflict to be about States’ Rights. (A common rebuttal is “Yeah, States’ Rights for slavery!”) Yet, in these days, the corrupt federal government and the undue interference from that body into the lives of ordinary Americans make people look at the American Civil War with fresh eyes. They ask questions like: “What evidence is there for a right to secede? Did the South really fight for slavery or was there general disapprobation of the institution? Which side really started the war, i.e. is there any truth to the appellation ‘War of Northern Aggression’?”
Two books of interest to those who wish to look into these questions and to defend the Cause of the South are John S. Tilley’s Facts the Historians Leave Out: a Confederate Primer and The Confederate Cause and Conduct in the War between the States by Dr. Hunter McGuire and George L. Christian. Both works reinforce one another; yet, one gets the impression that Tilley’s work relies heavily upon the work of McGuire and Christian. Those latter two individuals served in the Army of Northern Virginia and wrote their reports in the year 1900, when they discovered how much the Confederate cause had been abused in modern history textbooks.
Heros von Borcke holds little interest to students of the Civil War today, judging from the books being written, names dropped in conversation, and that I did not know of his existence until three years ago. Despite being practically ignored by most, this man was the favorite adjutant of General Jeb Stuart and received a special commendation from the Confederate States’ government after suffering his nearly fatal wound following the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville in 1863. He was also at General Stuart’s side when this great general perished from the revolver shot he received at the Battle of Yellow Tavern. His memoirs of the Civil War, Memoirs of the Southern War for Independence, make for great reading. He loved his service for the South so much that he would often fly the Confederate Battle Flag from his castle in Prussia. Would that not be a sight to see in Germany!
Many of our dear readers are likely astounded by the phrase “his castle in Prussia.” Von Borcke, who would eventually become known as “Von” to Stuart, “the giant in grey” to the general public, and “Major Armstrong” to the enlisted men, came from aristocratic stock. Around the beginning of 1862, he took leave of the 2nd Brandenburg Regiment of Dragoons and arrived in the South on a blockade runner in May, carrying with him an arsenal of a shotgun, four revolvers, and a broadsword boasting a 36 inch blade. (Now held in Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy.) Jefferson Davis, when he saw the size of von Borcke’s sword and the size of von Borcke (Depending on who tells it, between 6′ 2″ and 6′ 4″ tall and between 240 and 300 lbs), said that with such a sword wielded by such a strong arm, he had nothing to worry about. Von Borcke would get to know Generals Jackson and Stuart quite well and give great service until his wound took him off the battlefield for the rest of the war. Complications from this wound would eventually cause his demise in 1895 at the age of 59.