Charlottesville, Dunkirk, and “The Good War”
In recent weeks, people have been critiquing the film Dunkirk for its lack of portrayal of colonial soldiers during the evacuation of British forces from France in 1940. This is certainly not without merit; British infantry was not segregated by race, with soldiers from the Caribbean serving in the Infantry alongside soldiers from the British Isles themselves. Ultimately the film focuses on three (and a half, exposition squirrel Branagh) narratives. It does not intend to be an all-encompassing view of the battle. Still, this criticism does bear weight, particularly in light of what virtually every other narrative of the Second World War leaves out.
During the film I saw a trailer for Darkest Hour, an upcoming film by Joe Wright, that covers the same events from the perspective of Winston Churchill. If the preview is any indication, it seems to follow the course of many other depictions of Churchill, as a noble and pugnacious man standing up against the forces of evil. And while he was consistently opposed to Fascism, there were other aspects of his career that do not get equal coverage. As a young man, he participated in suppressing a native revolt in Sudan; he served as a journalist during the Boer War, yet remained curiously apathetic as both black Africans and the Boers themselves were rounded up and placed in concentration camps. He remained as violently opposed to Indian Independence as he was to Fascism, suggesting that the British Viceroy in India crush Mohandas Gandhi to death with an Elephant. And later in his career as Prime Minister, he supported violent suppression against countries around the world which were trying to gain freedom from the British.
If you’re from England, there are lots of books and movies that can help you feel great about what your grandfather did during the War. From Dunkirk to Normandy, there are countless narratives about how the resolute, Democracy loving Anglo-Americans fight back against the forces of German darkness. But in all the movies I’ve seen about the War, very few have seen fit to mention that the campaign in North Africa was one collection of Empires reconquering their territory from the upstart, insurgent collection of Empires. In the Anglo-American world, people are not seriously asked to question this. Arabs and Africans often occupy the distant periphery of these stories that take place in their own countries.
Today in response to the riots in Charlottesville, many white Liberals are decrying that the violence by white supremacists there “isn’t America,” and “we fought a whole war to settle this.” Well, it isn’t nearly as simple as that. In 1984, Studs Terkel published his Pulitzer winning examination of World War Two, told from many of the common people that fought it. The title wasn’t meant to be taken literally; it was laced with very deliberate irony.
One of the stories that Terkel told unfolded five miles from where my parents were raised, and where I was born. On July 17, 1944, munitions bound for the Pacific were being loaded at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine, just north of Concord, California. The laborers were insufficiently trained, the safety procedures were inadequate, and the workers were lied to about the how volatile the explosives they were loading were. In the ensuing explosion, 320 men at the dock were killed. 202 of them were African American.
I grew up hearing stories of my Grandfather’s bravery on board the destroyer U.S.S. Radford during the war. He served with distinction in the South Pacific, arming the weapons that were very likely supplied by some of the same men who died during the Port Chicago explosion. The stories of him fighting fascism was in no small way enabled by the fact that these black men were exploited at home, at the eventual cost of their lives.
Simply “fighting fascism” during the 1940s isn’t an automatic vindication of a person’s principles. George Wallace, one of the most notorious segregationist politicians in America, flew in the Army Air Corps. People who grew up attending lynchings and benefitting from segregation could easily tell themselves that they were combatting German expansionism if they were stationed in Europe, or continue to spin white supremacist justifications for fighting the Japanese. After all, the Phillipines were an American colony; indeed, most of the region had been divided among European powers, only to be conquered by the Japanese. It isn’t a stretch to read the war in the Pacific as a reassertion of European and American hegemony.
To be clear, I’m very glad that National Socialists were thrown out of power in Germany. How many films in the West are devoted to the Russians and their role? Or the massive drain that Chinese armies put on Japanese resources? It’s so ironic that an entire spectrum of modern politics is dedicated to defiantly saying “fuck your feelings,” yet meticulously maintains a false narrative of the past where they get to continue to feel unambiguously great about the things their community and nation have done.
I was raised in a white, suburban environment. The problem with Liberals like me is that they look on the past with split vision. They see a war of liberation sweep the world in their films, but don’t internalize that most people in the world remained unfree for decades thereafter, including Black people living in America. When white kids were watching Leave it to Beaver, the French were killing in Vietnam, and black men in Alabama were being sentenced to death for the pettiest of crimes.
We want to live in an America that stands for Liberty, Justice, and Equality. But the problem is that those are values that actively have to be fought for. White people heard, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and thought it absolved them of actually doing the grueling work required to effect that change, and make that a reality. For many Liberals, the work required to effect that change seemed as distant as any movie.
Today white supremacists, agitating for the removal of the people they deem inferior, murdered at least one person who was counter-protesting said ideas. The “times that try men’s souls” may feel immediate now, but they have never left us. Silence and inaction now are just as much complicity as they have ever been. “It’s 2017” shouldn’t be a cry for how civilized we ought to be; it should be an anguished wail for how much work remains undone.