Politics & Policy

Dunkirk and Our Crisis of National Identity

Tom Hardy in Dunkirk (Photo: Warner Bros.)
Without the aid of a cause like defeating Hitler to unify us, we’ve become more fractured than ever.

Tyler Cowen, economist at George Mason University and curator of the blog Marginal Revolution, linked to an interesting piece a few days ago: an alt-right review of Dunkirk that is precisely as distasteful as you would expect. Leftists, writes the reviewer, “fear Dunkirk because it gives white men a glimpse of a nice white country we could someday restore, and the virtues we must find again if we are to defeat the real enemy this time.”

Perhaps it is unsurprising that the alt-right would like Dunkirk. It is not an ideological film, but it is a patriotic one: a celebration of England, and of Englishmen helping other Englishmen. Arguably, its central theme is that of obligation to country, not out of ideological concerns — Nazism is never once mentioned — but out of duty to one’s countrymen. Its most moving scenes are powered by the attachment the English soldiers feel to their homeland: a general declaring to a subordinate that he can almost see Britain from the beaches of northern France, soldiers gazing at the White Cliffs of Dover from a rescue boat returning home.

It’s not hard to understand how this celebration of national attachment, through no fault of Christopher Nolan’s, could be taken as “a glimpse of a nice white country we could someday restore” by alt-righters. The sentiment is racist and obnoxious, but it does get at the film’s unique patriotic zeal, which has not gone unrecognized by liberal critics, either. At The New Republic, Christian Lorentzen complains that “in Britain the pious death cult around the World Wars remains a feature of daily life, memorialized on each anniversary of a heroic slaughter” and that for Nolan “Dunkirk is akin to checking a patriotic box and securing a pass to its permanent pageant of nostalgia and weepy self-congratulation.”

I’m not quite sure what’s wrong with nostalgia, let alone with Britain celebrating its role in the defeat of the Nazis, but Lorentzen is at least analytically correct: Britain’s national identity is, even now, tied to its performance in World War II. Perhaps this is why the patriotic impulses behind Dunkirk, generally so noxious to the trans-Atlantic liberal elite, have gone so widely unremarked, a bad review or two at The New Republic notwithstanding. You don’t have to lay on the Anglophilia particularly thick to wring patriotic sentiment out of the evacuation of Dunkirk; it comes with the territory, just as it does with Shakespeare or C. S. Lewis or even The Shire.

Dunkirk was 77 years ago. The flag-raising at Iwo Jima, arguably the most similar moment for America, was 72 years ago. Perhaps that explains a bit of the discomfort expressed, for instance, by Bill Kristol, who wondered, “Am I wrong to think that many reactions to Dunkirk are colored by the melancholy thought we might not similarly rise to such an occasion today?” With the exception of 9/11, neither America nor the United Kingdom has experienced the sort of era-defining, collective event that national identities are made of. It is a wonderful thing that the era of mass conflict is largely over, but it is hard to deny that the fight against Nazism shaped British and American national identity like nothing else since.

Is it so unreasonable to worry today that part of our collective coming apart has to do with the disruption of a national identity that was sustained by era-defining effort and sacrifice; that, as we head into a cosmopolitan future dominated by global trade, rootless elites, and a relatively small, professional military, the national ties that hold us together will begin to unwind? It’s a concern that has been cropping up on both the left and the right recently. Thankfully, America, unlike many of the nations of Europe, is not an ethno-state. But as a result, our enormous cultural inheritance is diffuse. We don’t have a Wodehouse or a Chesterton or a Dickens that can immediately invoke an iconic, widely celebrated idea of Americanness. We have instead Twain and Melville and Faulkner and the Jameses, Henry and William: writers whose art arose from particular American provincialisms — whether that of the plains frontier, the New England avant-garde, the plantation South, or the Europeanized New York aristocracy.

These provincialisms speak to the way in which America has always been somewhat fractured, possessed of distinct regional and ethnic identities, a wealth of little polities bound together by a shared national faith, a common belief in a single set of values. The problem, of course, is that it’s very easy to bind together disparate groups of people for the sake of, say, defeating Hitler’s armies; it’s much harder to do so for the sake of structuring domestic health care and determining the right level of sanctions to be placed on Russia or North Korea. For most Americans, such issues are divisive at worst, and at best just not particularly compelling. How could they be, compared with a nationwide war effort?

In truth, there is likely no top-down, federal-level policy that will induce a renewed commitment to an American identity.

On the left, some thinkers have called for government to fill the gap: for a sense of national community to be artificially imposed through federal mechanisms designed to unite America in a common purpose. Noah Smith, for instance, has proposed universal national service, designed to replace the “integrating institutions” of the mid 20th century by forcing Americans of all different stripes to interact with one another in a shared environment, with shared goals. “At a time when the country is riven by deep socioeconomic, racial, and political divides,” says Smith, “national service might be the best way to stitch the social fabric back together.” This isn’t a novel idea: In fact, it has its proponents on the right too. David Brooks suggested it in a 2012 column as a way of addressing the growing cultural chasm identified by Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart.

Farther to the right, calls for a renewed national identity tend to take the form of a redoubled commitment to the cultural heritage of America and a focus on our national interest above more cosmopolitan considerations. This is the argument made by Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru in their passionate defense of nationalism, which calls for “a broad-minded nationalism that takes account of the nation’s idealism and rationally calculates its economic and foreign-policy interests.” Lowry and Ponnuru are more focused on defending nationalism than on advocating a comprehensive fix to the problem of a shared national identity, but they are astute in noting that Trumpian nationalism has arisen in large part because we increasingly lack such an identity:

This same decline in cohesion made many Americans yearn for a politics that provided a sense of solidarity. This was particularly the case for many white voters without college degrees, who have seen their relative social and economic standing decline and their patriotism devalued. Traditional conservatives did not appeal to them. Donald Trump’s call to make their country great again did.

Lowry and Ponnuru advocate an “enlightened nationalism” that is “tempered by a modesty about the power of government,” but if Trump is any indication, the search for national solidarity may well cause right-wingers to invoke the top-down, big-government models of the Left.

There isn’t much conservatives should find appealing here. Putting David Brooks aside, mandatory national service would be a tremendous imposition on liberty, unpalatable to millions of parents who’d rather their children decide for themselves how to spend their late teens. The national identity pushed for by Trump and his supporters flirts with nativism and protectionism in its most palatable form and shades into morally outrageous ethno-nationalism on the alt-right fringe.

For their part, Lowry and Ponnuru are persuasive in advocating policies that would likely do much to reinstall a sense of political direction, particularly for those sections of America that have felt abandoned by elite cosmopolitanism. But is it plausible to believe that this sort of policy — focusing on the national interest abroad and stressing a sense of shared Americanness at home — can help recreate a national identity in the same way that World War II did? I’m not sure. I believe Lowry and Ponnuru’s ideas are laudable, and that we would be well-served by testing them. But I am skeptical that they could resurrect the sort of patriotic commonality so vividly depicted in Dunkirk.

In truth, there is likely no top-down, federal-level policy that will induce a renewed commitment to an American identity. Moreover, those countries that have installed a spirit of nationhood from above, like Ataturk’s Turkey or Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, tend to strike us as authoritarian and inauthentic. That shouldn’t be surprising: A community dictated by charismatic leaders is a far cry from the organic commonality that characterized American society in the decades after World War II and runs counter to the individualism so critical to the American project.

We would be better served by focusing on bottom-up policies aimed at cultivating a sense of community and a sense of Americanness at the level of the town, the city, or the state. Communitarian, nationalist institutions often seem autocratic at the level of the federal government, but at the level of the municipality or the county, they are frequently uncontroversial. In small but important ways, most American towns and cities already seek to foster a sense of national belonging: They organize parades, fireworks on the Fourth of July, memorials for veterans, and commemorations of particularly significant dates, such as 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. The most critical way in which local governments can enhance our sense of community has less to do with policy and more with participation. We have excessively centralized American governance to the point where local government is often regarded as peripheral to our politics. This is pernicious to our sense of identity, since it distances ordinary Americans from the political and civic institutions that influence their lives. Delegating decision-making back to the people would make government more accessible, improve civic participation, and increase local investment in policy-making. It would make American governance less an abstraction and more a concrete, cognizable reality to citizens across the country. This would be an important step in the right direction.

Ultimately, though, we must consider the limits of what can be done by government to solve our crisis of identity. As Yuval Levin notes in The Fractured Republic, we will be best able to redevelop a common culture by “living out what we propose to our neighbors as the good life.” From “civic groups that channel their energies into making neighborhoods safe and attractive” to “religious congregations that mold themselves into living communities of like-minded families,” it will be “interpersonal institutions” that will do the most for American solidarity. There is something refreshingly American in this analysis: It’s always tempting to fantasize about congressmen and bureaucrats fixing America’s problems with grand laws and savvy regulations. Even conservatives are often more inclined to look for solutions in tax breaks and regulatory overhauls than in PTAs, churches, and charities. But in the end, Levin is probably right: The fate of America will be determined by its citizens.


A Dunkirk Review on Marie Claire

Dunkirk: WWII Movie is Spectacular

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a Horror Film

Max BloomMax Bloom is an editorial intern at National Review and a student of mathematics and English literature at the University of Chicago.


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