I admit to feeling lumps in my throat as I watched Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk last month. The combination of Churchill’s prose, images of Spitfires darting through the skies, and the strains of Sir Edward Elgar’s glorious Nimrod—the musical theme adapted to great effect by Hans Zimmer in the movie’s soundtrack—are all well-known triggers of my emotional heartstrings.
But Dunkirk also had deep personal resonance. In the spring of 1940, my mother was a young girl growing up in London’s East End. It’s fair to say that her family’s welfare was linked in no small part to the events playing out on the beaches of northwestern France. Her uncle, Frederick Fisher, was a 21-year-old gunner in the Royal Artillery and one of the 300,000 or so troops extricated from Dunkirk. Moreover, in the coming weeks and months, she would witness the dangers and privations of war firsthand through rationing, the Blitz, and the fears associated with a possible German invasion. The Second World War, after all, rarely distinguished between combatants and civilians in its impact.
It is this linkage of the events at Dunkirk to the mood of the wider civilian population that Nolan touches on in the final scenes of the movie. This got me thinking about those same events in the context of our current times. Without giving too much away, the movie demonstrates how the “Miracle of Dunkirk” helped to steel the British public for darker days yet to come. To be sure, the episode was, by no means, a great advance akin to D-Day. It was the act of an army in headlong retreat, albeit a successful one. As Winston Churchill famously intoned in its immediate aftermath, “We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” As a result of Dunkirk, Britain’s military was left largely intact to defend the country from an invasion that was thought to be imminent and to carry the war to farther-flung reaches of the world. Equally, it gave civilians the confidence boost that was needed when so much more was about to be asked of them—and political leaders such as Churchill recognized this.
Thankfully, the notion of total war—with all of its sacrifices and hardships—is foreign to those of us in the West at present. Even amidst some of the greatest geopolitical upheaval in decades, circumstances would need to deteriorate exponentially before we were confronted with a situation anywhere near as existential as that faced by the people of Europe in 1940.
And yet, future conflicts need not be total wars to require sacrifice and force hardship on noncombatants. The interconnected and interdependent nature of the global economy means that even far less significant events could test our capacity to tolerate material disruptions to lives and livelihoods. What if a shooting war—even a minor one—was to break out in the contested waters of the South China Sea? Dramatic increases in marine insurance premiums or even the closure of that region to commercial shipping could have a massive impact on the global supply chain. Estimates place the value of trade transiting the region annually at between $3.4 and $5.3 trillion. Would the public be willing to accept consequential price increases and shortages of goods due to a conflict in a region that many might not be able to locate on a map? Or what if a hostile power decided to undertake a sustained cyberattack on IT systems in the West in retaliation for some diplomatic dispute? If you have ever been in an airport in the midst of a failure of airline reservation systems, you’ll know that public tolerance can be very limited.
In contrast, my mother always said that the Christmas of 1942 was the most memorable of all wartime holidays. That was not because Bing Crosby crooned White Christmas for the first time that year, but because “Father Christmas” left an orange in her stocking—an unheard-of luxury amid wartime food rationing. What would we be willing and unwilling to give up in the present day?
Recent polling data supports the notion that attitudes in the West towards future conflict are deeply divided, even when longstanding alliance obligations are at stake. In May, the Pew Research Center published the results of a poll asking citizens of various NATO member states whether they would support their country going to war to defend a fellow member state that was subject to a hypothetical attack by Russia. The results are highly revealing:
Military and political planners may treat Article V and NATO’s obligations of mutual self-defense as sacrosanct, but the broader public appears to think otherwise. We don’t just need to contemplate how we would fight a war in defense of our NATO allies, we need to think whether such a war would garner the support of the civilian population, even more so if they were expected to sacrifice blood and treasure to sustain it. The reality is that we simply do not know what sacrifices populations will be prepared to make in defense of national interests as new geopolitical challenges emerge. On the one hand, I can remember sitting in the Kiev branch of an upmarket French patisserie chain in the summer of 2014 watching members of one of the Ukrainian volunteer battalions traipse in to purchase coffee and croissants before going outside to continue their drills in anticipation of going to fight on the front lines in Donetsk and Luhansk. Yet, that same year, debates were raging within the European Union over the extent to which sanctions against Russia would harm broader European economic interests. There is no one-size-fits-all definition of vital national interests. We even need to be asking whether potential aggressors may view such divided opinions and the apparent lack of collective public will as a vulnerability to be exploited. An absence of debate on these issues may actually be perceived as an absence of resolve.
There is also, arguably, a further challenge emerging from the demographics of those expected to do the fighting in any future conflict. In May, the Center for a New American Security published a report on the demographics of the all-volunteer military in the United States and the emergence of a so-called “warrior caste.” The report’s introduction summarized the complex consequences of this phenomenon: “There is a widening gulf in the United States today between the public and those who serve in the military and fight the nation’s wars. Though the populace expresses a great deal of trust in the military, the number of citizens with a direct connection to the military is shrinking, suggesting that respect for the military is inversely proportional to participation in it.” If civilians increasingly view their responsibility as no more than simply waving the flag in support of troops, it will, arguably, become that much harder to persuade them in times of serious future conflict that much more is required of them.
Compare this to the situation portrayed in Dunkirk and its immediate aftermath. My uncle Fred, of whom I wrote earlier, had been called up immediately on the outbreak of war in 1939. On escaping from Dunkirk, he was given only the briefest of leaves to see his parents before returning to his unit. Within months, he was on a troop ship destined for the Mediterranean and less than a year after Dunkirk he was captured while defending a bridge over the Corinth Canal in Greece from an assault by German airborne troops. He would spend the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp. His brothers, Bill and Charlie, would also both serve with distinction in the army. My grandfather, meanwhile, quite literally kept home fires burning in his role as foreman of the Poplar Gas Works—which would turn out to be one of the Luftwaffe’s most sought-after targets during the Blitz. Even my grandmother patrolled the streets of the East End as an Air Raid Precautions warden enforcing blackout restrictions. Everyone did their bit but, then again, they knew what was at stake.
None of this is meant either to denigrate the fighting spirit of modern Western societies or to be a proxy criticism on behalf of an older generation, both military and civilian, who suffered severely during the Second World War. But while we remain eternally hopeful that future generations will never be called upon to make similar sacrifices, no one can predict perpetual peace with absolute certainty. It is for this reason that we study the potential sources and nature of future conflict and plan for it.
Nevertheless, it would be negligent to undertake such study without assessing the extent to which civilians would be willing to endure the economic and social consequences of even relatively minor conflicts. Equally, it would be naïve of civil society to assume that the circumstances will never again arise in which it will be called upon to make sacrifices for the sake of broader national security interests. Wars may not be won by evacuations, as Churchill said, but they also become much harder to win without unified popular will. Only by recognizing the substantial civil-military gap that exists at present, in the United States and within many of its allies, and by considering the circumstances under which these gaps can be reduced and differences of view among populations can be reconciled will we gain a true understanding of our capacity to weather future conflicts in the national or allied interest.