This week over at The New Republic, Christian Lorentzen penned an excoriating review of Christopher Nolan’s new film, Dunkirk. He targets Nolan’s typically “jumbled chronology”, a lack of close character studies, and, most often, the patriotic tone of the work, which he calls a “permanent pageant of nostalgia and weepy self-congratulation.” I do not wish to take issue with his review of the film--after all, I haven’t seen it. It may indeed be filled with all the weepiness and sickly sweet patriotism of which he accuses it. But I do want to push back against the knee-jerk rejection of patriotic sentiment as such, exemplified in Lorentzen’s piece and common among educated members of western culture today.
I am not immune to this reflexive dismissal of patriotism. I grew up hearing family stories about what my grandpa and his brothers did in World War II. As a kid I dressed up as a soldier for halloween four years in a row, and spent long summer days creeping through various sections of woods carrying a vaguely gun-shaped stick and pretending I was at Khe Sanh, or Incheon, or Bastogne, Belleau Wood, Gettysburg--pick your battle and your American war, and I refought it in my head. I was nine when 9/11 happened, and when I heard that American soldiers were going to bring some shock and awe and justice to the Taliban and we were going to invade Afghanistan, I cheered right along with everyone else.
But then I got older and things got more complicated, as they always do. I had a history teacher in high school who was convinced that the welfare of the United States was synonymous with the welfare of the church (you know, the holy, catholic, and apostolic one that outlasted Rome). I figured out that we haven’t always made the most just decisions in our warfighting. Nation building in the middle east didn’t seem to be working. We got Bin Laden, but only after almost a decade of war, incredible collateral damage in many nations, and unilaterally carrying out a military operation on the soil of one of our own allies. Coming out of a childhood fueled by tales of the Greatest Generation and the Second World War (both of which phrases still play in my head in all-caps and in Tom Brokaw’s voice), the disappointment of a more complicated national reality was hard to process. The easiest solution was the one many of us took, especially during college: patriotism was passé; fit only for people in cutoff Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirts, or for self-conscious parodies on national holidays when we would cleverly joke about the greatness of “‘Mericuh”.
I can identify with Lorentzen’s dismissal of patriotic nostalgia. But it causes its own problems, as CS Lewis remarks in The Four Loves: “If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for ‘their country’, they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilization, or humanity. This is a step down, not up.” Intuitively, this seems backward: ought it not be the case that spending sweat and blood for justice, civilization, or humanity is superior to spending them for one’s country? But Lewis observes that when we do not have an ordinate love for nation and homeland, every war becomes a crusade. It is not enough to fight a limited war in the cause of self-defense--rather every struggle must be part of some quasi-Manichean conflict between good and evil. On the right, this becomes ethno-nationalism with a large-scale state security bureaucracy. On the left, it becomes neoliberal foreign policy, with the same bureaucracy. Both are injurious to liberty. There must be a middle ground between naively belting out Toby Keith lyrics every time we get involved in a war, and mocking all patriotism with a knowing wink and a snide remark in our best country accent, while approving foreign interventions and low-intensity conflict.
What might this middle ground look like? Centrally, a healthy patriotism must begin with love of home and place. As creatures we are inescapably local. Even with the explosion of global information available to us from our little-glowing-pocket-rectangles, we remain persons embodied in a particular time and place. And we may rightly love the time and place (or times and places) that we call home. Indeed, Lewis says, this love of place and home provides the first step beyond mere love of self and love of family. It is not a gracious love of itself, but it may become so, and “those who do not love the fellow-villagers or fellow-townsmen whom they have seen are not likely to have got very far towards loving ‘Man’ whom they have not.” I had an acquaintance in college who roundly despised the smallish town he came from in South Louisiana, and could not wait to finish school and depart to the big, progressive cities of the east or the west coast (he cared not which). He has now settled in one of those cities, and remains as unhappy and casually spiteful of his surroundings as ever.
An ordinate love of place and home also includes the knowledge that others have equally compelling reasons to love their place and their home, and thus this patriotism “asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves,” as Lewis argues. This is patriotism at its best, and is the very patriotism that Lorentzen mocks in his review of Dunkirk. The tale of Dunkirk (by which I mean, the mixture of history and myth that makes up all the best national stories) is compelling because it is so typically English--the little men in little boats of little England, sailing across the Channel to rescue their boys. It is a small and ordinary--and for that reason great and heroic--story. And it is a story--and a type of patriotism--that deserves to be embraced rather than rejected.