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Wars are battles of ideas, which is why ideas matter. This concept was brought home in the recently released movie, “Dunkirk” which I strongly urge you to see.

The movie is based on real events, events that threatened the very existence of our modern western civilization and its values.

For those of you who ditched your history classes, let me give you a synopsis.

In September 1939, the Germans, then under the rule of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Nazis), started World War Two by invading Poland and in May 1940 moved on to Belgium, Netherlands, and France. The Nazis were an oppressive totalitarian regime which the German people enthusiastically supported. By building a large, modern military, it took them only six weeks to conquer France.

The British had rushed in troops to support its French and Belgian allies, but, while they and French forces fought valiantly, they were defeated, if not humiliated, by the Germans. The Germans pushed them—and much of the remaining French army – to the sea, to the town of Dunkirk on the west coast of northern France.

Thus, the Battle of Dunkirk and why it was so important.

Dunkirk 400,000

Some 400,000 troops, British and French, were engaged in a desperate attempt to prevent the annihilation of the British army and the remainder of the French army. If you can envision 338,000 men trapped on Dunkirk’s broad barren beach facing the sea, waiting to be evacuated, with the Germans closing in at their backs, then you understand the immensity of their situation. While they stoically waited for evacuation, the German air force continuously bombed and strafed British rescue ships, the harbor, and troops on the beach. In the air the British Royal Air Force bested the Germans, but with little comfort to the men below.

Had the British army surrendered, many historians believe Britain would have fallen and Nazi Germany would have ruled western Europe and possibly Russia. But they didn’t surrender and the troops were evacuated in one of the greatest events in world history.

The Little Boats

With a shortage of ships the Brits organized a fleet of some 700 small private boats to sail across the Channel and help evacuate the men. It took nine days to evacuate 338,000 men. The Dunkirk evacuation saved the British army to fight again. This is often called the “Miracle of Dunkirk”.

Fortunately, we (U.S., Britain, and Russia) eventually crushed Germany by June 1945.

The movie “Dunkirk”, produced and directed by Christopher Nolan, brings you to that moment in history. It is a brilliant and moving achievement, perhaps a great film, if not one of the greatest war movies ever made. It is supported by a superb musical score by Hans Zimmer.

From the movie

It is customary to portray such pivotal events in history with melodrama, but Nolan avoids that. It is not about stern fretful officers arguing in a war room in London or heroic men leading charges to the tune of martial music. Nolan shows you the war as it is happening. Men doing what they have to do. It is vast in scope, intimate in its portrayal, and brilliant.

Which leads to ideas and war. Why did Adolph Hitler wish to conquer the world? Why does anyone start a war?

For Hitler, it began with ideas of how the world works. To achieve his utopian views, he believed that society could and should be molded by force wielded by a cadre of wise leaders. Of course, he was the wisest. Any act to achieve those ends, including murder, enslavement, war, and conquest, were justified. And he convinced most Germans of his vision.

Many believe Adolph Hitler was insane to do what he did. One could say that his bigotry and hatred of Jews that led to the murder of some 6 million European Jews was an act of insanity, but it wasn’t. If he were insane then so were the millions of members of the Nazi Party and German citizens who approved, supported, and participated in the persecution and murder of Jews.

Hitler’s ideas failed. Unfortunately, the aftermath of those ideas was that perhaps 80 million people died in World War Two and Germany was left in ruins.

How do we know which ideas of social organization are good or bad?

History will tell you that societies based on classical liberal ideas such as individual liberty, the right to private property, the right to make and enforce agreements, limited government, and free market capitalism are the ones that have done the best for people. They coincide nicely with our human nature. These classical liberal ideas didn’t just happen; they were (and still are) theorized, discovered, studied, debated, and implemented by great men, such as our Founders.

History also tells us that societies based on totalitarian ideas fail. From ancient Imperial Rome, to Soviet Russia to Red China to ISIS to socialist Venezuela, Cuba, or North Korea, all totalitarian societies fail.

If history doesn’t convince you, then the tools invented by the great thinkers and philosophers to determine the truth of things, logic, reason, and critical thinking, should: they do a pretty good job of exposing the falsity of bad ideas. Totalitarian ideologies not only don’t work at the ground level, they also fail under critical analysis.

The problem is that most folks, especially those who claim leadership, don’t have a background of critical thinking or an understanding of differing views of social organization. They are led down a path which appeals to their emotions: fear, greed, envy, self-doubt, and lust for power (vanity). These are the sheep and wolves.

I am confident that if we stressed critical thinking in our schools and universities things would get better. I am a firm believer in a true liberal arts education, especially a secular one based on the Trivium (a rigorous scholastic tradition teaching logic, grammar, and rhetoric). Teaching students to think critically, to understand the paths to knowledge, rather than swallow and memorize ideas, bad and good, would be a first step in preventing bad ideas from taking hold.

I am not naïve enough to think critical thinking alone would stop wars, but it would help.