“Dunkirk” reminds leaders that words can inspire a nation
Rolling stone calls “Dunkirk” the greatest war film of all time. Director Christopher Nolan has made an “amazing and moving” film, according to the article. Nolan was captivated by the “spirit of Dunkirk” that marked the massive and heroic rescue of WWII which took place from May 26 to June 4, 1940.
Dunkirk is said to have strengthened British determination to fight Nazi Germany in the face of overwhelming obstacles. But he only did so after an eloquent and charismatic speaker with a love for words – Prime Minister Winston Churchill – reframed the event for the public.
At 3:40 p.m. on June 4, 1940, Churchill delivered an update to the House of Commons. A radio presenter read the speech to the audience that evening (Churchill himself did not recount an audio recording until years later). The evacuation of Dunkirk, codenamed Operation Dynamo, ended with the astonishing rescue of 338,000 Allied soldiers off a small French village. The German army had invaded much of the country and the soldiers were trapped. A flotilla of 900 British Navy ships and small boats piloted by civilians transported the soldiers across the Channel. They did so under heavy German bombardment.
Was retirement a defeat or a victory? Thirty thousand British soldiers lost their lives or were taken prisoner. France would surrender to Nazi Germany before the end of the month. Despite the losses, Churchill called the event a “miracle of deliverance.” The newspapers carried the title: “Miracle of the Deliverance”.
In the speechChurchill did not start with the headline: 338,000 Allied troops rescued. Instead, he admitted that he expected “maybe” 20,000 to 30,000 troops to be saved. He raised the suspense to show how the odds were stacked against them. “The enemy attacked from all sides with great force and ferocity,” Churchill said. The enemy “sowed magnetic mines in the canal” and sent “repeated waves of hostile planes, more than a hundred strong in a single formation”. Under the “incessant rain of bombs”, the civilians on the boats “never wavered”.
Although Churchill did not water down the dire situation facing Britain (the losses were “enormous”), Churchill spoke as if Britain had already won the war. His words were short and decisive. “We will not falter or fail. We will go all the way, ”Churchill said. Imagine if Churchill had hedged his bet. No one would have been inspired if Churchill had said, “We could continue to wage war if we find the conditions favorable.”
In the last climatic paragraph of the speech, Churchill leaves no room for discussion. His words are upbeat, provocative, confident and decisive, exactly what people needed to hear.
“We will fight in France, we will fight on seas and oceans, we will fight with increasing confidence and strength in the air, we will defend our island at all costs, we will fight on the beaches, we will fight in the docks, we will fight in the fields and in the streets we will fight in the hills; We will never surrender.”
Churchill uses two powerful rhetorical devices in the paragraph: anaphora and vivid imagery.
The anaphora is the repetition of the same words or phrases in successive sentences. When Churchill repeats “We will fight… we will fight… we will fight,” each sentence adds to the power of the moment. It is almost impossible not to be moved. One MP wrote in his diary that many MPs had tears in their eyes.
Churchill’s speech also included vivid images. The British would not just fight… they would fight “in the air… on the beaches… in the hills… in the streets”. Churchill said once that the last lines of a speech must have a “rapid succession of sound waves and vivid images”. The brain does not process abstractions very well. Churchill’s words were specific, tangible, and vivid.
Churchill was very young when he first understood the power of words to inspire. At the age of 22, he wrote: “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is as precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a more lasting power than that of a great king.
Dunkirk must be remembered to continue to inspire generations. It is also important to remember that inspiring leaders are always necessary to breathe the Dunkirk spirit into the soul of their listeners.