Dunkirk: A Lesson in Survival

I saw Christopher Nolan’s epic film “Dunkirk” recently. It is a mesmerising experience of war. I left the theatre with mud on my face and blood on my sleeve.

War is shattering. It scars the body and ravages the mind. I felt exhausted but I had survived.  As film reviewer Jonathan Romney says,

“Dunkirk does feel like a convincing and thorough evocation of how it might have felt to have been there.”

If you are unfamiliar with the history, the time was June 1940. The British Expeditionary Force, sent to stem the Nazi advance into Belgium and France, had been pushed steadily back to the sea.

The British people were galvanised into action. A ragtag fleet of smaller vessels, pleasure boats, barges, yachts, ferries and fishing boats, many piloted by civilians, sailed across the channel to rescue the besieged British Army from certain annihilation. The evacuation, known as ‘Operation Dynamo’ represented a turning point in the course of World War II. Nearly 350,000 troops were saved.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill called it ‘a miracle of deliverance.’

“Dunkirk” is a story of suffering. The suffering is immense. Lives are torn apart. There is no respite. The heat of the battle calls for vigilance and perseverance. You can take nothing for granted. The enemy is everywhere, within and without. He might even be the soldier standing beside you.

“Dunkirk” is also a story of survival. Again Jonathan Romney expresses it well. He says,

“Dunkirk is pitiless about the way that people will do anything to survive, and about the harsh choices that have to be made in war.”

As one belligerent young soldier says, “Survival isn’t fair.”

“Dunkirk” provides a compelling insight into survival. Let me share with you three important aspects of survival.

(1) Our survival can never be taken for granted.

The film starts with a small detachment of British soldiers walking along a deserted street. There doesn’t appear to be any sense of urgency. The soldiers look through windows in search of cigarettes, stop to drink from a garden hose and read the German propaganda floating down from the sky. The tranquil scene is shattered by the sound of gun fire. Only one survives, ‘Tommy.’ Lunging over a gate, he finds himself out of reach of enemy fire.

Donna Thistlewaite recently talked about the attempt she made on her life on the ABC’s Australian Story. Returning to her hard earned HR position, 14 months after the birth of her son, she encountered a new IT system. Although her colleagues thought her competent, Donna worried about her ability to stay on top of her work. Being an over achiever she was self-critical. She thought herself to be a fraud. She began to worry that she might lose her job and contemplated the economic realities of being unemployed. With her partner away, her thoughts spiralled out of control. Thinking back on that time Donna said,

“My thoughts were irrational? I couldn’t see any way out of the situation.”

She began to think everyone would be better off without her. Her psychiatrist Dr George Blair-West says,

“When people are suicidal, they have this ‘cognitive narrowing.’

Ten days after returning to work Donna jumped from the Story Bridge in Brisbane, a known suicide hotspot. Fifteen people had lost their lives falling from the Story Bridge in 2012. She should have died. It was a 40-metre drop. The surface of the water would have been like concrete. Queensland Ambulance Service medical officer Dr Steve Rashford says,

“Normally people hitting the water suffer multiple catastrophic injuries.”

Her body was spotted by a passing passenger ferry. The deckhand expected a dead body but she was alive.

Donna has this advice for anyone contemplating suicide. She says,

“I would say to anyone not to give up. It is possible to feel different to how you feel right now. And there is hope.”

Donna’s story is an example of how a life can unravel. With no history of mental illness, Donna descended into a dark place. She survived, but only just.

(2) Our survival is dependent on the intervention of others.

When Tommy makes it to the beach he sees another young soldier, Gibson, burying one of the many bodies that litter the beach. Gibson is French and has commandeered the British soldier’s uniform. Although little is said, the two men recognise their need of each other. They team up to survive. Desperate to make it onto one of the ships that troops are boarding, they pretend to be medics carrying a stretcher to get them to the front of the queue. The wounded soldier is taken on board while they are denied.

Tommy and Gibson hide out by the mole (the concrete structure separating the water) until the next vessel shows up. The boat they are waiting for comes under attack and sinks. They pluck one of the survivors, a soldier called Alex, from the water.

Eventually, they boarded another vessel. But making it on board didn’t guarantee their survival. Gibson is uneasy. Having travelled only a short distance, a torpedo hits the ship, causing water to burst in. As the ship sinks, Gibson gets out of the ship and manages to open the hatch for Tommy, Alex and a few other men to get out.

It is 20 years since ski instructor Stuart Diver was pulled from the rubble of the Thredbo landslide after 65 hours trapped underground. He was the only survivor. 18 people were killed in the landslide including his wife Sally.

Lying on his back in a terrifying concrete coffin for 65 hours a freezing Stuart Diver escaped into a hallucinatory state. Stuart said, “I repeatedly lapsed into dream-like states.”

In the pitch black, deep in water, covered in mud and with no room to move, his mind roamed, travelling the world.
Rescue workers found the recovery effort physically and mentally torturous. As the hours ticked by it became a search for bodies.

On day three, as the rescue equipment fell silent for yet another check for life, a muffled response was heard.

Reliving the terrifying night two decades ago, Stuart says,

“Surviving just got so brutally hard. But the human mind is an amazing thing.”

(3) Our chances of survival are jeopardised when we fall victim to our own demons.

Perhaps the most confronting scene is that of a British soldier striding down the beach toward the sea. He pauses, removes his jacket, lays down his rifle, and strides out into the water to certain death. A group of soldiers are sitting nearby observing this desperate act but not a word is spoken and no-one moves to intervene. The body of the soldier will come ashore with the next high tide. His tag will be removed and his death noted, “killed in action.”

Only a soldier who has seen active duty knows how the trauma of war can change a person over night. As Parker J. Palmer says,

“War is one of those times when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able.”

One can only surmise why the other soldiers chose not to get involved. Were they emotionally bankrupt? Had their familiarity with death numbed their senses? Were their thoughts focussed on their own survival? Could they give no assurances of a better future?

Jesse Bird, 32, took his life in June of this year. He is one of many Defence Force personnel to take their lives. Between 2001–2015 there were 325 confirmed suicides of serving and former ADF members.
Jesse Bird had been pursuing a claim for permanent impairment due to post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and alcohol abuse.

He was a private with Townsville’s 1RAR Infantry Battalion who served an eight-month deployment in Afghanistan in 2009-10.

According to an ABC news report, he was exposed to psychological trauma including being shot at, and nearly hit by insurgents and standing near to bomb blasts caused by improvised explosive devices.

A close mate, Private Benjamin Ranaudo, was killed by one of those bomb blasts. It had a lasting effect on Jesse.

In May the Department of Veterans’ Affairs declined Jesse Bird’s claim for permanent impairment. He was angry and dejected. His hopes of financial certainty and independence were dashed. He died alone seven weeks later.

A study has found that veterans aged between 18 and 24 were twice as likely to take their own lives as their civilian counterparts.

War veteran, 97-year-old Ken Sturdy had this to say after seeing the World War II drama “Dunkirk.”

“I never thought I would see that again. It brought it all back. All those memories, stored away in my mind.”

He added:

“Tonight I cried because it’s never the end. War never ceases. We the human species are so intelligent and we do such astonishing things. We can fly to the moon but we still do stupid things. We never learn.”

You can listen to Ken talk about “Dunkirk” at youtube.com  Search: Ken Sturdy dunkirk   


Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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