Three powerful life lessons from an excellent war movie

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Photo from the movie Dunkirk

War is hell. We all know that — at least I hope we all know that. We are reminded on a regular basis about both the horrors and heroics of war.

Bottom line — it brings out the best and the worst in mankind.

We have many books, movies, television shows, videos and monuments all aimed at giving all of us insights about war, and what it is like.

As you know, I served in the military, but I never deployed into combat. I did spend many years preparing for it, studying it, and learning about it.

Based on what I know and have learned from others — we get unique insights into human nature by learning from previous wars.

Occasionally a movie comes along that reminds us how awful war can be. Dunkirk is one of those movies. It is a grim reminder that WWII did not start well for the Allies. In fact, it was a military disaster on all fronts.

The Germans were able to conquer much of Europe quickly. I watched Dunkirk last night, and really enjoyed it.

The director lets history tell the story and attempts to personalize it by focusing on a small group of individuals who are caught in the action — soldiers and civilians.

The movie is intense, and I think it points out three things about human nature that are worth reflecting on after watching the film.

We are all selfish

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The Germans trapped allied troops at Dunkirk.

The battle of Dunkirk focuses on the fact that a large part of the British Army was surrounded by the Nazis early in the war and needed to be evacuated back to England before it is annihilated. It is a dire situation.

The movie does an excellent job portraying how bad things were for the British. The enemy is closing in. All the British are trying to get out of France, and the only way out is via the English Channel.

There are not enough ships for everyone. Time is running out, so various characters in the movie start to take matters into their own hands. It is an “only the strong survive” type situation which leads to selfish behavior.

It should not be surprising that people get selfish. It is in all of us — the will to survive. It comes out especially when the stakes are high.

Putting other first is a difficult choice to make, and does not happen naturally. Usually our basic instinct is to take care of ourselves first.

Something to think about anytime you are in a tough situation. Look for this behavior in others, and monitor it in yourself.

We can all be heroes

The evacuation of Dunkirk ended up being successful because of the extraordinary deeds of many average people. The British government send out a call for help, and many answered.

The film focuses on one family who joins in the action and plays their part in the evacuation despite many challenges. The director does a nice job keeping these everyday participants anonymous during the action.

He does not treat them like superheroes. They don’t have superpowers or any special abilities. They simply do what is necessary to get the job done.

The same holds true for many other participants to include the Air Force pilots who fought bravely to keep the evacuation ships safe.

Remember — heroes come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and backgrounds.

Don’t be fooled by Marvel and DC comics — there is no real Superman or Wonder Woman. They are not coming to rescue us. Rather it is up to normal people like you and me to be heroic when called upon.

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David Bowie was right — we can all be heroes, if just for one day.

We can fight another day

When WWII begins — the Nazis are prepared. No other country really is ready and it shows. Dunkirk is a pivotal point in the war. The French are defeated, and England evacuates in order to prepare for a potential invasion.

British leadership is forced to make some really tough decisions. They are outmatched, and they know it. They need a new strategy.

They decide to do something a little different than normal — they celebrate their retreat from Dunkirk. Normally in military operations, any retreat is seen as a loss and should not be celebrated.

But, British leadership realizes that the evacuation allows them to fight another day, and fight they will. The movie ends with Winston Churchill’s stirring speech that finishes with “we will never surrender”.

Anytime I hear this speech — it inspires me.

Also, it reminds me that some days you will lose. In fact, you may need to retreat, regroup, refit, and prepare to fight another day.

Notice that I did not say quit, but live to fight another day. It is a perfectly suitable strategy in some situations.

If you have not seen Dunkirk — I suggest that you do. Below is a link to the trailer for the film. Hopefully, you get a lot out of the film like I did.


I write a blog for my sons called Doug Keating Letter to Sons. I am sharing content from my blog here. I hope you enjoyed it. All feedback is welcome. Thanks for reading it.

Originally published at on July 23, 2017.

Leader and learner. Father of two young men. Novice blogger,, Founder of All The Way Leadership!

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