Lawrence J. McCloskey, author and Director of the Paul Menton Centre, Carleton University

“Darkest Hour,” released in 2017, stars Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. The film received 68 film award nominations and won 48 times. These included six Academy Award nominations and two wins, including Best Actor.

Anthony McCarten’s book Darkest Hour: How Churchill Brought England Back from the Brink and the 2017 movie based on the book, raise several disturbing questions: Could a leader’s words galvanize large numbers of today’s young men (mostly) and women to march willingly into a war against a maniacal tyrant—at the moment of greatest crisis when that war seemed lost? Further, could they accept severe privation, persevere against adversity, apply personal resilience for the common good and find meaning in the messy mix?

Although far from empirical, asking these questions of friends, family, acquaintances and, more recently, their children has been a fascination of mine with interesting results. About two thirds of respondents say that humans have an inherent, archetypal defense mechanism for dealing with existential threats. But this assumption of collective resolve seems wildly optimistic for no particular reason.

In 1940, Churchill was far from optimistic. The French surrendered, leaving Britain standing alone against—and severely outmatched by—Hitler’s military forces. Churchill doubted whether the war could be won, whether the English Parliament and his cabinet would support him, and whether the common man would respond to the common—and seemingly, losing—cause. These fears were well founded and none of his eventual optimism was founded on anything objective.

Churchill’s ascendancy to prime minister was an act of desperation. He was considered wholly unsuitable, but there was no one else in the British war cabinet for the job. The prevalence of doubt might seem to undermine the legacy of Churchill’s steely resolve against all odds. But in the film and book, conquering doubt is portrayed as a strength. In fact, the resolution of doubt constitutes the narrative arc of “Darkest Hour”—more than the eminent collapse of Europe, more than the bombing blitz of London and even more than fear of an impending Nazi invasion. In fact, doubt is the necessary precursor to unflinching resolve. Blind optimism that doesn’t stop to assess challenges will produce courage but seldom successful strategies. “Darkest Hour” progresses narratively from darkness, open-eyed, into light for the 20th century’s greatest leader and the people who found within themselves the will to follow.

“The Gang” posing in front of a corner store beside Gladstone Park in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1938—months before shipping off to fight in World War II. Leonard P. McCloskey, who served in the Royal Canadian Navy as a Chief Petty Officer aboard the destroyer HMCS Matapedia, is on the lower right wearing a fedora.

Still, there is one significant oversight the book and especially the film commit. While Churchill was having his hour in the Garden of Gethsemane, the fate of more than 300,000 troops—which constituted the core of the British army—who were stranded on the beach at Dunkirk in northern France, was being decided. It seemed certain that few of these soldiers were going to be salvaged. Although “Darkest Hour” recognizes that Churchill implemented the brilliant plan to use hundreds of small private boats to rescue the troops, the movie gives Dunkirk scant treatment. If the Nazis had prevailed at Dunkirk, Churchill’s momentous resolve would have been nothing but a vain flicker. England would have been rendered helpless before a full-scale invasion.

This caveat aside, it’s no exaggeration to say that the war could not have been won without Churchill’s determination and the willingness of British soldiers and citizens to fight, sacrifice and be led, come what may. It is important to keep in mind that the odds of success were spectacularly long. Resolve in the face of likely victory is one thing, but the decision to fight without compromise in 1940 was an act of defiant courage that is barely understood today.

What was so Great about the Greatest Generation?

I grew up in the shadow of that unflinching resolve. My father enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy in September 1939, only days after Britain declared war on Germany. As a member of the Commonwealth, Canada joined the British war effort within a week, and there was no question for my father and “the gang” (in the photo above) that protecting Mother England was worth any sacrifice. Two of my dad’s brothers also enlisted in the Canadian Navy, while the other brother was too young for service. As well, six McCloskey cousins, just from my dad’s parish, also served.

Interestingly, most of the young men in the photo were from Irish Catholic families and didn’t have the warmest feelings for the English. But they were well aware of what duty demanded. They, the common people from the colonies, enlisted in large numbers to fight against totalitarianism and for freedom.

To catch a glimpse of this generation’s character, examine the gang in the photo. Here were 10 teenagers dressed in suits and ties in 1938, posing for a rare—and deceptive—memorialization. The smiles, joviality and elegant clothing mask that this was one of the poorest and toughest neighborhoods in the nation’s capital. My dad, on the lower right, was sporting his only suit and fedora, which he had earned.

Leonard P. McCloskey on the right with fellow newly minted sailor, Robert Dibben. Both men became Chief Petty Officers aboard the HMCS Matapedia, which was a Corvette class destroyer that escorted transport ships and hunted Nazi U-boats in the North Atlantic during World War II.

My dad started high school during the Great Depression when his father, a master carpenter, was often out of work. To help out the family, which included six siblings, my dad got up at 2 a.m. on school days to work on a milk run. No matter how cold or stormy in the predawn hours, he ran back and forth from the unheated horse-drawn vehicle to carefully deposit glass bottles of milk on doorsteps. After school, he had practices for the gymnastics team and then did homework and chores. At week’s end, he surrendered his earnings to his mother, who gave him back 25 cents for tobacco and cigarette papers.

My dad weighed a boyish 120 pounds at the end of high school. Photos after only a year of service at sea show him as a muscular 160-pound man with a look of fulfillment and purpose on his face—no doubt assisted by the introduction of three square meals into his daily life’s equation. This palpable sense of self-esteem and happiness, radiating from these photos, is a direct consequence of his generation’s commitment of service to others.

This service came with a high cost. More than 45,000 Canadian servicemen and women were killed during the war and about twice as many were wounded. Casualty rates were higher for Canadian than American warfighters since Canada entered the war years earlier. The three McCloskey brothers survived, but one suffered from PTSD and never recovered. Another had burns on his arms that never healed completely, nor was he exempt from psychological injury. My dad suffered a severe back injury, which restricted his mobility and left him in considerable pain for the rest of his life.

Never did he utter a word of complaint, which was not exceptional. Nor was he an angry man who took out his misfortune on his family. That was not exceptional either. These men were far from perfect. Many of them drank too much, exercised too little and died early. But they were good men, just as their sisters and wives were good women, many of whom served, if not directly in the armed forces, in the civilian war effort.
What was great about the Greatest Generation, as they have been deservedly deemed, was their genuine altruism in their service to others during the war and then to their communities afterwards.

The Great Disservice

Churchill had good material to work with: the post-Depression generation who were tough, resilient and willing to sacrifice for the common good in a way that is alien to most people today. In fact, we are so distant from the social cohesion of that era that we can no longer agree on values to hold in common or even that there exists a reason for their existence. The hard truth is, we boomers rebelled against our parents’ “square,” predictable adherence to God, family and country. We took the individual route to self-fulfillment, which is an expressway to hell. We spoiled our kids and damaged their ability to navigate the reality of what this world and life has to offer.

Case in point, the American College Health Association conducts a survey to assess the physical and mental health of college students. From 2000 to 2018, the percentage of students reporting that anxiety or depression negatively affecting academic performance increased from 11.3 to 45.2 percent. Almost two-thirds of today’s students report “overwhelming anxiety, “—a 50-percent increase in just five years. Another marker of the acute increase in health issues is the doubling of obesity rates (classes I, II & III), which are strongly related to anxiety and depression, from 8 to 16.2 percent of students since 2000.

Parental overprotection and the pathologizing of every life obstacle by the media haven’t helped. To be sure, globalization, uncertain job markets after college and the ceaseless blurring of the future that technology creates make everyone uneasy. But compared to their grandparents—who faced the Great Depression, when joblessness and poverty were the norm, and then World War II, during which loss of life or serious injury were likely—today’s youth has little to fear.

Beatles fans try to break through a police line at Buckingham Palace, where the group were due to receive the Member of the British Empire decoration from the Queen on October 26, 1965.

Yet many people of war-fighting age routinely talk about their darkest hour in terms of not having access to “safe spaces” when exposed to the “violence of words.” At many institutions of higher learning, including Ivy League universities, rooms are set aside to deal with student trauma when a speaker is invited to campus who espouses views differing from their ideology. They defend themselves literally by taking up crayons, not guns as past generations.

Too often, we, the children of the Greatest Generation, have performed a tremendous disservice to our children, which is being passed on in large measure to our grandchildren. Coddling instead of discipline and true love, inflated self-esteem instead of honest appraisal and unconditional yet uncompromising love, the illusion of endless choice instead of commitment and resolve. Indeed, anxiety is greatly heightened in a culture where one doesn’t ever have to really commit to a spouse, a career, a community, a life. Flux obscures focus, between which is an unbridgeable chasm of doubt.

On July 4, 1965, less than 20 years after V-Day, English playwright Noel Coward attended a performance of the Beatles in Rome. In his diaries, Coward—hardly an old-fashioned prude—described the boomer generation in its youth:

I was truly shocked and horrified by the audience. It was like a mass masturbation orgy; although apparently mild compared to what it usually is. … Mob hysteria when commercially promoted, or in whatever way promoted, always sickens me. To realize that the majority of the modern adolescent world goes ritualistically mad over those four innocuous, rather silly-looking men is a disturbing thought. Perhaps we are whirling more swiftly into extinction than we know.

Today’s young people, who are products of the pervasive self-esteem and identity-politics industries, are led to fixate on inward preoccupations in an age of anxiety and the concomitant mystery of increasing mental illness. These are primarily symptoms of a crisis of meaning. Most of today’s youth don’t have early morning jobs to help support their family; they don’t believe they are an integral part of something larger than themselves; they aren’t given relief from the burden of self in the service of others; they have been led to believe in the material world but, deep down, they suffer from the knowledge that self-centered, superficial realities are fraudulent. This nihilistic worldview has metastasized in less than half a century to create a spiritual ennui that is literally making our kids sick.

My parents’ world, Churchill’s generation, embraced the adversity that naturally breeds resilience, but which boomers decided to throw off—that is, we did not move forward, taking some of our parents’ generational attributes and discarding others; we threw out the proverbial baby with the bath water and proceeded to raise our kids without the context of common values.

But it isn’t working out, and it isn’t going to work out until we get back some purpose, something outside of self, something that admits to the self-evident truth of the existence of God, or put in ultra-modern terms, the reality that allegiance to self is self-destruction. We need to alleviate the selfish notions we have instilled in our kids or else face our darkest hour, for which there will not be a modern-day Winston Churchill to rise and save us. 