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The Churchill We Misremember

We've turned him into a moralizing rallying call towards every war imaginable. In reality, he was far more complex than that.

Last weekend I saw “Darkest Hour,” the biopic about Winston Churchill’s early prime ministerial days in 1940, and liked it less than I’d expected to. It felt too Hollywood, too cartoonish, as best illustrated by a scene near the end that finds Churchill ejecting from his car like Vin Diesel has just ignited its gas tank and descending into the London Underground. There he asks a train full of Brits what he should do about the Nazi problem; their hearty reply: fight on! Cut to his famous speech before his cabinet in which he declares that Britain will fall “only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground,” an oration that really did move his ministers to applause and was compelling enough without some preposterous display of subway egalitarianism.

But maybe I’m just being fussy (an eminently Churchillian quality, by the way). “Darkest Hour” is beloved by critics, after all, and has so far grossed $41 million domestically, not bad for a period piece about British parliamentary jockeying. The biggest reason for its success is its main character who seems to have kindled the public imagination of late: there was Churchill in Netflix’s “The Crown” portrayed by John Lithgow, in a recent eponymous film about the run-up to D-Day played by Brian Cox, and in absentia for one of his greatest triumphs in the mega-hit “Dunkirk.” George Patton, once the World War II figure who most fascinated Americans, has at least for now been edged aside, one pithy warrior for another.

It is Churchill’s sheer capacity that enchants us, his presence in the map rooms and on the battlefields of two world wars, guzzling whisky-and-waters, setting more words to paper than most professional writers do in their lifetimes, dispatching his opponents with vinegarish bon mots (his assessment of Clement Attlee, “a sheep in sheep’s clothing,” may be the best political putdown in history). The historian Paul Johnson, in his slim and slobbering volume on Churchill, attributes some of this prolificacy to, of all things, his subject’s abstinence from the “worry and emotional storm” of adultery, though that was surely one of the few vices Churchill ever managed to avoid. He imbibed constantly and was a reckless gambler, two habits that conspired to nearly bankrupt him. He was politically opportunistic, repeatedly defecting between parties and constituencies. He could be prickly, temperamental, and egoistic. Summarizing popular perception, a friend of mine once called him the “man-shouts-at-cloud of the Second World War.”

But those vices also ascribe to him a humanity lacking in his Yalta colleagues. Franklin Roosevelt was elevated into a presidential god, his wheelchair and his authoritarianism airbrushed away, and Stalin was eventually acknowledged as a genocidal villain. But Churchill always remained of this realm, eminently relatable with his tumbler and his tongue. Furthering his appeal is the mythology we’ve grown up around him, which remembers a lone exemplar of moral backbone amidst scoliotic appeasers, an advocate of grand projects over picayune squabbles, willing to make tough and even deadly calls when the circumstances demanded it. Churchill shows that our peccadilloes can be obscured, even glamorized, in posterity by the heroic decisions we make, which is why he’s especially adored by public figures. Yet some are more susceptible to his mystique than others.

There is a certain personality that longs to be present at one of history’s rare exhilarating moments, when everything is cast into shades of black and white and pragmatic realism becomes untenable; that disdains the minutiae of policymaking and longs for the momentous and big. To him, Churchill is a natural hero. The best example of such a person in the United States is Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor, who invokes Churchill so often you’d be forgiven for thinking he held a séance with him nightly. To Kristol, every mediocre potentate with a colander on his head is a nascent Hitler; every declined opportunity to take him out is 1938 Munich. The world over is simplistic and binary because Kristol prefers it that way, because it’s less gratifying to deal in the grays of reality than to choose good over evil while the symphony crescendos.

Hop the Atlantic and you find Boris Johnson, the Clorox-coiffed Conservative Party gadfly. Johnson, too, is a Churchill admirer, so much so that he published a book back in 2014 called The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. More than one reviewer has observed that it superimposes its subject on its author, with Marina Hyde at The Guardian even calling it a “psychiatric document.” I’m far more sympathetic to Johnson than I am to Kristol, but he does appear to have a blazing thirst to be prime minister, and Churchill has always seemed his model. So Johnson mutters and gaffes, repeatedly knifes his fellow Tories in the back, but all that’s okay because what matters is that he chose rightly when it counted, in his case for Brexit. To Johnson, Churchill is a model to emulate, to Kristol he’s a lens, but the common denominator is the same: a world of bold colors, not pale pastels, that forgives ambition in the service of greatness.

The problem is that, as Andrew Bacevich observed, Churchill’s moment cannot so easily explain our own. Most historical occasions are not Dunkirk and D-Day; most problems can’t be solved with mere courage and willpower. The little stuff does matter and ignoring it in favor of sweeping moral catharsis can bring calamity, as has happened with the fight against terrorism. We forget, too, that Churchill himself was chary about war as only one who experienced it could have been—and that sometimes he even advocated for restraint. In 1901, he gave a speech to the House of Commons opposing a British Army buildup because he worried it would enable those who wanted to have it out across the Continent. “I have frequently been astonished since I have been in this House to hear with what composure and how glibly Members, and even Ministers, talk of a European war,” he said, an admonishment informed by his own sanguinary experiences in the Second Boer War and the Mahdist War in the Sudan. Warning about newspapers that had whipped their readers into nationalist frenzies, he continued: “Democracy is more vindictive than Cabinets. The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings.”

They were indeed. Out of European recklessness would rampage two world wars that saw Churchill send soldiers to their doom at Gallipoli, demand the total destruction of Hitler’s regime, and order the bombing of German cities. I’m not trying to paint Churchill as some sort of closet dove: his foremost role was that of warlord and once an enemy was upon him he fought savagely. But he was also a far subtler thinker than the facile ghost rattling around in the hawkish imagination. He waged war but he also feared it gravely, especially what he called “scientific” war, conflicts fought with increasingly destructive modern weapons. In his 1946 “The Sinews of Peace” address at Westminster College in Missouri, which became remembered as his “Iron Curtain” speech, he struck a balance between realism and idealism, pronouncing that “it is not our duty at this time when difficulties are so numerous to interfere forcibly in the internal affairs of countries which we have not conquered in war” while also averring that “the great principles of freedom and the rights of man” must be proclaimed. Years later, he would decline President Eisenhower’s invitation to join an American coalition and intervene in Vietnam.

Historical memory is like a great compactor, crushing nuances and flattening wrinkles until a person or event is made a perfect morsel for popular consumption. We have rendered Churchill what we will—and yet the average American doesn’t spend much time cursing the Chamberlain premiership. So why is Churchill suddenly back in vogue? My best guess is that annoyance with our current president has something to do with it. Whereas Trump brays, Churchill spoke with winged words; whereas Trump obsesses over the trivial, Churchill dealt mostly in the grand; whereas Trump has made our times perilous and uncertain, Churchill resolved his favorably. There is still much to admire in the old lion, even if he wasn’t the subway-rallying universal we’ve made him out to be.

Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.