Seventy-four years ago, a short time in even human years, the fate of an army, a nation and even the world was at stake.
Adolf Hitler and his terrifying blitzkrieg had swept in and over Poland eight months earlier. Then he paused. There were declarations of war, but it became known as the “phony war.” The Nazi killing machine, for the time, stopped chewing up people and places.
In Europe, the British Expeditionary Force, especially waited. Nearly half a million strong, this army that was thrown together in pieces and panic was the British answer to the Panzers, SS and Stuka dive bombers. It was the wrong answer. Hoping for peace for so long and so hard, the United Kingdom was not prepared for this new, rapid and mobile fighting enemy. It and its allies were, as they say, “fighting the last war” of stalemate and trenches.
In May, the wait was over. The Germans stormed across the borders and static faux defenses and swiftly — at paces unheard of in the Great War — invaded France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The BEF was trapped between the superior forces in numbers, strategy, weapons and the English Canal. They retreated in mass disarray, destroying guns, lorries and supplies to keep them out of the hands of their pursuers. Desperately 400,000 converged on a small French coastal town of Dunkirk.
The incredible evacuation of this massive but beaten army from the beaches of France became known as the “Miracle of Dunkirk.” Instead of the expected and feared escape of only tens of thousands of soldiers, Operation Dynamo carried off 360,000 in anything that floated.
Unfortunately, doing the math, that left 40,000 behind. These men, mostly the rear guard, sacrificed themselves and their mates to all the brutality of battle. Now they were prisoners. Their Aryan capturers treated them as an inferior race of animals.
These men suffered all forms of abuse and deprivations for the next five years. They felt forsaken. Many had arrived at the beaches too late. There were no more ships. All they found were the wounded left behind to save the rest. It was every man for himself.
It was the word "forsaken" that began to gnaw on me. Five years of everyday death, lice, rubbish for food, masochistic guards and the humiliation of being defeated were all made worse by the thought that they had been forgotten, abandoned, forsaken by their comrades in arms, their government and their people.
What does it mean to be forsaken or for us to forsake? Loneliness does not reach the depths of despair that defines the feeling of being forsaken. In loneliness, there are still thoughts of others somewhere, anywhere, waiting and thinking about you. To be forsaken, you are rejected by those that you need the most. You are more than alone.
However, what if we turn forsaken around? We are commanded to forsake our sins. I like to think that sin in common language means everything we have done that causes pain, including errors, silly mistakes, lost opportunities, moments of doubt or self-criticism. What does it mean to forsake them? Wouldn’t it be nice if the evil of the world felt forsaken? The bad guys would look around for the young, foolish or the infirmed to join them, but there is no one on the horizon to share in their misery. If thoughts had personalities, can you imagine the disappointment of a childhood nightmare or a young adult's thoughtless transgression or an older person’s folly that is no longer relived on a daily basis?
When thinking of "forsake," there is this image of the BEF’s crippled tanks, blown-up cars, burning munitions or spiked cannon. It was all left behind.
It would be wonderful to leave our fears and insecurities on some beach. Too often, we try to get on the rescue tug dragging the damaged and useless past with us. Throw it away.
We need to learn to forsake without being forsaken.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing physician for 30 years and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org