Amid the dank rancor of our present political moment, glimmers of light must be celebrated. A few weeks ago, Americans watched in horror as some of us beat each other with bats and clubs and a car plowed into a crowd leaving a young woman dead. Charlottesville was a demoralizing blow that left us asking, is this who we are? Is this what we’ve become?
A video of an impromptu speech Defense Secretary Jim Mattis gave when he unexpectedly happened on a group of troops deployed in Jordan went viral this week because it reminded us, quite unequivocally, the answer is no.
“I know you’re far from home every one of you, I know you could all be going to college you young people, or you could be back on the block….we’re just grateful,” Mattis said. “The only way this great big experiment you and I call America is gonna survive is if we’ve got tough hombres like you.”
“You’re a great example for our country right now. It’s got some problems—you know it and I know it,” Mattis continued. “It’s got problems that we don’t have in the military. And you just hold the line, my fine young soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines. You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it, of being friendly to one another. That’s what Americans owe to one another—we’re so doggone lucky to be Americans.”
“We’ve got two powers, the power of inspiration – and we’ll get that back. And we’ve got the power of intimidation. And that’s you, if someone wants to screw with our families, and our country, our allies,” he said. “So, thanks so much for being out here.”
“I flunked retirement, OK?” Mattis joked. “The only reason I came back was to serve alongside young people like you, who are so selfless and frankly so rambunctious.”
“Oorah!” they barked back approvingly. And then, speaking for all of us, someone shouted, “God bless America!” Indeed.
Mattis’ words were of gratitude, not grievance; respect for one another, not resentment. His reverence for the great American project was infectious in its plain-spoken eloquence. It was a much needed reminder that, as bad as things seem, we need not despair.
Heroes of Harvey
Meanwhile in Texas, as the flood waters rose in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, countless acts of selflessness, generosity and downright heroism underscored his point.
Ordinary people plied Houston’s flooded streets in boats, kayaks, and air mattresses in search of neighbors in need of help. Among them, an armada from Louisiana calling themselves the “Cajun Navy” — hundreds of volunteers who were determined to repay the community that had taken them in after Katrina by rescuing stranded families from the roofs of flooded homes. Their slogan, “floodwaters don’t discriminate” rings so right.
When a man was stranded in his car, strangers linked hands in a human chain to pull him from the floodwaters. Another human chain of neighbors formed outside of a flooded apartment to help a woman in labor reach a truck that would ferry her to the hospital.
Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, a Houston furniture store owner turned his showroom into a makeshift shelter. Over the past week he’s fed and housed 400 people. It’s costing him $30,000 a day, but he was not worried about that. “Furniture’s made to be sat on, slept on, laid on, whatever…to hell with profits, let’s take care of people,” McIngvales said. “We’ll have a Harvey floor model sale, or something — I’ll come up with some shtick…this is the right thing to do. That’s the way I was brought up.”
“These are my people, black, white, brown, white it doesn’t matter. These are my people and I’ve got to help my people,” he told CBS News.
McIngvale who also opened his store’s doors to Katrina evacuees, recoils at being called a hero. Although by any definition he most certainly is one. “The heroes are these people that have been flooded out. The heroes are the Gallery Furniture employees who are unsinkable. The heroes is the entire community, forget Democrat, Republican, left, right, they’re all coming together in a spirit of solidarity saying we’re Texas and were about helping each other,” McIngvale said, his voice trembling now. “It’s what my wife and I are trying to teach our children, service above self.”
Among those troops in Jordan, and in Jim Mattis, the patriot who leads them we saw it. In the heroes of Houston we saw it too. That indomitable American spirit that rises in times of hardship to unite us. It renders the charlatans that seek to divide us powerless. It makes the rancor of our political differences seem so petty.
“We are a great nation. We forget,” wrote Peggy Noonan in a wonderful column Friday. “But what happened in Texas reminded us. It said: My beloved America you’re not a mirage, you’re still here.”
Jim Mattis promised those fine, rambunctious men and women that we’ll get the power of inspiration back. In a small way we already have.