Dunkirk, American Style

The scenes of destruction wrought on the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Harvey cannot do other than move even the stoniest heart. One aches at the sight of people who have lost everything, including loved ones. Yet amid these scenes of suffering and anguish there also shines a glimmer of hope. As I watched footage of ordinary people piloting their fishing boats down the streets of their flooded neighborhoods, plucking strangers from their upstairs bedrooms and rooftops and taking them to safety, I could not help but recall the events of September 1940.

Britain was in grave peril. Hitler’s armies were in the process of overrunning the Low Countries and France. After Belgium’s untimely surrender, the entire British Expeditionary Force and their allies—300,000 men and all of their vital war materiel—came under threat of imminent destruction. They were trapped. Hitler’s armies were the hammer and Dunkirk’s rocky coastline was the anvil: crush the British forces and England would be laid bare.

Winston Churchill’s island nation faced an existential threat. The poignancy of the challenge was matched only by the defiant British response. The ships of the British Navy were too large to get close enough to the beach where the flower of British manhood waited for help to appear on the horizon.The clock was running and the desperate rescue operation would have failed had not the British people plunged into the breach and retrieved the army using a ragtag flotilla of fishing boats, private yachts, tugboats, and just about anything else that would float. The timely, doughty intervention of the “Little Ships of Dunkirk” as they later came to be known, saved the British forces. Some were fitted out with naval crews but many of the pleasure craft were manned by their owners along with friends, family, and volunteers. It stands as one of history’s great triumphs of a free people in action.

It was hard not to see the parallels this week as Americans pulled together.

Disaster struck and a nation responded. It was not, thank God, a hostile army—it was the awesome, uncontrollable power of a hurricane. But the devastation is just the same. And so is the sacrifice, the heroism, and the love shown by Americans one for another. The hurricane descended on our country without regard to color or creed—black or white, red or blue—just Americans, as Lincoln said, “blood of the blood and flesh of the flesh.”

The scenes from Houston are horrific. Tens of thousands homeless, hundreds of thousands without water and power. It’s an environment that inspires fear, breeds disease, and, in some, stokes the criminal imagination.

There’s the price gouging and hoarding but there’s also the help not offered and the back turned. Lowest of all are the looters for whom no epithet or condemnation captures the depth of their depravity or expresses the full contempt with which they should be regarded.  Such is the human condition.

But they are not the story of Houston. Though the criminals and opportunists get too much of the press coverage they remain the exception. No, the story emerging from Houston is one of charity and sacrifice freely given. It is a story that not only speaks to the better angels of our nature; it exemplifies them.

The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes memorably described life outside of civil society as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. A major city that lies devastated in the wake of a major storm is one in which the institutions that uphold our civilization are strained to the breaking point where they are functioning at all. It’s the closest thing to Hobbes’ state of nature we are likely to see in 21st century America. Yet what characterized the response of these Americans was not chaos but kindness—an overwhelming outpouring of support. Yes, government sprang into action as is appropriate, bringing order and supplies. But what has impressed me most has been the rapid, selfless response of citizens on the ground.

Our nation’s many excellent charities have been deluged with donations (more are still needed). But there has been so much more than that. Even more than sending money, people took direct responsibility upon themselves to help friends, family, and strangers. While thousands flee to shelters, thousands more are taken into the homes of their friends and relations. Some will be there for months.

I have a friend who is a nurse at Houston Methodist Hospital. They’ve been short staffed for days—caregivers homes get hit too—but she and her colleagues have stayed on duty providing care long past the point of exhaustion. They’re not alone. Throughout Houston and across the region ordinary people—our fellow countrymen—responded with acts of kindness and generosity that will never be broadcast or memorialized. It’s been said that character is what you do when nobody is looking. So I am not surprised to see this American character on display. Americans love their country and they love each other.

In 1783, George Washington wrote to his countrymen that it was his “earnest prayer” that they would “entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens of the United States.” Looking at the reports from Houston we see heartrending scenes of loss. But amid the ruins we also see neighbor helping neighbor without any prompt or requirement from the authorities—just Americans linked arm in arm in a common struggle. It’s in those acts—again, mostly unrecorded and unknown—that we can see Washington’s prayer being answered.

When the British army was trapped at Dunkirk, Churchill called on the British people to save their boys. They responded and their memory is rightly honored. But when Hurricane Harvey tore through Houston ordinary Americans sprang into action without even being asked.

We’re quick to lament the divisions in our country and the degradation of our culture. But what we saw this week was something entirely different and better. While we spend so much time talking about our differences and disagreements there is still a common bond that ties us together. The American spirit is still strong and that should give us hope that we can build a better future.  


About Chris Buskirk

Chris is publisher and editor of American Greatness and the host of The Chris Buskirk Show. He was a Publius Fellow at the Claremont Institute and received a fellowship from the Earhart Foundation. Chris is a serial entrepreneur who has built and sold businesses in financial services and digital marketing. He is a frequent guest on NPR's "Morning Edition." His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Hill, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @TheChrisBuskirk

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20 responses to “Dunkirk, American Style”

  1. For all the detraction of Google lately, it confirms in seconds that the Dunkirk evacuation took place in late May and early June of 1940, not in September.

    • First rule of “journalism”: Ignore the facts and push the narrative.

  2. Houston & Dunkirk are not even close to analogous. Dunkirk was the result of a war England butted into. Houston was drowned by a hurricane.

    • Agree – if this is Buskirk writing a feel-good piece, he would be well-advised to stick to the rabblerousing.

    • Dude, England had a treaty commitment to mutual defense with Poland. Britain did not butt into that war. They were formally obliged to it.

  3. This article is right on. It is the same type of operation. The Cajun navy evacuating people around Houston, just as the British civilian boats evacuated soldiers from Dunkirk. Private citizens helping in both cases.

  4. Interesting. People helping people in a disastrous situation and the acts are debased by those with an ideological axe to grind.

    IMO, that reveals something about your core beliefs and personal worldview. Something disturbing.

  5. Let’s not overstate this. Harvey ain’t Dunkirk.
    Yes, Hobbes is there, sort of, any time the force of nature shows up —
    ‘red in tooth and claw’ as Tennyson put it more directly.

    Most Americans are doing what comes naturally to them. The only
    ones who need reminding that we are a decent and honorable and
    giving people are the denizens of the DC sewer and their familiar
    bag-carriers, above all in the media.

    There seems to be a subtext here: journalists are using
    catastrophically bad weather as a chance to go preening, in some
    cases to seek redemption by walking away from reflex hatred of
    President Trump, in others to try to reestablish lost credibility
    (Noonan, e.g.).

    Meanwhile, TX will continue to show the way without any need for
    the peanut gallery. That’s what Texans do, and why they walk tall.

    The rest of us will help as best we can. Not so sure about talking
    quietly here; the big stick will do a better job, particularly in the hands
    of those with a long memory.

  6. The great and genorous people of Texas showed the world one of the many things that make America great. They reached out to help all people. Religion, race, sex politics and all the other categories the Prog/Libtards use to divide us just didn’t matter to the great people of Texas. The only race they reached out to help was the Human Race.

    Renews hope in this cynical old man’s heart. Thanks Texas.

    God Bless the good people of Texas.

  7. No. Stop it. No allusions. Harvey is not Dunkirk, Katrina, or the Titanic. Each of life’s experiences is itself, not something else.

    The guts, the sacrifice, the nobility of the Empire forces at Dunkirk are an inspiration to us all. We must always study Dunkirk and try to understand courage and dignity. But it is itself. No one at Dunkirk ever thought, “Wow, this is just like flooding in Texas.”

  8. JJ Watt, the Houston NFL team player, has started a charity that has taken off in amazing fashion. He started to raise $200,000 and donated half of it to get started. So far his charity has raised over $16 million in a few days. It’s all going to the victims.

  9. a few dozen little boys with a love for beer went out to play with their boats
    it doesn’t change the characteristics of the idiocy that created this tragic situation – overdevelopment, denial of climate, excess reliance on zoning-free expansion

  10. I truely admire the people of Houston and respect their tragedy. Houston, however is not Dunkirk. The author didn’t even bother to confirm when the evacuation of Dunkirk happened.