Protecting the Boats

Author: Gary Hart

Dunkirk is a haunting movie on several levels in the sense that it stays with you and its scenes recur during the long nights.  What follows is not a movie review but rather a review of why it has that quality.  Many will see it as a war movie, albeit one of the best, but others like me cannot let it go because of what it says about humans in combat and the moral lessons derived from them.

I’ve known many military men and women of all ranks and stations.  None is more distinguished than an Air Force pilot I am privileged to know who, after serving too many years in a Vietnamese prison, returned to achieve the rank of General.  I thought of him while watching the movie and afterwards sought his response to it.

Not surprisingly, he observed the scenes of a few British Spitfire planes trying to hold off attacking German fighters and bombers wreaking havoc on troops awaiting evacuation on the beach and on the armada of small craft from England’s Eastern shore struggling to extricate those troops.

Most notable was one pilot who was running out of fuel and had to decide in a moment whether to head for home or stay and protect the boats.  Here is my pilot friend’s analysis:

He crossed Joseph Conrad’s “Shadow Line,” the decision point where one chooses to step back and retreat into safety, or step forward to accept moral responsibility, and the risk that goes with it. With a perfectly clear understanding of his fate, he chose to stay and protect the boats until the last drop of fuel was gone.”

He knew he was not going home.

Few of us, absent combat, are faces with this existential decision.  But in other ways this kind of decision confronts us, usually in unexpected forms.  Do I live for myself or do I do my duty and do what is morally right regardless of the consequences.  Do I head for home and safety or do I stay and protect the boats.

When confronted with this character-defining decision, usually there is little if any time for reflection.  So the decision to run or stay usually is a measure of the depth of a person’s heart and soul.  Who am I?  What is important in life?  Do I live for myself or for others?

Although it is popular to assume that all elected officials face a “profiles in courage” decision almost daily, in fact it happens rarely…but it does happen.  Living as we do in an age of careerism where Senators and Representatives bend and twist in peculiar ways to avoid unpopular decisions and to succeed in the next election, there are too few examples of those who place the national interest, what’s best for the nation, over their own political survival.  But I have known those who did and they gave me hope for our future.

It would be good for all of us, from time to time, to look into our own souls to find out who we really are, especially in those long dark nights of the soul.  We may not be that pilot and our decisions may not be that dramatic.  But one way or the other at some point in our lives we reach down into that reservoir of courage and decide: do I head for home and safety, or do I stay and protect the boats.

4 Responses to “Protecting the Boats”

  1. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    I haven’t had a chance to see Dunkirk yet but, I will.

    So glad to have read this first!

  2. Laura Says:

    It would stand more easily for those of weak character, to do the right thing for the country IF TERM LIMITS stood before them. As in if I want to be remembered at al, I have to do the best for the country from the start, because my time is short! PERIOD!

  3. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    Some responsibility lies with those of us behind the front lines. How often our military personnel are placed in harms way, are killed or wounded in ways that are physical, emotional and even spiritual only to return to us and find themselves abandoned in short order? Dunkirk showed a resolve among the British people that this should not happen to them. Although many among us will always be cynical, I would wager the emotional response of most of us to the British peoples’ response to the plight of their warriors would be to feel elevated and reflect that somehow these qualities lay latent within each one of us.

    Our great leaders have been honored in so many ways for their lasting contributions to us as a nation. I imagine if they could speak to us today, they would say your monuments, material rewards and platitudes are all very nice but we would want you to imbibe as much of those qualities you admired in us into yourselves.

    As American’s, we chose a path at the birth of this nation of implicit freedom. A challenge worthy of the wise and honest. Our greatness or lack thereof lies with the individual choices made in that freedom before the circumstances life chooses to present us with.

    I feel strongly if we choose to follow the dictates of our hearts before the machinations of confusing thoughts muddy the waters we will do what’s right and come out all the better for it. Politicians are people too. Let us give them an example to follow.

  4. Chris R. Says:

    I am named, in part, for an uncle who spent WWII in the U.S. Navy serving under then Captain Hyman Rickover, from whom he received a glowing letter of reference. One of the books I received from him was Nicholas Harman’s, “Dunkirk: The Patriotic Myth”. Harman argues, that Dunkirk was militarily very defensible. (The Germans held it after D-Day until the end of the war without the world’s largest navy, and blitzkrieg tactics were ineffective against such a target, cf. St. Petersburg.) The retreat from Dunkirk was turned by British propaganda into a victory of sorts when the reality was that men and material were left behind and invaluable territory was abandoned, necessitating the costly D-Day landings and casualties years later. In short, when confronted with the choice of Conrad’s shadow line, the Brits cut and ran to wait for the U.S. to shoulder the burden.

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