pence texas flood damage
Pence to Texas: American people are with you
01:17 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: CNN National Security Analyst John Kirby is a retired rear admiral in the US Navy who served as a spokesman for both the state and defense departments in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

Story highlights

John Kirby: Secretary James Mattis told a group of troops that America is divided, and that they can be an example of unity

But Harvey has proven that the American people can come together in a time of crisis, writes Kirby

CNN  — 

Sometimes you can be a little too right, and, therefore, be a little wrong as well.

Take Secretary James Mattis, for instance.

The other day, while in Jordan, someone filmed him speaking to American troops. He gave them a pep talk – a good old fashioned, go-get-‘em kind of pep talk.

“You’re a great example for our country right now, and it’s got some problems. You know it, and I know it. It’s got problems we don’t have in the military. And you just hold the line, my fine soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines,” Mattis said.

He’s got a point. Our troops really are an example of service and sacrifice. But the courage and hard work of Texans in response to Hurricane Harvey makes clear there’s plenty of other good examples out there, too. We shouldn’t underestimate our fellow citizens.

Of course, some people pounced on Mattis and claimed he was rebuking President Donald Trump, that he was taking a shot at the commander in chief, who, after the Charlottesville protests, only deepened the tear in the nation’s political and social fabric by equating counterprotesters with neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.

Mattis pushed back on that notion Thursday, telling Pentagon reporters that he was channeling the same unifying message Trump delivered last Monday during his Afghanistan speech.

Trump began that speech by decrying the rifts in modern American society. “When one part of America hurts,” Trump said, “we all hurt. And when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together. Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people.”

I know what Mattis meant, even if it did come across a bit differently than the way Trump put it. The defense secretary wasn’t picking on his boss, and he wasn’t suggesting that the troops are better than the citizens they defend.

He was simply stating the obvious: We’re a nation divided right now, and the troops serve as a great example of selflessness and teamwork.

Fair enough. But was he totally correct?

I’m not so sure. Look at Texas.

Not a lot of hatred, bigotry and political backbiting going on there right now. Well, maybe there’s a little backbiting, but it sure seems confined to the politicians.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, what we’re seeing instead is a lot of good people looking for ways to help a lot of other good people. Government and private shelters, as well as private homes, opening up their doors. Neighbors searching for neighbors … and their neighbors’ dogs, cats, parakeets and hamsters.

Millions of dollars pouring into the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and dozens of other grassroots aid groups. And a literal fleet of john boats, rafts, canoes, kayaks, paddle boards and airboats, manned by citizen sailors, going back and forth across newly formed lakes and rivers of flood water, rescuing people – their fellow citizens – in need.

Nobody’s asking who you voted for, who you love or who your ancestors were before picking you up, drying you off and delivering you to higher ground.

Maybe we finally got the message. Or maybe this is just how Americans react during a crisis.

Maybe when the flood waters recede and the danger passes, we’ll go back to beating each other up. Or maybe, just maybe, both can be true at the same time: we can still be a divided nation and able to pull together when it’s most needed.

In either event, the thousands of troops now engaged in recovery efforts will continue to contribute to those efforts with the same professionalism with which they perform every other mission assigned to them. They will subvert themselves to civil authority. They will come prepared to stay for as long as needed. They will help organize and integrate hitherto uncoordinated efforts.

And they will bring with them all the tools necessary: helicopters, boats, radios, supplies and, perhaps above all else, compassion, skill and alacrity – the very same qualities being exhibited by their fellow countrymen.

Because these troops aren’t something apart from America. They aren’t even something apart from Texas. Hundreds of them are Texas National Guard: next-door neighbors, local soccer coaches, teachers and students. They live there, pray there, study there and dream there.

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    Mattis is not wrong. We’ve got big problems in this country. We need to do a better job listening to and respecting one another. And, clearly, there’s still a civilian-military gap we need to continue to close. Americans support the troops, to be sure, but because so few of them have ever served in uniform – less than 1% – most civilians don’t really understand the troops or their families.

    But when you look at those images coming out of Texas, and you see what everyone is doing to save lives and support civil authority, you have to believe there’s hope that it’s not just our troops who serve as great examples.

    You have to consider that Mattis isn’t entirely right, either.

    And I’m betting he would be just fine with that.