Ethos and Culture Matter

What is it to be an American?   That is always a good question and one floating about a lot these days with heated political rhetoric from all comers.  Nothing wrong with the heated rhetoric as such, ‘it is a mark of our freedoms and rights and we have always been pugnacious when it comes to our politics.  Take a look at our history and the words today are pretty mild compared to some of the utterances from times past.   Basically it could be postulated that the Left doesn’t think that is a relevant question and that we should be aspiring to be citizens of the world and that “nationalism” is a dead cause and even immoral to hear some of them spout it.   There view doesn’t hold to a Judea-Christian ethic system but rather a far more secular and allegedly scientific approach to the human animal.  They are more inclined to believe we act and react from the stimulus around us in certain ways and the duty of government is to control that stimulus and even it out so no one is very far from the mean average–except the leaders at the top which are elite and know what is best for the great unwashed public.

In the early 1850’s the British built the first troopship for transporting troops across the vast reach of the British Empire.  It was the first of its kind being designed not as a fighting ship but to ferry the troops where needed.  It was called the Birkenhead.  After a few voyages it was loaded with replacement troops in England to aid in the Kaffir battles in South Africa in the early 1850’s.  A number of the troops had their wives and children come with them because they didn’t know when they would be returning.  It might be for years.  Due to the exigent circumstances it was overloaded to maximize the troop numbers.  It had almost 700 souls on board.  It left England and hit a severe storm in the Bay of Biscay as it made it way south and the storm lasted for over a week.  The seasickness and damage to the ship was significant.  Everyone was miserable including the experienced sailors on board to handle the ship.  The storm did finally abate as they passed west of Gibraltor.

They made it to the Cape of Good Hope without further incident.  There it was learned that the troops were badly needed around the Cape and some troops disembarked but others were added so that the numbers on board remained the same and still included the women and children.   They sailed again within a couple of days heading east toward Port Elizabeth.  A couple of days out during the night they struck a reef and holed the bottom of the ship.  That was the constant danger before the days of radar, sonar and GPS.  They wanted to sail close to shore in the event of problems but not too close to hit shoals or reefs.  The warning came too late.  Major Seton had been drilling the men constantly while on board since they were mostly all raw recruits.   They had developed a comradery and esprit de corp.  They had even loaded 30 horses and their fodder on the ship at the Cape and were very much over crowded.  It was quickly apparent the ship would sink.  The troops got the horses off hoping some might make shore and to prevent danger to the passengers in their panic.  The sailors and troops got the life boats out and all the women and children were loaded and some of the sailors manned the boats since they were the only ones with that skill.  The horses were immediately attacked by sharks and their neighs of distress bellowed during all this tumult and hurry. 

To prevent panic and to allow literally room for everyone to load the women and children the troops needed to stand still in their formations.  If they moved around it would cause a mob scene and cause further loss of life.  The wives found their husbands and kissed them good bye on their way into the boats, knowing it would likely be the last time they would see them.  The officers all shook hands with each other and addressed their men praising their fortitude.  It was hoped that after all the women and children were boarded that some would have a chance to make shore.  It was only a couple of miles away but the seas were rough and the sharks on the prowl.  The men held their position.  As the last of the life boats left the order was heard to “Stand Fast in the Ranks”.   They did. 

As the boat went down the men did try to escape but most did not know how to swim.  They were from England after all.  Many who hit the water were attacked by the sharks and killed on the spot.  Others drowned including Major Seton and the Captain of the ship who maintained his post throughout.  The next morning a coastal vessel was able to rescue about 40 more survivors.  All told almost 200 were saved including every one of the women and children.  About 400 died that night.   To this day the story of the Birkenhead is cherished as a testament to the courage and discipline of the British Army for the way those men behaved that night.  They were British. They aspired to be a British Gentleman.   They had a common culture and ethos.  That collective attitude reinforced each man to stand with his comrades in the face of danger and death. 

I hope we will have an American culture that will endure.  One that is distinct to our nation and not an amalgamation of diverse ones.  Being an American made our troops stand firm at Bastogne, being an American made us pray together on 9/11.   It is a debate worth having to see who believes that we need and should have “real Americans” running our country.  Ones who cherish and will sacrifice for discrete American ideals.

I recommend highly the French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles for those who like a great yarn and who want an appreciation of what it meant to be a Victorian British Gentleman.  He is one of the great writers of our era and it will give you a sense of the history and power of emotions and loyalties to certain standards of conduct.


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Filed under Culture, family, Foreign Affairs, government, history, military history, Mother Nature, Politics, War

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