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Courage vs. Cowardice

My friend emailed, said the entire issue (meaning the big-picture problem) is human courage. And then he asked, “Does it exist?”

Sounds simple. Yet it isn’t. Because there are decisions that people make that are considered cowardly by some and heroic by others.

Each of us can think of unequivocal examples of bravery—the firefighter entering a building engulfed in flames, risking his life to save another.

Perhaps we personally know someone who’s acted heroically. My brother Mark, father of my nephew Chase who was killed in Iraq in 2005, was at the beach, saw a man caught in an undertow, ran for the water, dove in, and pulled the swimmer to shore.

And it was Mark who said words so intensely brave I used them at a peace rally in D.C. The night before I was scheduled to speak, Mark called to tell me someone had approached and told him that Chase died protecting his country. Mark said, “No, Chase did not die protecting his country. The suicide bomber that killed Chase died protecting HIS country.” The next day, I stood before the crowd and relayed this, only this. That was my message, brief yet powerful.

Cindy Sheehan took her tragedy to Texas, confronting George Bush with these words, “For what noble cause did my son Casey die?” Bush cowered behind the window treatments at his ranch, refusing to answer the question, refusing to acknowledge a mother’s pain. With this action, Sheehan inspired a peace movement that evaporated with the election of Barack Obama, the president perceived as a man of peace, the commander-in-chief who many believed would end war. Instead, he widened it, expanded drone warfare, created a kill list, exercising his mighty righteousness, playing god, and reinforcing what we’ve been
indoctrinated to believe—that troop deaths are the ultimate sacrifice in service to country. “He/she died protecting the freedoms we cherish.” The utter bullshit so many Americans consume with a punch ladle.

It becomes complicated when we disagree, when one person’s model of bravery is another’s illustration of cowardice. The examples above, my brother’s words and Cindy Sheehan’s challenge to Bush, are representative of the potential for conflicting perspectives.

Another: my friend who posed the question about whether or not courage exists. He was one among just three officers who refused deployment to Viet Nam. He protested the war in front of the Lyndon Johnson White House. In uniform. When he refused orders, he was court-martialed. And he was convinced he’d spend the rest of his life in prison. Eventually, charges were dropped. The military didn’t want a precedent setting case—an officer’s winning a refusal to obey an order to deploy. Obviously, antiwar activists praised this. But his act of courage was his family’s shame.

We are immersed in the mythology of distorted values. This especially is obvious around Memorial Day when we are smack dab baptized in soldier-ism sacrifice for country. If only war and war deaths were understood not as sacrifice for country but as deaths in service to the uber-wealthy class and a system corrupt to the core.

As long as our population remains incurious and apathetic to the suffering of those who inhabit the countries we craft into wastelands, we exist in a spiral of mercilessness, bereft of humanity. As long as our population remains comfortably stupid, we are doomed to endless war.

More articles by:

Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in BaltimoreEmail: missybeat@gmail.com

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