On Memorial Day we remember the men and women who gave their lives in the service of our country or who have died since their time of service. We should be careful to distinguish between this day and Veterans Day, a day set aside to pay tribute to those serving now or who have served and are still living.
While giving honor to e more than one million, one hundred thousand American men and women who died in battle, we draw up short of honoring war itself or glorifying it. General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union commander who devastated vast swaths of Georgia and both Carolinas during the Civil War, wrote to his wife at war’s end,
I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even the most brilliant success is over dead and mangled bodies, with the anguish and lamentations of distant families ... it is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated ... that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.Yet while the dead whom we honor today would almost certainly agree with General Sherman's sentiments, they also knew that it is untrue that nothing is worth fighting for. Teddy Roosevelt earned wartime honors in the Spanish-American war and then received the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the end of the Russo-Japanese war. Roosevelt put the tension between our desire for peace and the sometime necessity of war this way:
[M]y disagreement with the peace-at-any-price men, the ultra-pacifists, is not in the least because they favor peace. I object to them, first, because they have proved themselves futile and impotent in working for peace, and second, because they commit ... the crime against morality of failing to uphold righteousness as the all-important end toward which we should strive ... To condemn equally might which backs right and might which overthrows right is to render positive service to wrong-doers. . . . To denounce the nation that wages war in self-defense, or from a generous desire to relieve the oppressed, in the same terms in which we denounce war waged in a spirit of greed or wanton folly stands on a par with denouncing equally a murderer and the policeman who, at peril of his life and by force of arms, arrests the murderer. In each case the denunciation denotes not loftiness of soul but weakness both of mind and morals. – America and the World WarBut I am not exploring today the topic of just or unjust wars. This post is about courage.
Every member of the service who faces battle knows about fear. But there are ample opportunities in the military to be in fear in either peace or war.
One fearful day for me was on Sicily drop zone at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on July 1, 1987. A C-130 approached to drop off a Sheridan tank, flying about five feet above the ground. The chutes deployed but the C-130 hit the ground flat on its underside. It was about 75 feet away from me. The pilot gave the engines full throttle, trying to get back into the air, but the landing gear was buried in the sand. The plane ran into a wooded ravine where it blew up.
My friend, Major Baxter Ennis, was with me. Like many of the other soldiers present, we ran into the flames because in the military you never abandon your comrades. There was fire and smoke everywhere, not only from the burning jet fuel; the forest was on fire, too. The heat was intense. We finally left, having accomplished nothing. This is that crash:
Four crewmen and a soldier were killed. I had never met them. I didn’t even know their names until the news media broadcast them. But I don’t think two weeks at a time has gone by since then that I don’t think of them, and think of that day.
The pilot’s name was Captain Garry Bardo, Junior.
The navigator’s name was First Lieutenant John B. Keiser, III.
The loadmaster’s name was Technical Sergeant Timothy J. Matar.
The assistant loadmaster’s name was Airman First Class Albert G. Dunse.
The soldier’s name was Staff Sergeant Douglas Hunter.
These are some names I am remembering today, for Memorial Day.
William Manchester won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of John. F. Kennedy. Manchester fought on Okinawa as a Marine sergeant. He wrote of single-handedly entering a building to take out an enemy sniper: “There was a door which meant there was another room and the sniper was in that—and I just broke down. I was absolutely gripped by fear that this man would expect me and would shoot me.”
Fear in danger hardly needs justification. It is not fear that needs explanation, but courage. As one veteran wrote, the reasonable thing in battle would be to run away. Whence comes the courage to stay, much less courage to heroics? Were they truly willing to die for their country? I don't think so. There's an old story that goes back probably to the Civil War of the young soldier whose commander asked him, "Are you willing to die for your country?" The young man answered, "Certainly not. But I am ready to die, unwilling."
What is courage? Courage is not simply the absence of fear. Indeed, many men who have been awarded the highest decorations for bravery in battle admit they were frightened the entire time.
No, courage is not the lack of fear. One facing real danger without fear is either a fool or ignorant. As someone once wisecracked, "When everyone around you is losing their head and you’ve kept yours, then you don’t understand the situation."
So, then, is courage the mastery of fear? The will to act despite danger and the fear of it is necessary for courage to come forth. But even that falls short as a workable definition. Courage, like fear, is mostly an emotional response to the danger. Courage is not unthinking, but it is usually uncritical. Courage is an act of will but more than that. Courage is an act of being.
Many soldiers have done heroic acts and later said they were hardly in control of themselves. The ancient Greeks called this state katalepsis, "possession," and even the Spartans tried to train their soldiers never to fall under this condition. Audie Murphy was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for action in this condition after his best friend was killed. In this state there is no conscious fear and heroic deeds seem reckless more than courageous.
Without fear there is no courage, but fear and courage are not opposites. Courage is the opposite of cowardice, not of fear. Courage and cowardice are opposite sides of the same coin, but what is the obverse side of the coin of fear?
Again we consult ones who have seen both sides of the coin. William Manchester suffered a non-life-threatening wound on Okinawa that sent him to the honorable safety of a field hospital. There he learned that his unit would make an amphibious assault further up the island. Manchester explained in his book, Goodbye, Darkness, that the thought of his friends facing danger without him to help them “was just intolerable.”
Those men on the line were my family, my home. They were closer to me than I can say. I had to be with them, rather than let them die and me live with the knowledge that I might have saved them.He went AWOL from the hospital, joined his unit was blown nearly to bits by Japanese artillery in the ensuing battle.
Military service, especially in battle, is steeped with the convictions of deepest emotion. In battle there is fear and courage, anger and compassion. There is resignation and determination. There is hope and despair. The chief emotion of the battlefield, unlikely as it may be, is love. When patrolling deserts of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan, soldiers stay where flies the angry iron not for country or flag or other abstractions. In the final sense they fight for their friends. One Iraq veteran wrote,
I've found the hard way that war is not glamorous. You quickly lose the idea of being a man fighting for his country when you have to carry your comrade who has been wounded in a gun fight. That nobility is lost quickly. ... It's not about fighting for the flag, it's about fighting for my life and fighting for my buddies' lives. These men I am lucky enough to serve with, I have become so attached to it's like they are my brothers.The opposite of fear is not courage. It is love. "Perfect love," says the New Testament, "drives out fear." Love displaces fear just as oil displaces water. Yet there is a paradox here. If love drives out fear, then is love the only source of courage? “Among men who fight together there is an intense love,” Manchester explained. His story of leaving the field hospital is a love story. Yet it was a fear story, too. His fear, as he also admitted, was that his friends would be in danger and unless he was with them he would not be able to do anything about it. Here his fear for his friends’ safety was not driven out by his love for them, his fear for them and love for them combined to evoke courage. Love and fear, two sides of the same coin. Manchester’s courage was born of both fear and love to place himself in danger to protect his comrades.
Former Marine and author Steven Pressfield put it this way in Gates of Fire:
What can be more noble than to slay oneself? Lot literally. ... But to extinguish the selfish self within, that part which looks only to its own preservation, to save its own skin. ...
When a warrior fights not for himself, but for his brothers, when his most passionately sought goal is neither glory nor his own life’s preservation, but to spend his substance for them, his comrades, not to abandon them, not to prove unworthy of them, then his heart truly has achieved contempt for death, and with that he transcends himself and his actions touch the sublime. That is why the true warrior cannot speak of battle save to his brothers who have been there with him. The truth is too holy, too sacred for words.
Whether they served in peace or war, the men and women we memorialize today were not so impoverished of spirit that they were unable to surrender the pleasures of life. They deemed that their love of country and duty to freedom were of greater value and more important imperative, so they reckoned that if dangers must be faced, they would face them in the most desirable way, by placing their own mortal bodies "between their loved homes and the war's desolation."
Because of their sacrifice we go safely to our homes. Henceforth we should stand in humility when their names are read. This date should never go by but that on it our fallen shall be remembered.
The prophet Micah wrote that the time will come when God will judge between all the peoples and will settle disputes between strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. All people will be at peace, and no one will make them afraid (Micah 4:3-4).
Let us pray that day comes quickly. Until then may the Lord watch over those who serve today, to make them instruments of justice, enablers of peace, and finally to see them safely home.