I have begun watching The Vietnam War documentary, by Ken Burns and Lynn Dowrick. Everything about it is alien to me. The soldiers are men; I am a woman. A large proportion of the soldiers were black; I am white. The record books have its official ending year as 1975; I was a child with overprotective parents. I admit, with difficulty, that my world was untouched by this war.
I am keenly interested in the soldiers’ stories and the courage they demonstrated in the face of the unknown. They were boys, barely able to shave, and they faced their mortality every minute of every day. Landmines and tripwires and traps were everywhere; they walked through the dense forests anyway. No creature, human or not, should be afraid of dying with every footfall.
They seem to have reacted to those extreme situations by detaching from their emotions. By deadening their humanity. By training themselves to hate the enemy. Maybe they were able to tap into motivation gained by desiring vengeance and retribution.
Each of them demonstrated courage and bravery through every battle. Every warrior faces fear – if he overcomes it, he is courageous; if he doesn’t overcome it, he is either dead or a coward.
Privilege check: I have never seen combat and have not been the victim of a violent crime. I’ve never faced death. I do, however, think about death often, as a newly-endorsed Humanist chaplain. If faced with an extraordinary situation that may lead to death, I predict that I would collapse like a house of cards. I write this blog post purely to explore my own thought process, acknowledging that I might be completely off base.
Courage, as a virtue, fascinates me. We honor our heroes as having courage in the face of fear.
But the villains are courageous, too. Aren’t they? Unless they are psychopaths, they feel fear. Their actions through their fear demonstrate courage.
Their actions could be a computer hack or online scam. They could be vandalizing cars or stealing them. Or they might be firing semiautomatic weapons at crowds, either on the battlefield or in a nightclub.
So I don’t consider courage a virtue. A virtue is, by definition, a quality of good character. It seems to me that bad characters can demonstrate courage, too.
The good guys have something in common with the bad guys. It means that we all feel fear, and if we defeat our fears, we can call ourselves courageous.
It feels disconcerting to use courage to describe the character of “bad” people. Doesn’t it? Using that word makes them more human. It feels odd because we need to dehumanize our villains before we can feel righteous hate. We need to justify killing them.
Two Sacramento police officers shot at a man 20 times in his grandmother’s back yard on March 18, 2018. He was holding a cell phone, not a gun, and of the eight bullets that hit him, six of them were in his back. Did those police officers demonstrate courage? Did they overcome their fear? Not really – they reacted from their fear. Conquering their fear would have necessitated restraint. They are the villains in this story. From their point of view, they overcame fear by firing their weapons.
The feelings I have about courage as a character trait are ambiguous and create cognitive dissonance in my mind. And I think that is the point. Our humanity is dependent upon these struggles. We need to talk about them. They need to hang in the air. They need to make us uncomfortable and uneasy.
It has to be hard. Like the Vietnam War, we need to learn the hard way.