Courage is like a Rolex watch. Cheap imitations abound. The real thing is real and rare.
Bravery, for example, is something very different than bravado, as exemplified in the life and career or George McGovern. People who possess genuine fortitude aren’t usually the kinds who boast about their military record. They don’t have to prove anything to anybody.
So although I voted for George McGovern forty years ago, it wasn’t until recently that I realized he even had a war record or that he’d won the Distinguished Flying Cross. He piloted 35 bombing missions over some of the most heavily defended cities in Europe. Twice he brought down planes that had either lost their engines or had their noses blown off by enemy flak. But these weren’t feats he boasted about in the presidential sweepstakes. Like any men who’d seen fighting, he seemed rather reticent about revisiting this violent chapter of his past. And of course it might have made a difference in the election if he had been more forthcoming.
For as the “dove” in the race, McGovern was depicted in the press as a dreamer, maybe even a sissy, less practical and tough than hard-headed hawks like Henry Kissinger and Nixon’s other advisers in the White House. Many voters may have shared Gloria Steinem’s first impression of the man: “I thought he was too nice to be a Senator,” she said. Yet McGovern was precisely the man who had the most realistic picture of the war, who understood from terrifying firsthand experience what such hostilities involves. Unfortunately, the voters sensed that McGovern was neither a bully nor a braggart, and concluded mistakenly that he lacked guts. They confused bravery with braggadocio.
There’s another common misconception about courage, as well. Many seem to think that being courageous is the same as being fearless. But even the boldest figures are prey to fears. George McGovern, for example, had a lifelong fear of flying. He’d signed up for a piloting course with the Civil Air Patrol early in college, partly at the instigation of a friend, partly because a high school gym coach had called him a “physical coward.” But he hated every minute in the air, didn’t like soloing (which he told his wife “scares me silly”) and thought that getting his license would mean he’d never have to fly again.
Then came Pearl Harbor. McGovern had good reason to be afraid at that point, because he found himself in command of a B-24 bomber, sometimes called the “Liberator” but known among airmen as “the liquidator” or flying coffin. It was not a forgiving or particularly sturdy aircraft, and hits that the older B-17’s might have taken in stride were likely to mean real trouble on McGovern’s plane, the Dakota Queen. To survive when, as McGovern put it, “men flying on my wings were getting blown out of the sky” meant being able to keep your wits even in the midst of terror. Courage in that context meant asking questions, “Are the landing gear working, will the oil pressure hold?” It meant not giving in to panic.
Courage demands holding onto our rational and critical capabilities, even when the adrenaline is pumping. Later in McGovern’s career, courage entailed asking questions about U.S. foreign policy. When others were following the herd, seeking shelter in numbers, McGovern stood alone, the first man in the U.S. Senate to openly criticize our government’s war aims in Vietnam. Many folks were afraid to ask such questions: afraid of appearing disloyal, afraid of appearing weak or foolish. But courage, now as then, means overcoming those fears. It suggests a certain cool-headed appraisal of the situation when hot-heads are beating the drums and sounding the alarm.
And if bravery implies keeping our minds fully engaged, it also suggests keeping our humanity intact, even under the worst assaults. Being courageous is different from being callous or cold-blooded. “Once McGovern was at a bar in the officer’s club when a couple of fighter jocks came in bragging about two Italian civilians they had shot off a bridge,” says one biographer. They had a few rounds left from their strafing mission, so they’d given the strangers a burst of fifty calibers. “Did you see the way that son of a bitch hit the water?” laughed one to the other. “It might have been whisky talk,” says McGovern, but still he was repulsed by the exchange. “I was stunned that anyone could be so barbaric about the taking of human life.”
McGovern never lost his sense of common decency, even with all the atrocities he’d witnessed. And that was why one particular incident continued to trouble him for decades after the war ended. The Dakota Queen was on a bombing run when bad weather forced it back to the base. Lancing with the bombs still on board could be fatal, and so the normal protocol was to jettison the explosives over the ocean or in some remote, uninhabited area. In this case, however, a new bombardier was on board. They would have been plenty of time to release the bombs over an unpopulated section of Yugoslavia as the Queen was heading home to Italy, and most of the crew assumed that’s where they’d been dropped. But sometime later, Tex Ashlock, the waist gunner, was watching the scenery go by in Austria when he suddenly saw the whole payload, six five-hundred pounders, dropping straight toward a farmhouse dead ahead. The house disappeared in a roar of brown smoke. And although McGovern would later say that there was little he regretted about the war, that Hitler had to be stopped, he always felt sick about what happened to that tiny homestead. He knew he had blood on his hands.
Then something remarkable happened. In 1985, forty years after the war ended, McGovern was interviewed on Austrian television about his wartime exploits. He told the story of destroying the farmhouse. And that night, the TV station got a call from an elderly gentleman. He’d been living in that farmhouse in 1945 and came forward to proclaim that he was still alive, had been working in the fields at some distance when he saw the Queen pass overhead and bomb his home. He said he bore no ill feeling toward the crew, thankful that so many Americans had risked their lives to rid the world of fascism. The loss of his property, he said, was simply his share of the sacrifice.
Situations that seem doomed turn out to have hopeful, happy endings. And this is why we must never lose courage, even when the odds against us seem overwhelming. For as theologian C.S. Lewis writes, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means the point of highest reality.” When the chips are down, when the going gets tough, when there’s every reason to be scared, can we keep our minds and hearts engaged, continuing to risk dissent, continuing to care not only for our comrades-in-arms but also for strangers and those caught in the cross-fire? Can we maintain our compassion regardless of the provocation?
I sincerely hope so. For even in a world where old-fashioned heroes like George McGovern are hard to find, this kind of courage is needed more than ever.