The list of those to whom we pay homage on Memorial Day includes all veterans who died in service, whatever the circumstances, and those who came home from their war and have since been laid to rest. That’s why many cemeteries place flags on all veterans’ graves for Memorial Day.
My father and my father-in-law, both of whom served during World War II, have been laid to rest at their respective cemeteries in Camptown and Wyalusing. My father was a U.S. Marine who was never in battle, but he was an airplane mechanic pilots and their crews depended on to return safely from their missions. My father-in-law was an infantry sergeant who saw plenty of combat action, including hostilities at the Bridge at Remagen in Germany, bringing home a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
Both are among those honored on Memorial Day, even though they lived to raise families and enjoy productive lives for decades after the war.
Most veterans who survived their wars, no matter what heroics they performed, will tell you that the real heroes never made it back. Many knew that living or dying was often the luck of the draw. They conquered fear in defense of their country and that is itself is a definition of courage.
There are two essential kinds of courage— physical courage, like the teacher who threw himself in front of a school shooter to save his students, and courage of your convictions, essentially standing up for your beliefs though it may mean renunciation, censure, persecution or death. We saw the latter in Nazi Germany when many unsung heroes renounced and rose up against a pervasive evil. They paid the price with public humiliation, strung up in nooses of piano wire and suffering excruciating deaths by slow decapitation.
Although a soldier knows the probability of death and serious injury upon entering battle, he tends to believe he will somehow survive no matter what the odds. He is usually joined by fellow soldiers, his band of brothers, who share that mixture of fear and optimism. Yet following the courage of your convictions under repressive governments like Nazi Germany often meant a solitary journey into the Valley of the Shadow of Death from which there is no escape. It is the courage of a martyr, often soon forgotten among the casualties of war.
I got to thinking about courage in battle this Memorial Day weekend after watching “The Red Badge of Courage,” the Civil War tale of a Union soldier, who inwardly suspects that he is a coward, but compensates as a blustering braggart itching to face the enemy and show him a thing or too. When he finally faces the true test of courage in battle he runs away instead. His desertion is interrupted by a fortunate set of circumstances that results in him returning to his unit with nobody suspecting his cowardice.
The red badge is a battle wound, the ultimate symbol of courage — unless, perhaps, it is situated on your posterior. After escaping the shame of being branded a deserter, our hero, Henry Fleming, becomes something of a demon on the battlefield by overcoming his fears in battle, emerging as a man of courage instead of the coward he has always feared he was. In the end, the real lessons learned are humility and gratitude.
That’s an oversimplified synopsis of the Stephen Crane classic, which, when made into a 1951 movie, starred Audie Murphy, who may have been the most celebrated and decorated hero of World War II. Yet Murphy’s most moving scenes were as the cowardly deserter. Murphy, an engaging little Texan, is credited with killing 240 German soldiers, despite being wounded three times and fending off malaria.
So was he a fearless warrior who thrilled in the kill or did he get scared like most every soldier in battle? I would suggest that he was truly courageous, more heroic, if he was the latter.
So how have others defined courage?
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear,” wrote the mysterious Ambrose Redmoon, a.k.a. James Neil Hollingworth, a hippie and alleged peacenik. Yes, being a seeker of peace and standing behind it may also require courage.
Then there is an observation by a noted Presbyterian leader and educator, Archibald Alexander Hodge: “It is easier to find a score of men wise enough to discover the truth than to find one intrepid enough, in the face of opposition, to stand up for it.”
This is all true, but we’re in a time, it seems, when each person clings to his own truth, fueled by both facts and alternate facts. We all reach our own truth by relying on our chosen facts.
”To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men,” said Lincoln, who was assassinated by a misguided protester who was convinced cowardly murder would make him a hero and that the South would rise again.
So during this holiday week celebrating the military it might be more fitting, and less complicated. to talk about heroes and courage in battle.
“It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle,” Gen. “Stormin” Norman Schwarzkopf wrote. “It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.”
I’ll leave the final word to Mark Twain, who summed up the incongruities of courage in a mere sentence: “It is curious — curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.”