I have heard it said that the only thing warriors fear more than death is cowardice. I have been thinking about the meaning of courage for a long time. When I was a boy I wondered how my ordinary father was able to do extraordinary things as an American combat soldier in World War II and receive the Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals. When I asked my father if he was afraid during battle he said yes—but he also said that he deemed there were more important things at stake than his personal safety and he was determined to do his job as a soldier. Thus courage can be defined as the mental or moral willingness to face or withstand danger, difficulty, or trial.
Recently, I watched the 1951 black-and-white film The Red Badge of Courage directed by John Huston. The film is adapted from Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel of the same name. It is the story Henry Fleming, a private in the Union Army, who flees from the field of battle during an engagement with the Confederate Army. Plagued with guilt and shame for his act of cowardice, Fleming, through fortuitous circumstances, later returns to his unit and acts bravely in the next major battle. The great irony of the film is that Audie Murphy (1925–1971), one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War II (who received every major combat award for bravery) plays Fleming.
The Many Faces of Courage
It is easy to understand how soldiers, policemen, and firefighters are called upon to exhibit extraordinary courage in their critically important areas of work and service. But many other people exhibit courage, too. Twelve years ago when I experienced a life threatening illness I met a number of patients in the hospital who exhibited great courage in facing their chronic or, in some cases, terminal illnesses. For some of these people it took tremendous courage just to get out of bed. In fact, I presently have a Christian friend with Parkinson’s disease who is very inspiring, upbeat, and strong in both mind and faith. I see my friend as an example of how to face suffering with great courage and patience.
I have also known people who are intellectually and morally courageous. They have taken a stand on an important issue and are willing to endure criticism for their belief. It is not always easy to stand strong for one’s beliefs, but it is especially challenging when you are in the minority. Various Christians throughout history and even today have exhibited such intellectual fortitude.
Courage is an important virtue in life and can be exhibited in various ways. But remember that one can act courageously even while also experiencing fear, doubt, and weakness. Fear and courage are not antithetical. And, in returning to The Red Badge of Courage, an act of cowardice does not necessarily define the essence of a man. Many people have risen above their fears and weaknesses to exercise genuine strength of character.