Moral vs. Physical Courage

OK, why am I posting an image of yet another medal today?

There’s a reason for this. One is that military medals are important symbols for those who know how to read them; they signal a service member’s complete record if you know what you’re looking at. In many cases, they also serve to illustrate the history and choices a nation makes.

The medal above is the United States World War Two Victory Medal; anyone who honorably served in the US military between December 7, 1941 and December 31st, 1946 is entitled to wear it.

This medal represents the moral courage of an entire nation and government; it was issued at the cost of trillions in treasure, hundreds of thousands of young deaths; and millions maimed and traumatized.

Some definitions.

Moral courage is the courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences. (Wikipedia)

Physical courage is bravery in the face of physical pain, hardship, even death or threat of death. (Wikipedia)

I’ve been up against situations that required both types of courage, and I believe that the harder of the two is moral courage.

The World War Two medal above required both types of courage from its participants, although physical courage was the one most frequently praised and acknowledged.

Some examples.

For physical courage, you don’t have to look far or think hard. This can be divorced from the moral aspects and frequently is. For example, the qualifications for valor decorations amongst the German, Soviet, US, British, etc. militaries is similar. The moral aspects behind the causes was worlds apart.

There is nothing to admire about the German cause in World War Two. Nothing. But it took real moral courage to oppose Nazism and fascism at the time.

These days, eighty odd years later, one may think that this is no longer relevant.

Allow me to explain how the moral courage of President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill still matter.

Both had to deal with isolationist sentiment, as well as large blocs of the population that were sympathetic to fascism. It is a myth that the British Empire and the United States went into World War Two united and motivated. Not true at all, and this reluctance to engage ascendant fascism is easily perceived upon any type of study whatsoever.

In terms of the subject, moral courage, President Roosevelt had to make a clear policy stand to prepare the US for war; he had to define an enemy that many Americans didn’t see as a threat. It is well known that isolationist sentiment in the US opposed Roosevelt’s proposed military buildup; celebrities such as Charles Lindbergh were staunch proponents of the America First movement. He was an open admirer of Adolph Hitler; many Americans shared his views.

These days this may be inconceivable for many of us. But it was true. Millions across the United States and Europe thought that the Fascists had the solution to the economic woes of the Depression; millions also could have cared less about the plight of the Jews and other oppressed minorities.

Sad but true.

Roosevelt had to use every tool at his disposal to get the US to prepare for war; in the end it was only the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s ill-advised declaration of war on the US that really got the “arsenal of democracy” turning.

The stress and strain of his prewar stand and the conduct of the war killed President Roosevelt on the job.

Roosevelt was a real, no kidding profile in moral courage.

Brought back to the personal level, I don’t have many opportunities these days to exercise physical courage. This is a good thing. Physical courage implies danger either to me or my family. I don’t think many of us have to confront real enemies at the gate.

But all of us have to make choices that require moral courage.

Moral courage is hard. Draining. It’s the constant drive to do the right thing; in the service we would have called this “living by the Army values.” I know I constantly put things into the paradigm of what I did in the past. It can be a problem. But the past applies here, in this discussion.

Let me show you the Army Values, and you will understand.

Loyalty. Duty. Respect. Selfless Service. Honor. Integrity. Personal Courage.

I guess this still means something to me, even after seven years of retirement. These values aren’t just hot air, and they aren’t just for soldiers. This is moral courage in a nutshell; and trying, and occasionally failing, to live up to these values has cost me. I am certain that I am not alone in this; all of us face difficult life choices. It’s the decisions we make that represent something else of importance; character.

Moral Courage.

It’s what sets nations and individuals apart.

Try to live a life of courage.

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