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Ben Tidgren
Professor Polking
English 105
3 December 2015
Courage: A Great Enabler
American culture has a fascination with courage. This is evident in the reverence
in which military veterans are held, the way so many of our movies involve courageous
heroes facing impossible odds, and the attention simple acts of bravery can attract.
There is something about courage that we all want to relate to; something we all admire.
It is something we all wish we had. It exists all around us in countless forms, but what
exactly is it? Despite being such a dominant factor in American society, many people do
not understand courage. It is a quality easily recognized when seen, but difficult to
comprehend. After all, it causes ordinary people to do the extraordinary. Courage is a
complex, widely misunderstood characteristic that is essential to all worthy pursuits.
One misconception about courage is the idea that it is the absence of fear. It is
thought that a person who has fear cannot be courageous, and a person who is
courageous cannot have fear. This could not be further from the truth. Courage is not
the absence of fear, but the victory over fear. For example, it would be courageous to
stand up for a kid getting picked on, because standing up for someone being bullied
puts yourself out there as a replacement target, which is a scary prospect. But that is
what courage is. Courage results from the call to act being too great to be deterred by
fear. It is acting in spite of fear. Confusing fearlessness with courage snubs one of the
most admirable components of courage: the fear itself. It ignores the fact that when

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people display courage, they have experienced a difficult inner struggle. They have
faced a difficult fear, out of the hope that their action will make some kind of difference.
While fearlessness can be the result of apathy, ignorance, or the lack of serious risk,
courage simply cannot. Anyone can face something they arent afraid of, but only
through courage, can a person face an intense fear.
One cannot thoroughly assess courage without looking at war and conflict. The
battlefield is one of the truest tests of courage. It is one thing to talk about facing fear
and not fleeing danger, but quite another to do so when shots start firing. In these
situations, words become feeble. From top to bottom, the men and women fighting a
war need courage. Obviously, those in combat show courage when they choose to fight.
But, even a general, far away from the battle, has tremendous courage by being the one
to make the difficult decisions and knowing all the scrutiny and criticism that will fall on
him alone. But, there are other courageous acts in war that rarely get the respect or
glory. Too often, the fact immoral acts are guaranteed to happen in war, is overlooked.
In cases such as those, it takes courage to refuse to act. In Nazi Germany, men were
ordered to commit atrocities. Not all men involved in the Holocaust really believed what
they were doing was right, but they went through with it anyway to protect themselves
from punishment or death. They knew what they were doing was very wrong, but they
continued to do it because their actions were dominated by fear rather than courage. If
more men had had the courage to speak out, and make known to the world what was
really going on at the concentration camps, there is no telling what could have

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America is no perfect country either. In Vietnam, American troops committed

many atrocities. One of these occurred at a hamlet called My Khe, or as it was called by
American troops, My Lai. In the infamous My Lai massacre, a company of American
soldiers were itching for a fight. They had spent months in Vietnam and had not yet
seen their enemies. They had, however, been plagued by traps and landmines. When
they responded to news of possible Viet Cong in the My Khe hamlet, they found nothing
but innocent people. They began plundering the village. They burned, raped, and
murdered. They turned into monsters (Cordall). These were young American men.
Surely most of them did not want to kill the innocent villagers, but not one soldier had
the courage to stop the obvious evil that was taking place. One possible reason none of
the soldiers did anything: they feared being labeled as cowards. No one wants to be a
coward. Ironically, fear of being labeled a coward leads many people down paths of
cowardice. It is not courageous to go against what you know to be right, even if you are
in war. If a few courageous men had stepped up, they could have prevented a
significant amount of killing. So, weve seen that when courage is missing, horrible
things are allowed to happen. Therefore, it sometimes takes courage to follow orders,
but other times takes courage to disobey and resist orders when those orders are
clearly wrong.
A common misconception about the idea of courage is that it always exists in
physical action. This idea is made prevalent by our culture's fascination with violence
and action. Movies tend to depict courage as involving machine gun-toting, muscular
men charging into battle as bullets zip by and explosions occur just feet away. Courage
can be peaceful though, as in the famous case of a man known simply as the Tank

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Man. In 1989, the Chinese military was brought in to put down a student protest taking
place in Tiananmen Square. The process was bloody and chaotic, but one mans
courage stood out. As a column of tanks made its way toward the conflict, the unknown,
unarmed man stood in front of the approaching tanks. They tried to go around him, but
he kept moving so that he was always in the way. The moment was captured on
camera, and the photo of the unknown rebel has inspired people as a symbol of
courage ever since (The Tank Man).
Sometimes, it takes courage to stand up for what is morally right. For instance,
slavery is considered morally wrong today, but it did not used to be by everyone. The
reason slavery was able to be stopped and recognized as evil was because of moral
courage. People had the courage to speak out against slavery. One of the biggest
movements in the fight against slavery began in 1784. William Wilberforce was a
comfortable, respected, and successful politician in parliament. He then became a
Christian and became convinced God wanted to use him in the abolition of the slave
trade. During this time in English history, the industry of capturing and trading slaves
was still thriving. The kidnapping of human beings for purposes of enslavement was an
accepted part of society. Wilberforce became determined to change things. But, he had
fear. As Eric Metaxas, author of 7 Men And the Secret To Their Greatness, said, he
would count the cost before he threw himself wholeheartedly into anything, especially in
a public way. He did not take lightly his reputation as a politician, and he needed to be
sure he knew what he was getting into (Metaxas 44). Despite his fear of losing the
respect he had as a politician, Wilberforce began an eighteen-year battle to abolish
slave trade. It was a vicious process, because the Slave Trade was strongly supported

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for its economic benefits. Wilberforces own life was threatened several times, but
through courage, success came. The slave trade was banned, and later in 1833,
parliament finally voted to outlaw slavery.
Engaging in politics obviously requires a lot of courage. One of Americas most
famous and loved presidents, John F. Kennedy, knew the value of courage. In fact, he
was so fascinated by the concept that he wrote a book about it: Profiles In Courage.
The book consists of eight miniature biographies of United States senators who
displayed the tremendous courage and went through the risks to their careers, the
unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters, and sometimes, but
sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles
(Kennedy). Kennedy, having been both a Congressman and Senator at the time of
writing this, knew full well the difficulties of being a successful politician. He therefore
had a rare appreciation for the sacrifice the eight senators he wrote about made.
Whether or not he agreed with them in their standings, he admired their courage. He
wrote, Some of these men, whose stories follow, were right in their beliefs; others
perhaps were not. (Kennedy). The stories of senators that followed ranged from that of
Sam Houston--defying his Southern constituents and opposing an act that would allow
slavery to expand to the west--to the story of Daniel Webster, a Northern Senator who
supported fugitive slave laws. Both of these men acted out of the hope of preserving the
Union, and rejected the agenda they were expected to carry out. The same virtue was
found on both sides of an issue as divisive as slavery was. Courage does not
necessarily know good or evil. Whether or not history smiled upon these senators, they
are remembered for their devotion to their beliefs, and staying true to their ideals

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despite the tremendous cost to their lives, careers, and reputations. Courage will bring
about respect, from both friend and foe.
When the word courage is mentioned, we usually think of people similar to what
has been discussed: soldiers, politicians, activists. Americans dont tend to associate
radical jihadists with courage despite the fact that may they display courageous traits.
The same goes for Japanese kamikazes. When enemies are studied, as a rule, a
benign trait such as courage cannot possibly be applicable. Or can it? Despite popular
belief, courage may not be the perfect virtue it is made out to be. Courage can actually
cause very horrible things. Merriam Websters Dictionary defines courage simply as the
ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous (Merriam). Nowhere in
the definition of the word courage is being one of the good guys listed as a
prerequisite for being considered courageous. Therefore, one could argue that as long
as there is fear, any act, good or bad, could be considered courageous.
Ultimately, courage is an enabler. It can enable people to do great things, but it
can also enable people to do horrible things. It is simply the refusal to be ruled by fear.
Courage can be found everywhere, in men and women both good and evil, in all
positions of the world. Whoever we are and whatever we do, we could all use a little
more courage, because courage makes all the difference. In the words of Andrew
Jackson, One man with courage makes a majority (qtd. in Profiles In Courage).

Works Cited

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Cordall, Simon Speakman. "After a Massacre, a Lost Generation." Washington Post 15

Mar. 2013. Academic OneFile. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Kennedy, John Fitzgerald, and Robert Francis Kennedy. Profiles in Courage Memorial
Edition. London: Harper & Row, 1964. Print.
Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
Metaxas, Eric. Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness. Nashville: Thomas
Nelson, 2013. Print.
Rushdie, Salman. "Whither Moral Courage?" The New York Times. The New York
Times, 27 Apr. 2013. Web. 05 Nov. 2015.
"The Tank Man." PBS. PBS, 11 Apr. 2006. Web. 05 Nov. 2015.