What Do Politicians Mean by “Courage”?

November 11, 2008

For release noon Tuesday Nov. 11 and thereafter (662 words)

Some of us spent Veteran’s Day this week restoring the word “courage” to its proper meaning.
It took a beating in Indiana’s political campaigns.

Starting with the military definition makes sense. But that is not as simple as you might think. Even on the battlefield, let alone in the political salon, there is disagreement as to what qualifies as “courage.”

In the Vietnam War, for example, an award of a Purple Heart or a Combat “V” did not imply a standard measure of courage. One soldier lost a leg while another suffered a nick from a spent round. One defended an isolated outpost while another was stationed in an area where hostile fire was possible if not actual.

The slicing can get thinner: Did the Medal of Honor nominee fall on the grenade to protect his fellow soldiers or by accident or injury? Was the general in the combat zone long enough to qualify for the medal he so proudly wears? Did the aviator eject from the burning fighter before his navigator could get free? The military takes these distinctions seriously and so should we.

Similarly, there are civil professions such as law enforcement and firefighting that carry the presumption of courage. Comparing statistical risk, however, they fall below roofers, farmers, ranchers and garbage haulers, professions that do not enjoy a correspondingly heroic reputation.

So by the time we get to the  “courage” exhibited by politicians, the claims can get decidedly weak.

Whatever Indiana politicians might imagine in assuming this or that political stance, their risks appear to be to ego and hubris only. And a zeal for continued government employment (or the search for such employment) is not the same as “fighting” for us.

That there are exceptions is a fact for which Hoosiers should be grateful. In all, though, the evidence of true grit in today’s political class is sparse. That is so even in those rare instances when politicians can be held accountable to their words or votes.

A donor to many an Indiana political campaign always asks himself whether the candidate in front of him describing himself as “courageous” is the kind of person he would have picked for his fifth-grade dodge ball team. It becomes clear that the great number of these people, with re-election rates approaching 80 percent, are in danger only of hyperbole.

Indeed, considering the political correctness of the American work environment, two janitors at lunch are more at risk simply speaking their minds.

That last suggests another view of political courage. Edmund Burke, in his reflections on the French Revolution, mentioned the courage needed to form ourselves into “little platoons.” Today that would mean a willingness to gather with like-minded co-workers, church members and neighbors to right a wrong — or at least talk about it. This is a quality not found in all countries or in all societies.

A friend of our foundation, Dr. Alan Keyes, offers an example. When Dr. Keyes was a deputy ambassador to India, an aide came to him with a problem in a Calcutta neighborhood: Children there were being injured in traffic at an unregulated intersection.

Keyes put forward what to him was an obvious solution — that the aide get together with his neighbors and petition for a stop sign. The aide demurred, explaining that it was not something then in the nature of his countrymen. “We must wait for the officials to decide and to act,” the aide said in effect. “That’s because some of us are Hindu, some Muslim, some Christian and others Sikh.”

The concern of Keyes was that America not devolve into such a place, that we continue to find the courage to form our little platoons — across all sociological lines, and on principle rather than personality or class. That is the way Americans have always corrected government neglect, abuse, dereliction or usurpation, making sure to identify and punish the officeholders responsible.

You can bet that is not the courage our politicians are talking about.

T. Craig Ladwig is editor of The Indiana Policy Review. Contact him here.


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