On courage


Warsaw, Poland 1945/Wikimedia Commons

Courage is the rarest of human traits. It is so rare that American journalists, who work in a business where courage is most extremely rare, have a bad habit of hanging the tag “hero” on people who, facing little or no risk to themselves, do what all of us should do.

Thus it was strange but no surprise to rise Monday morning to NBC’s Today show lauding an Arkansas EMT as a “hero” for simply doing the right and proper thing. Ryan Ciampoli deserves everyone’s praise for stopping his car in the middle of a busy road to snatch up a two-year-old who had just fallen out of a church van onto the pavement, but there is little doubt that as a firefighter he himself would refute the hero tag in this case.

What Today did, what so much journalism has done in recent years, is diminish the meaning of the word “hero.” It was a particularly sad thing coming on the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day celebrating the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

From April 19 to May 16, 1943, courage made its home there where a ragtag band of starving Jews, many of the young, rose up against the might of the German Army. They never had a chance of winning, and every one of them knew that.

But it did not stop them from fighting. It did not stop them from striking back against the terrifying injustice of the Nazi regime.

They did not have to fight. They could have gone peacefully into the evil machinery of the Holocaust as most European Jews did. Their odds of survival, though low, would still have been better.

Too many dead

An estimated 7,000 Jewish resistance fighters were killed in the uprising. Another 7,000 captured and identified as members of the resistance were taken to straight to the gas chambers of the Treblinka death camp, a camp where in August 1943, in another amazing display of courage, Jewish prisoners would again turn on their captors.

Most of them died, too. But a few escaped the camp and survived. One of them was Kalman Teigman, who after the war testified at the trial of Adolph Eichman. Eichman was the SS officer in charge of Adolph Hitler’s plan to exterminate all of the Jews of Europe. 

The Nazis killed more than 6 million people in deaths camps – 5,291,000 Jews, 258,000 Gypsies and 220,000 homosexuals , along with disabled children and much of the Polish intelligentsia. 

The people of the occupied countries of Europe who decided to fight the Nazis were few. It took true courage. On their own, there was no chance of victory. They could only hope that the tides of a World War would one day shift their way.

Meanwhile, the Nazis ruthlessly hunted down resistance fighters. Joining the resistance was the most dangerous game one coud play.

Robert Gildea’s book “Fighters in the Shadows,” which The Daily Beast in a 2015 review described as a “deeply researched, sophisticated new study of the French Resistance,” estimates only about 2 percent of the French were in any way involved in the resistance, be it in publishing underground newspapers or blowing up railroad tracks.

“The vast majority of French people simply tried to muddle through and survive increasingly tough times, while a certain undefined, but uncomfortably large number either supported Vichy in the (forlorn) hope that it would ultimately form a bulwark against German repression, or actively collaborated with the Petain regime,” wrote reviewer James A. Warren.

Most of us just try to muddle through.

The personal cost of courage is high. It is why journalists write about it. It was why they sometimes try to manufacturer it to boost stories of good deed or survival, as if those stories aren’t compelling enough on their own.  But they do not involve courage.

Courage, true courage, is something to be admired.

Talking back to power

Ernest Hemingway, the great American writer, understood courage as well as anyone even if he didn’t always practice it. Most of us don’t. The Rosa Parks among us is a rarity.

Most of us are cowards. Most of us lack the bravery to stand up and challenge our peer group or a wrong-headed, arrogant boss, let alone face adversity in the name of something more important than ourselves.

Forget about facing the threat of death.

And yet there are some, both fictional and real, who do willingly face that frightening choice. There are people who run into the fire to save others rather than away from it to save themselves.

There remain real Robert Jordans in the world today. Some of them are standing post in Afghanistan as this is written or on the ground scouting airstrikes for Iraqi forces on the move in that country in the wake of this country’s decision to assume the role of global peacemaker.

Some of them will pay the ultimate price for courage as did the warriors in the Warsaw Ghetto, as did Jordan in “For Whom The Bell Tolls:”

“He looked down the hill slope again and he thought, I hate to leave it, is all. I hate to leave it very much and I hope I have done some good in it. I have tried to with what talent I had. Have, you mean. All right, have. I have fought for what I believed in for a year now,” Hemingway wrote.

“If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it. And you had a lot of luck, he told himself, to have had such a good life. You’ve had just as good a life as grandfather’s though not as long. You’ve had as good a life as any one because of these last days. You do not want to complain when you have been so lucky. I wish there was some way to pass on what I’ve learned, though.”

What I will pass on, what I have learned as an observer, is that courage is among the rarest, possibly the rarest, of human traits. I only wish I saw more of it these days in the profession to which I have devoted my entire adult life.

But all things, the good and the bad, come in cycles, and in those cycles there is always hope. The journalistic present might look grim – Alaska Commons, a left-leaning journalism start-up shut down during what was once Alaska Journalism Week but is now more like Alaska Journalism Weekend –  but there is a future still.

And if we win here, we will win everywhere.








9 replies »

  1. As a military veteran who is currently still serving, it always makes me uncomfortable when I and ALL military members are referred to as heroes. My job, even while deployed in combat zones, is behind a computer in an air-conditioned facility. Nothing heroic about that. I have always thought when referring to the military, the term should be reserved for those who actually serve under fire.

    • With the state of world conflict as it is today, It very well may be more courageous for an American to refuse Military Service and stay home with your family instead.

  2. A few suggested edits to help:

    ” It took true courage. The chances of victory were tiny, almost non-existence. ”

    ” Most of us our cowards. ”

    dan ________________________________

  3. Facing incoming hostile fire while voluntarily acting in defense of country, the public, or comrades is a type of selfless but common courage among those of us who served the United States in uniform. But it merits no mention in this article….Why?

    • because no article mentions everything, Bill. there are plenty of examples of courage not mentioned here. i’ve known people in SAR who’ve hung their lives out there quite a way to rescue people in trouble here Alaska, and the tally of courageous acts by members of the U.S. military in the Mideast in recent years is almost endless. the vast majority of them go unreported.

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