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“We are taught to understand, correctly, that courage is not the absence of fear but the ...
“We are taught to understand, correctly, that courage is not the absence of fear but the capacity for action despite our fears,” McCain reminds us, as a way of introducing the stories of ﬁgures both famous and obscure that he ﬁnds most compelling—from the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to Sgt. Roy Benavidez, who ignored his own well-being to rescue eight of his men from an ambush in the Vietnam jungle; from 1960s civil rights leader John Lewis, who wrote, “When I care about something, I’m prepared to take the long, hard road,” to Hannah Senesh, who, in protecting her comrades in the Hungarian resistance against Hitler’s SS, chose a martyr’s death over a despot’s mercy.
These are some of the examples McCain turns to for inspiration and offers to others to help them summon the resolve to be both good and great. He explains the value of courage in both everyday actions and extraordinary feats. We learn why moral principles and physical courage are often not distinct quantities but two sides of the same coin. Most of all, readers discover how sometimes simply setting the right example can be the ultimate act of courage.
Written by one of our most respected public ﬁgures, Why Courage Matters is that rare book with a message both timely and timeless. This is a work for anyone seeking to understand how the mystery and gift of courage can empower us and change our lives.
Read our exclusive interview with John McCain.
Select at random a dozen Medal of Honor recipients and read the citations that accompany their decorations. Some will describe a single lonely act of heroism, one man's self-sacrifice that saved the lives of his comrades, who will remember the act for the rest of their lives with feelings of gratitude and lasting obligation mixed with something that feels much like shame-shame that one's life, no matter how good and useful, no matter how honorable, might not deserve to have been ransomed at such a cost. All the citations will record acts of great heroism, of course. But some might seem plausible, if just barely so. The reader might even fantasize himself capable of such heroism, under extreme circumstances, without feeling too ashamed of the presumption. Maybe you are. At least one, however, will tell of such incredible daring, such epic courage, that no witness to it could imagine himself, or anyone he knows, capable of it. It might be the story of Roy Benavidez.
Special Forces master sergeant Roy Benavidez was the son of a Texas sharecropper. Orphaned at a young age, quiet and mistaken as slow, derided as a "dumb Mexican" by his classmates, he left school in the eighth grade to work in the cotton fields. He joined the army at nineteen. On his first tour in Vietnam, in 1964, he stepped on a land mine. Army doctors thought the wound would be permanently crippling. It wasn't. He recovered and became a Green Beret.
During his second combat tour, in the early morning of May 2, 1968, in Loc Ninh, Vietnam, Sergeant Benavidez monitored by radio a twelve-man reconnaissance patrol. Three Green Berets, friends of his, and nine Montagnard tribesmen had been dropped in the dense jungle west of Loc Ninh, just inside Cambodia. No man aboard the low-flying helicopters beating noisily toward the landing zone that morning could have been unaware of how dangerous the assignment was. Considered an enemy sanctuary, the area was known to be vigilantly patrolled by a sizable force of the North Vietnamese army intent on keeping it so. Once on the ground, the twelve men were almost immediately engaged by the enemy and soon surrounded by a force that grew to a battalion.
The mission had been a mistake, and three helicopters were ordered to evacuate the besieged patrol. Fierce small arms and antiaircraft fire, wounding several crew members, forced the helicopters to return to base. Listening on the radio, Benavidez heard one of his friends scream, "Get us out of here!" and, "So much shooting it sounded like a popcorn machine." He jumped into one of the returning helicopters, volunteering for a second evacuation attempt. When he arrived at the scene, he found that none of the patrol had made it to the landing zone. Four were already dead, including the team leader, and the other eight were wounded and unable to move. Carrying a knife and a medic bag, Benavidez made the sign of the cross, leapt from the helicopter hovering ten feet off the ground, and ran seventy yards to his injured comrades. Before he reached them, he was shot in the leg, face, and head. He got up and kept moving.
When he reached their position, he armed himself with an enemy rifle, began to treat the wounded, reposition them, distribute ammunition, and call in air strikes. He threw smoke grenades to indicate their location and ordered the helicopter pilot to come in close to pick up the wounded. He dragged four of the wounded aboard, and then, while under intense fire and returning fire with his captured weapon, he ran alongside the helicopter as it flew just a few feet off the ground toward the others. He got the rest of the wounded aboard, as well as the dead, except for the fallen team leader. As he raced to retrieve his body, and the classified documents the dead man had carried, he was shot in the stomach and grenade fragments cut into his back.
Before he could make his way back toward the helicopter, the pilot was fatally wounded and the aircraft crashed upside down. He helped the wounded escape the burning wreckage and organized them in a defensive perimeter. He called for air strikes and fire from circling gunships to suppress the ever increasing enemy fire enough to allow another evacuation attempt. Critically wounded, Benavidez moved constantly along the perimeter, bringing water and ammunition to the defenders, treating their wounds, encouraging them to hold on. He sustained several more gunshot wounds, but he continued to fight. For six hours.
When another extraction helicopter landed, he helped the wounded toward it, one and two at a time. On his second trip, an enemy soldier ran up behind him and struck him with his rifle butt. Sergeant Benavidez turned to close with the man and his bayonet and fought him, hand to hand, to the death. Wounded again, he recovered the rest of his comrades. As the last were lifted onto the helicopter, he exchanged more gunfire with the enemy, killing two more Vietnamese soldiers, and then ran back to collect the classified documents before at last climbing aboard and collapsing, apparently dead.
The army doctor back at Loc Ninh thought him dead anyway. Bleeding profusely, his intestines spilling from his stomach wounds, completely immobile, and unable to speak, Benavidez was placed into a body bag. As the doctor began to pull up the black shroud's zipper, Roy Benavidez spit in his face. They flew him to Saigon for surgery, where he began a year in hospitals recovering from seven serious gunshot wounds, twenty-eight shrapnel wounds, and bayonet wounds in both arms.
Hard to believe, isn't it, what this one man did? And why? Because his buddies called out to him? Because the training just took over? Because it was automatic, he was in the moment, aware of what was required of him but senseless to the probable futility of his efforts? These are the sort of explanations you usually hear from someone who has distinguished himself in battle. They really don't help us understand. They mean something, but as an explanation for that kind of heroism, they are as unenlightening to me as haiku poetry. What kind of training prepares you to do that? What kind of unit solidarity, how great the love and trust for the man to your right and your left, inspires you to the superhuman heroics of Roy Benavidez?
I'll be damned if I know. I was trained to be an aviator, not a Special Forces commando. But how does anyone-Green Beret, navy SEAL, whatever-learn to be that brave? How do you build that kind of courage in someone? It certainly appears to be superhuman and incomprehensible to those with a more human-size supply, brave and resourceful though they may be. I can't explain it. No one I know can.
We are taught to understand, correctly, that courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity for action despite our fears. Does anyone have that great a store of courage that he would think himself capable of meaningful action with the eruption of fear that any one of us would have felt rise in our throats and burn our hearts were we to find ourselves in the hopeless situation of Roy Benavidez? I wouldn't. I don't know anyone who would, and I've known some very brave men. I doubt very much Roy Benavidez thought he would. I would challenge the sanity of any reader who imagines the possibility of possessing such mastery over fear. It's not to be expected in anyone. No courage could contend with such fear, and animate our limbs, and control our minds. Fear would have to be vanquished completely.
Roy Benavidez jumped off the helicopter, acutely aware of the situation, perhaps, of the enemy's strength, of their location, of the circumstances of his comrades, of what needed to be done, but somehow insensate to the hopelessness of it all, to the gravity of his wounds, to the futility of fighting on. What pushed him? A tsunami of adrenaline? What carried him through? A sublime fatalism, driven by love or sense of duty to resign himself completely to the situation, whatever its horrors, and make his last hour his greatest? We can't know. All we can know is that in one moment of madness, six hours long, Roy Benavidez became to the men he saved, and maybe to himself, an avenging angel of God, masterful, indomitable, and utterly fearless.
If we can't comprehend his heroism or imagine possessing his courage, can it offer our own lives any instruction? I believe it can. Roy's life won't teach us how to save eight men while sustaining several dozen wounds. An act of heroism, of extraordinary courage, the grandeur of it, won't easily inspire us to act in imitation, but it can inspire us to emulate its author. For that, we should learn what we can of the whole experience of the subject, the hero's life, as it was before and after, and believe that trying to emulate the character it reveals is one tried way to prepare for the tests that might await us and gain hope that our courage will not be wanting in the moment.
We must accept the fact that some heroes, whether their courage was momentary or constant, might have led less than admirable lives. I don't think, however extraordinary the courage, that it will attain the grandeur of the inspirational to a sound mind were it motivated by selfish or malevolent purposes, or exercised by someone whose life, on the whole, was contemptible. Unless, of course, an act of heroism was an anomaly in the life that preceded it and character changing thereafter. The stories cherished most by all sinners whose consciences are not permanently mute concern the life-redeeming act of courage. They're not, however, as abundant in real life as they are in fiction. Better to look to the lives of good men and women who in a crucible risked or sacrificed their own security for someone else.
What do we know of Roy Benavidez's life before and after that moment of madness? We know that he was a good man. The straitened circumstances of his youth did not embitter him or lead him astray. The constant, lifelong pain of his wounds didn't undo him. His valor was not properly recognized for thirteen years. In 1981, Ronald Reagan-who said of his heroism that were it a movie script "you wouldn't believe it"-replaced the Distinguished Service Cross that General William Westmoreland had given Roy in 1968 with the Medal of Honor. The delay didn't seem to bother Roy. "I don't like to be called a hero," he complained, and then, in the familiar refrain of veterans from all wars, he offered the observation, "The real heroes are the ones who gave their lives for their country." That kind of humility from surviving veterans who distinguished themselves in combat is so commonplace that we've come to expect it from them. We don't take it seriously. We even suspect that it's false. We don't see how remarkable it is. They mean it. Every word.
Roy stayed in the army until he retired in 1976. Then he lived on his pension and disability pay and spent his time speaking at schools and to youth groups, counseling troubled kids, encouraging them to stay in school and off drugs. In 1998, on his deathbed, with two pieces of shrapnel still in his heart, he proclaimed: "I'm proud to be an American."
The navy named a ship after him and the army a building. His hometown erected a statue. But Hollywood never made a movie about him. No one would have believed it.
Excerpted from Why Courage Matters by John McCain Marshall Salter Copyright © 2004 by John McCain with Mark Salter. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Barnes & Noble.com: What made you want to write this book?
John McCain: After 9/11, our publisher, Random House, suggested that we do it, and a lot of other people did also, because there was a lot of fear out there on the part of Americans after we had been subjected to an unprecedented attack on our country. Americans were refusing to take a trip, or get on an airliner. Some were duct-taping their houses.
B&N.com: What is your definition of courage? You equate it to a virtue, don't you?
JM: Our definition is a rare moment of unity between conscious, fear, and action when something deep within us strikes the flint of love, of honor and duty to spark our courage. We are born with a capacity to love, and if we are raised to love virtue we will develop the courage needed to live virtuously...not perfectly. Courage is the willingness to sacrifice for love of our ideals. Those ideals are usually for a cause greater than ourselves.
B&N.com: What is the basic theme of your book?
JM: The theme of the book is that we can overcome our fears and serve causes greater than our own interest and have the opportunity to display courage in unusual circumstances in our everyday lives.
B&N.com: You tell the stories of several people who have performed courageous acts or were simply courageous: Roy Benavidez, a Vietnam hero; John Lewis, a civil rights leader who is now a congressman; Eleanor Roosevelt; Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi; among many others. This is a hard question to answer, but do you have a particular story that you like best, and why?
JM: The reason why I think it is impossible to answer that question is that there are two types of courage: moral and physical. Sometimes, they are the same. Sometimes they are not. Roy Benavidez had enormous physical courage. I believe that Aung San Suu Kyi has enormous moral courage. One of the aspects in how these two types of courage are different is that with physical courage you can grow tired. There is a limit to the amount of physical abuse you can take.
In the book, I talk about the time I spent as a POW in a North Vietnamese prison. I talk about one of our greatest leaders in prison, who used to communicate with us by tapping on the wall. But he was beaten so badly that he finally stopped communicating with us. He just got tired.
Moral courage can be made stronger. It can be like a muscle. It just grows stronger. The first time you stand up to the bully it is tough. The second time it is easier. So, I think John Lewis represents a combination of physical and moral courage because he was so devoted to social justice and he was willing to passively endure physical punishment to an astonishing degree.
B&N.com: You are a modest man, but many people look upon you as a hero with courage. How do you react when people tell you that you inspired them with your courage as a prisoner of war in the Vietnam War?
JM: I would say that I had great privilege in my life of growing up with and serving with heroes. When I was a POW, it was a great privilege to observe a thousand acts of courage and love. When I was a POW, and I stumbled and fell, my comrades picked me up and enabled me to go back and join the fight again.
B&N: You are known to be very independent politically. How have you mustered the courage to stand alone?
JM: As I said before, moral courage is like a muscle. It grows strong with exercise. When I was a freshman congressman, I voted against President Reagan's resolution to send troops to Beirut, Lebanon. [Senator McCain is a Republican.] It was terribly, terribly difficult because I was harming the president, a man I admired enormously and who I said in many respects I would follow as a young congressman. But the second time I disagreed with President Reagan, it wasn't that hard. And the third time it was easier. Over the years I have been gifted with both an ability to see what is the right course and also to withstand the criticism that may come with not always aligning yourself with your party's wishes.
B&N.com: It must be difficult to stand alone, though.
JM: One, I've done it enough. Second, I have had enough experience and knowledge and enough of life that I have developed a sense of dignity and honor. And I know how to protect it. One of my favorite people in the world, Emiliano Zapata, said, "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees."
B&N.com: Who are some Americans today that you see as courageous?
JM: Pat Tillman, who gave up over $1 million a year to play football for the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army after 9/11 [these remarks were made just a week prior to Tillman's being killed in action in Afghanistan].
B&N.com: What is the most courageous act that you, yourself, have ever witnessed?
JM: When I was a POW in Vietnam, there was a young man named Mike Christian. When the Vietnamese changed our treatment from solitary confinement to two to three in a room, we then used to get items from home such as scarves. Mike was born near Selma, Alabama, and didn't even wear a pair of shoes until he was seven. We all wore blue shirts that were issued to us. He sewed an American flag into his and put it on the cell wall and each day we said the Pledge of Allegiance to it. One night the Vietnamese searched his cell. They opened the door and beat him badly for an hour and a half. He was badly bruised and had broken ribs. They put him on a concrete slab. Later, after he was beaten, he started making another American flag. He was not making the flag for his own benefit, but he was making it so we could have it.
B&N.com: You write in the book that people often mull over things that they'd have done if they'd had courage -- like speaking back to a boss -- or more important, taking a moral stance, but they don't really seem to know how to get that courage in the first place. How can we learn to develop real courage?
JM: First of all, I think we should learn to exercise courage as I mentioned. The more we exercise it, the more it grows stronger. I think we have to love the virtues that courage defends, and we have to love truth and honor and passion and justice. We have to love them more than our own security. We have to learn to exercise it, stand up to bullies, do as Eleanor Roosevelt did, and act brave. I think you have to be passionate and learn the difference between anger and outrage. Anger is quickly depleted, but outrage endures. You should develop your own sense of dignity and honor. Finally, we should learn to pay our debts to those who had courage.
B&N.com: You also write that there are fewer occasions to exhibit courage than in the past -- there is no Wild West, but there are smaller wars. Less than 1 percent of Americans are in the military. Have we become a softer, less courageous, less virtuous society?
JM: I am afraid we have. But that doesn't mean we don't need courage or face tests. Some will face even greater tests. Most will have to stand up for the honor of others. And so, again I point out the school bully, a dishonest or unfair colleague. There are lots of examples.
B&N.com: Here is a political question. In addition to the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, what do you see as your biggest political achievement?
JM: Probably my biggest achievement has been on national security policy. I have been involved in lots of legislation and reform in the postCold War era, and I am a respected voice in these issues, especially in a time like now, when things are tough.
B&N.com: What is your most important political ambition?
JM: My agenda, whether in or out of the Senate, is reform -- the practices in government are no longer in response to the aspirations of the average people of this country. That is because of both the special interests and intense partisanship. The people of this country deserve a broad variety of reforms. We are spending money on pork-barrel projects in the tens of millions of dollars in the most obscene fashion.